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City says street can close for St. Mary's activities

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council voted 4-3 Monday to close two blocks of Kandiyohi Avenue Southwest for a St. Mary's Church event despite a council-passed policy that recommends major streets such as Kandiyohi Avenue should not be closed for neighborhood events.

Council members voting in favor of a motion by Ron Christianson to honor the church's request and close Kandiyohi Avenue bet-ween 11th Street and 13th Street were Christianson, Steve Ahmann, Tim Johnson and Jim Dokken.

Voting against the request were Doug Reese, Bruce DeBlieck and Rick Fagerlie.

Council member Denis Anderson was absent.

The street closure policy, adopted by the council on Oct. 6, 2008, states low-volume residential streets, dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs could be closed for neighborhood events. The policy lets city staff handle the increasing number of requests for street closures.

Christianson was the only council member to vote against the policy last year.

The policy does not apply for city-wide events such as Willmar Fests. Also, the policy does not allow a major street, such as Kandiyohi Avenue, to be closed.

Before the council adopted the policy last year, however, St. Mary's held a similar event in which a portion of Kandiyohi Avenue was closed. The city erected barricades and hundreds of children and adults walked between the church property and Miller Park during the event.

Monday night, Christianson said last year's event "went off without a hitch.'' He said there were no accidents. Saying city policies are guidelines and not ordinances, Christianson argued in favor of approving the church's request. The request had earlier been denied by city staff in accordance with the policy.

"I would submit to you that not barricading those two streets is much more dangerous than barricading,'' he said. "I can't see how you think it's going to be safe not barricading it. There is very little traffic from 11th to 15th on Kandiyohi Avenue. Two houses would be involved. The church council talked to them and it's OK with them to close the street.''

Reese said the Public Works/Safety Committee had discussed the request last week and the consensus of the committee was to follow the policy. He said the policy protects the city as a whole on liability issues. He said Father Steve Verhelst of St. Mary's was directed to work with the police department on crossing guards and safe crossing for people.

"As long as it's controlled, it lessens our liability on the city,'' Reese said.

DeBlieck agreed the closure request did not fit the policy. He said participants could use the crosswalks and he saw no reason to place the city at additional risk by not following the policy.

Mayor Les Heitke asked City Attorney Rich Ronning if policies carry as much weight as ordinances. Ronning said, in his opinion, no.

Ahmann said he did not fault city staff for making recommendations. "But I believe there are certain circumstances that we should consider and it's a community event and I kind of look at it as a big block party for the neighborhood,'' he said.

Johnson said he was concerned for having an inflexible policy. He thought proper placement of barricades would be no problem "and would actually limit the city's liability. If set up properly, it provides more safety.''

Heitke asked Ronning if city barricades would increase the church's liability.

"I don't think it involves the church. I think it involves the issue of the liability of the city and the use of the public streets,'' he said.

Fagerlie said 12th Street has a legal crosswalk and he said state law gives pedestrians the right-of-way in a crosswalk. "So we shouldn't have to barricade that street because people are crossing where they're supposed to. Those vehicles should stop, right?'' he asked Ronning.

"Right,'' said Ronning.

After the vote, Heitke said the street would be closed and the barricades erected.

During the debate, City Administrator Michael Schmit said he had no comment.

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