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Willmar council sets hearing on land transfer to Jennie-O Turkey Store, rejects stock disclosure requirement

WILLMAR — The Willmar City Council voted Monday night to introduce an ordinance for a public hearing April 7 that will authorize the transfer of city-owned land to Jennie-O Turkey Store for the company’s proposed corporate office expansion.

The council was asked by City Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson to set the hearing date because city staff previously did not closely review City Charter provisions that require a land transfer be authorized by ordinance — and an ordinance requires a public hearing.

The charter states that certain acts of the council shall be by ordinance, including authorizing the conveyance of any city lands.

The approximately 8 acres consists of two parcels located between the south end of the Public Works maintenance property and Kandiyohi County Road 5. The proposed $238,072 sale price would be written down to $0 under the city’s land write-down policy, which details credits for jobs created and market value created.

Before voting on the hearing date, the council discussed and then defeated an amendment offered by Councilman Steve Ahmann that aimed to have Jennie-O’s parent company Hormel Foods disclose the number of shares of Hormel stock held by council members and city staff.

Ahmann was the only council member voting in favor of the amendment. Those voting against were Audrey Nelsen, Ron Christianson, Denis Anderson, Bruce DeBlieck, Rick Fagerlie and Jim Dokken. Tim Johnson was absent.

Ahmann’s amendment would have also asked Hormel to disclose the number of Hormel shares held by officials and members of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission’s Joint Powers Board and Operations Board, and by City Planning Commission members.

The amendment was aimed at government officials and entities who have been involved in working on the Jennie-O project. Ahmann said the disclosure would provide transparency and honesty to the proceeding.

Ahmann raised the transparency issue two weeks ago when the council voted to direct city staff to develop an agreement with Jennie-O for the land transfer. Ahmann said that he does not have stock in Hormel.

Councilman Anderson, who is retired from a career with Jennie-O, asked City Attorney Robert Scott if it was a conflict of interest for him as a former employee to vote on the land issue. Anderson has said that he owns a small amount of Hormel stock.

Scott said that Anderson does not have a legal disqualifying conflict of interest under the city’s conflict of interest policy. Scott drafted the policy to be consistent with state law and it was approved last year by the council.

Councilwoman Nelsen asked for a reason behind the amendment and asked how the council could ask Hormel to disclose such information. Nelsen called the amendment a witch hunt and questioned the amendment’s connection with the hearing date discussion.

Mayor Frank Yanish said the council was discussing trust.

Nelsen said it was time for the council to trust the city attorney and city staff. She said the issue has been open and transparent and the land transaction was based on council-adopted policy that staff has followed.

Ahmann said the issue was lack of trust by the public in government and he said the question of any conflict of interest should be asked anytime the council has a vote.

“This whole issue is about honesty, integrity, transparency and good ethics,’’ he said. “That’s it. We’re dealing with the first-time ever … with a transaction of over a million dollars of assets of the city of Willmar — land — to be given away in a buy-down program to Jennie-O Foods.’’

Anderson said the amendment was aimed at him, and he repeated his statement that he does not have a conflict. He said the issue would bog things down and he urged the council to move on.

Christianson said he understood Ahmann’s wish for transparency and suggested all the individuals named in the amendment be asked in an email to indicate if they own any Hormel stock.

Fagerlie said the individuals would have to research their retirement funds.

“They do trade on the open market. So if it’s a big deal, I’m going to rush out this week and buy a whole bunch,’’ he said.

Scott said he did not know if the amendment was enforceable and he didn’t know if Hormel would legally be able to comply with the request to disclose holdings.

After defeating the amendment, the council voted to set the public hearing date. No votes against the motion were cast.

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