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Willmar, Minn., city committee seeks clarification on Chamber dues

WILLMAR — The Finance Committee is continuing the discussion begun at a City Council meeting last month on whether or not state law allows local city entities to pay membership dues to the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

Committee members indicated that they are not entirely satisfied with City Attorney Robert Scott’s interpretation of state law regarding Chamber membership. A summary of Scott’s interpretation of the law was presented to the committee this week by City Administrator Charlene Stevens.

Scott provided the interpretation in response to a request made by Steve Ahmann at the Dec. 17 council meeting. The city is not a paying member of the Chamber, but Ahmann expressed concern about what he said were possible conflicts of interest regarding city expenditures and possible violation of state law, and that the information be reviewed by the appropriate committee.

Ahmann listed a number of entities, including Rice Hospital, Municipal Utilities, the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission and Willmar Design Center.

Scott said in his summary that the city is not a paying member of the Chamber, but the city administrator participates in the Chamber’s Public Policy Committee and other meetings as appropriate.

The summary said the Community Education and Recreation department is not renewing its membership.

Scott reviewed statutes for Rice Hospital, the utilities and the HRA.

He said the city has oversight over Rice and the utilities through approval of minutes and budgets, but he said the city does not oversee daily operations of either entity. He said that the Rice and utility governing bodies decide on Chamber membership.

He said the city’s oversight of the HRA is limited to the budget and approval of the levy. Scott said the HRA Board recently acted to renew its membership. He also said the HRA has its own attorney who reviews legal matters.

Scott said many of the other public entities referenced by Ahmann are multi-jurisdictional boards that operate independently of the city, such as the Economic Development Commission, Willmar Public Library and Kandiyohi Area Transit.

Some organizations listed by Ahmann are private organizations: Rice Home Medical, Rice Health Foundation, Willmar Convention and Visitors Bureau, Willmar Design Center, West Central Integration Collaborative, West Central Industries and Willmar Fests.

Scott said the city has no oversight of the operations of these organizations. He said the city does provide funding to some of these organizations; however, none of that funding is used for Chamber dues, he said.

Finally, Scott indicated that public entities have legal authority to enter into contracts with any organization, including the Chamber, provided the services further a public purpose served by the public entity, which authority exists regardless of whether the entity may legally be a Chamber member.

During discussion, Ron Christianson said Scott provided an interpretation but was making the council the judge.

“My concern is we have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens with their money,’’ he said.

Christianson said he understood from an attorney that the city or council members or Stevens could be at risk if a group sued because they felt tax dollars were not being used for a public purpose.

“We are all at risk for that,’’ he said. “I don’t need to be at risk for that. Let’s err on the side of the law, not a gray area.’’

Stevens said that if the HRA is sued, the city would not necessarily be sued. The city does not make day-to-day decisions for the HRA, she said.

Committee member Tim Johnson said the council approves the HRA levy.

“The law requires that tax dollars be spent for a public purpose,’’ he said. “My question to the city attorney is we can’t directly pay dues and belong to the Chamber. My concern is can we indirectly do it? We can levy taxes to support, for example, the HRA and approve their budget and they can spend tax dollars for something the city can’t do itself.’’

Committee chairman Denis Anderson said Scott did not answer that.

“I’m not so sure that that means his answer is wrong, either,’’ said Johnson.

Anderson said he wants the issue resolved — yes or no — and move on.

“One thing I’m not interested in is having the city attorney make determinations for entities that have nothing to do with the city. That’s a waste of our money,’’ he said.

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