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Utilities Commission: Charter changes would make members more effective

WILLMAR -- Municipal Utilities Commissioners say they'll be more effective and learn more about the changing energy industry under extended term limits they're recommending to the City Charter Commission.

The utilities commission is also recommending the Charter Commission delete the council's overriding power over the utilities commission and that the utilities commission be granted full control of the operation and management of the city's electric, water and district hearing systems.

Another change would allow utilities commissioners to receive a payment of $50 per meeting. The commission meets at noon on the second and fourth Monday of every month, except when the observance of certain holidays coincides with regular meeting dates.

Those are among the changes unanimously recommended by the utilities commission on Tuesday. The commission had been discussing term limits and compensation before the City Council appointed the Charter Commission last year.

The recommendations will be forwarded to the Charter Commission, which began meeting earlier this year to review and recommend any charter changes to the council.

The charter may be changed with a unanimous vote of the eight-member City Council or by a vote of the people, according to City Attorney Rich Ronning.

Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm read the changes proposed by the planning committee.

The commission did not recommend a change in the mayoral and council appointment of commission members. But the commission is recommending term limits be extended from two consecutive three-year terms to four consecutive three-year terms. Commissioners would be eligible for reappointment following a break in service of not less than one year.

Gary Myhre, a planning committee member, has been a commissioner for more than a year and said he has many things to learn. He said commissioners need time to understand the complexities and uniqueness of the energy industry to make the appropriate decisions.

Jerry Gesch, a commissioner for more than four years, said members learn about the industry at state and national meetings.

"It takes a while to get a real feel for it, not only what we're doing in Willmar, but in the whole industry because the industry is a national grid that we have to learn to work with and it's controlled both by state organizations and federal organizations,'' he said. "The acronyms alone are beyond belief.''

Matt Schrupp, a commissioner for five months, said the planning committee talked about commissioners becoming more effective with time and learning more about the process.

Gomm said energy industry issues are becoming more complicated with involvement by the Midwest Independent System Operator, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requirements and state renewable energy requirements.

"We feel that the utility commission is the entity that is most qualified to make those decisions,'' said Gomm. "And sometimes the City Council could decide to overrule something that they don't fully understand. We could do our best to try and educate the City Council members on the issues. But really, without attending these meetings and going to the training and education seminars that our commissioners go to, they will not ever be able to grasp it at the depth that our commission does.''

Gomm said he does not know how many other municipal utility commissions in Minnesota have full control over their operations, although he said municipals of similar size such as Hutchinson, Marshall, and Alexandria were called.

"All the ones we talked to operate pretty much autonomously,'' Gomm said, including the last utility he worked for in Wisconsin and one in Iowa.

"When you look at it from the big perspective, really that's what the utility commission is appointed for. They're appointed to be the experts and to make the decisions to operate the utility,'' he said.

The commission is recommending council approval be required for bonding and the sale of any building or land.

The commission is recommending members receive compensation of at least $50 per meeting. Gomm estimated the cost at about $1,200 per year for all seven members.

"It's not a significant salary, but it is meant to allow the commissioners to be compensated for their time,'' said Gomm.

Finally, the commission is recommending the general manager report to the council quarterly on important utility issues and developments.

Myhre says the changes are significant.

"We're not saying that the City Council has overruled many different actions that have changed the direction of the utilities,'' he said. "But it is something significant that the commission members' work will be demonstrated by what actions are taken.''