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Request for information on legality of Chamber dues draws charge of retaliation for Willmar, Minn., City Council

WILLMAR — A Willmar City Council member’s request for a city attorney’s opinion whether certain city entities can legally belong to the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce drew complaints of retaliation against the Chamber.

Ron Christianson informed the council’s Community Development Committee last week about information prepared by the Attorney General Office regarding local units of government paying dues to the Chamber of Commerce and service clubs.

Christianson asked for an opinion from City Attorney Robert Scott on whether the Municipal Utilities Commission, Rice Hospital, the City/County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and/or Community Education and Recreation Department can belong to the Chamber of Commerce.

He referenced a state statute and/or an attorney general’s opinion. Community Education and Recreation is governed by a joint powers agreement and all but two of the employees are employees of the school district. The HRA is established by ordinance. The utilities commission and hospital board are established by city charter and are city-owned.

During the miscellany portion of the agenda near the end of the two-hour city council meeting, Steve Ahmann made a motion, seconded by Christianson for discussion purposes, to immediately provide five years’ worth of financial statements from 14 entities and organizations that receive funding from the city and are members of the Chamber of Commerce.

Ahmann said he was making the demand due to possible conflicts of interest regarding city expenditures and possible violation of state law and that the information be reviewed by the appropriate committee.

Among those entities he listed were the municipal utilities, Rice Hospital, Rice Home Medical, Rice Health Foundation, Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau, City and County HRA, Pioneer Land Library, Willmar Design Center and West Central Integration Collaborative.

Council member Denis Anderson said he didn’t understand what was happening. Setting the entities aside, Anderson said, the request felt like retaliation.

He was referring to an email that was written by Chamber of Commerce President Ken Warner that was not very flattering to some council members. Warner is a member on his own of Moving Willmar Forward, an ad hoc group that recently formed to offer operational and organization recommendations as a result of concerns about council dysfunction and micro-management of the city.

Since that email was written, Anderson said, there has been a move afoot to do things to the Chamber.

“It’s retaliation,’’ he said. “We can’t operate that way. We are subject to criticism. We are elected to represent the city, not ourselves and strike out at those that might make unkind comments to us. This is chilling to do this. Enough is enough. Let’s move forward. I don’t want to be known as a city that takes criticism and strikes back. Retaliation has no place in any form of government.’’

Council member Bruce DeBlieck said Anderson was correct. He said if it appears to be retaliation, it does not make the council look good.

Doug Reese said he also would vote against the motion.

Christianson said it was not retaliation, but said Ahmann was trying to fulfill the council’s fiduciary responsibility for spending city funds, and to make sure the money is spent legally, is in the city’s best interest and is of a public purpose.

Scott said Ahmann’s motion was overreaching because the city has no oversight authority over the private organizations, even though they receive city funds. He did say, however, that the council can set whatever parameters it wants on an entity’s funding application on how the funds are used.

Council member Tim Johnson said he believes Scott’s conclusions are correct. But Johnson said staff can address these issues to determine if there are payments that clearly should not be going out and stop them.

“I understand councilman Ahmann’s concerns. I think they are legitimate. I also think the request is broad and might even be burdensome,’’ Johnson said.

Christianson eventually withdrew his second and agreed to send the request to a committee. The motion died for lack of a second. Ahmann agreed with the move, but said his intent was to bring the issue out into the open and get the job done.

City Administrator Charlene Stevens said she and Scott understand the council’s direction and will provide the appropriate information.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150