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Willmar City Council OKs greater oversight over capital spending

WILLMAR — The Willmar City Council approved a motion 4-3 Tuesday night to adopt a formal written policy that increases the council's oversight of city spending on capital expenditures over $10,000.

The motion was made by Ron Christianson and seconded by Steve Ahmann. Voting in favor were Christianson, Ahmann, Tim Johnson and Rick Fagerlie. Voting against were Bruce DeBlieck, Audrey Nelsen and Denis Anderson. Jim Dokken was absent.

In a separate action, the council tabled 4-2 a motion to adopt a formal written policy that would require either the Labor Relations Committee chair or a committee appointee to be present on committees who are hiring department heads, supervisors and confidential employees.

The motion was made by Christianson and seconded by Fagerlie.

Voting to table were Fagerlie, DeBlieck, Anderson and Nelsen. Voting against were Christianson and Ahmann. Johnson abstained.

Christianson offered both motions under new business, which falls near the end of the council agenda.

Christianson said the previous city administrator had an unwritten policy with the council that money spent in the capital improvement program and for the vehicle and equipment replacement program would go through proper committees and onto the full council for approval.

"We haven't had that for the past two years,'' said Christianson, Public Works/Safety Committee chair. "Not many of us are aware of what's being spent in the capital improvement program: over $770,000 done this year.''

Therefore, Christianson said, he was offering a motion stating the council adopts a formal written policy that all expenditures over $10,000 in the vehicle and equipment replacement program and the capital improvement program be presented to the appropriate committee and that these expenditures go to the full council for approval prior to any checks being issued for items in the vehicle and equipment replacement program or the capital improvement program.

DeBlieck said he saw no reason for raising this issue now, and he offered a motion, seconded by Anderson, to table Christianson's motion. The motion failed.

Anderson, Finance Committee chair, said the committee will discuss the capital improvement program at a Sept. 30 meeting. Anderson said he didn't like the process of bringing a motion to the full council when it hasn't gone through a committee first.

"We've talked about that and I thought we agreed that that's what we were going to do,'' said Anderson. "Further, I thought we agreed to talk about this as the budget moved forward. The concept may be fine, but I totally object to the method that this is being brought forth in.''

Christianson said the issue was discussed over a month ago at Public Works and he said it never went to the budget meeting. Also, Christianson did not think making the motion was inappropriate.

"Many times we come to meeting we have stuff thrown in front of us,'' he said.

Nelsen said the council approves the capital improvement program as part of the annual budget process and that the budget process is the appropriate time to discuss spending thresholds.

"It is also my understanding that I don't think there's anything different now than there was before because I have asked about that with the previous administrator. I think it's part of the budget,'' said Nelsen.

She said there are five items under $10,000 in the 2014 program.

"If we can't go through once a year and do a budget and justify why these items are needed in 2014, then we shouldn't be approving a (capital improvement program),'' she said. "If we need to run month to month and approve out of every single item only five items that are less than $10,000, then let's just do them all because that's what you're talking about doing.''

City Administrator Charlene Stevens said staff started last year developing a five-year capital improvement plan, updated annually, for projects and needs in the current year and proposed projects and needs during the following four years.

"The reason for the five years is to give the council a look at what we believe is coming in those years and trying to fund,'' Stevens said.

Sometimes priorities and projects shift because of cost or other reasons, she said. "We're trying to look out an additional four years so that we can understand what our financing needs are going to be,'' she said.

Johnson said there was some merit to all the remarks. But because it's a five-year plan and the council reviews it annually, Johnson said he didn't mind being reminded periodically about what the city is purchasing to help get a feel for where the city is at.

Ahmann said the discussion was good.

"It's not an issue of not trusting staff. I'd like to know why things are needed. List the reason in the (capital improvement program). I don't see anything terribly wrong with this. It's not that big of a deal,'' he said.

Speaking to his second motion, Christianson said the council is directly responsible for delivery of services. He said the city needs good quality individuals as department heads, supervisors and confidential employees.

"We're going to be hiring a public works director who will be an engineer and assistant engineer and maybe more as we go to retirements,'' he said.

Nelsen asked City Attorney Robert Scott to clarify how the motion would affect city ordinance regarding the administrator's hiring role and responsibility.

Scott said he had not reviewed the ordinance in advance of the motion, but would provide an opinion later if the motion is inconsistent with the ordinance.

The ordinance states the administrator "shall exercise supervision, authority and control over all departments and divisions of the city, except Rice Hospital, the Municipal Utilities Commission and the Legal Department.''

The administrator "shall oversee and supervise the hiring, discipline and removal of all employees of the city of Willmar, except hiring, discipline and removal of Municipal Utilities employees, Rice Hospital employees, and employees of the Legal Department. Hiring, discipline and removal of department heads shall be subject to approval of the City Council.''

Other duties "shall be subject to applicable Civil Service regulations and other city ordinances.''

Christianson asked when the issue will be brought up again.

Nelsen, who made the motion to table, seconded by Anderson, said the issue "can stay on the table forever until someone takes it off.''

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