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Willmar, Minn., Council requests Rice, utilities document reasons for their Chamber memberships

WILLMAR — The Willmar City Council will ask the Rice Hospital Board and Municipal Utilities Commission to document their reasons for paying membership dues to the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

The council reached consensus on the request after a 35-minute discussion Tuesday night with City Attorney Robert Scott on the legality of various city entities, boards and organizations having Chamber membership.

The council’s consensus follows a Jan. 14 discussion by the Finance Committee that received information from Scott. He provided the information as a result of council members’ requests that staff research legal opinion regarding Chamber membership by the city, Municipal Utilities, Rice Hospital and its subsidiaries, Community Education and Recreation, Willmar Housing and Redevelopment Authority and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

During the council meeting, Scott said there is theoretical legal authority for each one of the entities to pay dues if membership is actually relevant and productive for the purpose for what that entity exists, and membership meets one of four public purposes under state law.

“If they can make the case that being a member of the Chamber helps them serve any one of those four purposes under statute, their membership would be legal,’’ he said. “If they can’t, then their membership isn’t legal.’’

Scott said the city charter gives the council veto authority over Rice and utility commission actions, as stated in their minutes. But he said other entities apart from the city have different statutory authority. If they meet certain standards for being a member, it’s up to their governing bodies to decide if they meet those standards.

Some council members have said they think other entities are circumventing the law that prevents cities or city councils from joining chambers of commerce.

Scott said the law isn’t clear enough for him to present a checklist of “yes they can or no they can’t.’’ He said the council clearly has responsibility for the actions of city government. But he said the other entities have their own governing body and structure.

“There are ties to the city for sure,’’ he said. “Is the law against the city being a member being circumvented by affiliated entities being chamber members? The city isn’t doing that because it’s not the City Council taking that action.’’

Scott did say he would advise those governing bodies to deliberate the membership issue and make sure the membership is used to further their purpose. He said documenting the reason would go a long way to proving the legitimacy of that expenditure.

Council member Jim Dokken suggested the entities follow a 24-page League of Minnesota Cities guidance document for defining public purpose.

“I would suggest we follow the format and get them to certify as a board or commission that the expenditure meets a public purpose,’’ Dokken said. “Why not have Rice and the MUC come up with answers to these questions and have it on record, and this is why it’s OK. It seems simple to me.’’

Council member Ron Christianson applauded the Chamber for its good work in the community.

But he said Rice and the utilities are owned by the city and any revenue generated is actually taxpayer dollars.

“I find it difficult to believe they should be paying dues to a special interest group,’’ Christianson said. He said the Chamber collects dues to benefit its members. He said the Chamber lobbied the council to end the local option sales tax before it expired Dec. 31, 2012.

“I find it awkward taxpayer dollars went to the Chamber to lobby elected officials to do something against our will,’’ he said. “That’s my reasoning for thinking that the utilities and Rice should not be paying dues.’’

Finance Committee Chair Denis Anderson suggested that Rice and the Utilities Commission fill out those documents as to why they think they should be eligible to join and return those to the council.

“I think we need to see something from Rice and MUC and move forward,’’ Anderson said, adding a request that city staff work on the documentation with Rice and the utilities.

City Administrator Charlene Stevens said the directors of both have received Scott’s memo and have been kept up-to-date on the issue.

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