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Willmar Charter revisions may take a bit longer

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Charter Commission is running out of time to get a new charter ready for review by the City Council this fall.

The revisions under discussion could represent at least one major change in city government. The commission is poised to propose that the City Council no longer have veto power over the actions of the Municipal Utilities Commission.

The Charter Commission has been meeting for about a year to discuss charter revisions. There is no deadline for their work, though members had hoped to be further along in the process by this fall.

Commission members met Thursday afternoon at the city office building to review other changes proposed so far. A city charter determines how city government operates.

The commission is waiting for the League of Minnesota Cities to comment on the proposed changes and has yet to deliver its proposals to the City Council for review.

Charter revisions that do not receive unanimous support from the City Council must be approved by the voters. A change extending term limits for members of the hospital and utility governing boards was adopted last fall.

City Clerk Kevin Halliday said that time is not on the commission's side at this point in the year. Ballots for the Nov. 2 election will be prepared in the last half of August. The commission probably doesn't have enough time to finish revisions and have the council review them, he said.

Commission Chairman Bob Bonawitz suggested the group should keep moving forward with the document, possibly delivering it to the City Council at its July 19 meeting and asking for a response by the Aug. 2 meeting. That might let the commission still get the revisions on the fall ballot if needed, he said.

But that's probably not enough time to receive comments from the League of Minnesota Cities, said commission member Audrey Nelsen. Why have the league review "if we're not going to wait for what they say," she asked.

Nelsen suggested the commission continue working on the charter revisions and take the time to consider the league's comments and to also consider a number of proposals introduced by commission member John Sullivan on Thursday.

"That may be wiser," Bonawitz said.

The largest change among the commission's proposals involves the Municipal Utilities Commission, which is the governing board of Willmar's city-owned utility.

The other changes proposed are less dramatic. Many are minor changes in wording. There's a new provision to remove elected officials from office if they move out of the city or are absent for longer than 90 days.

Another proposal would give the mayor nine days to veto council action, rather than the current four days.

Members of the Charter Commission said the recommendation to make the MUC autonomous was approved on a split vote earlier in their deliberations.

Some of the members said they felt it would not receive unanimous approval from the council, either.

"I think it's dead in the water at the council," said commission member Audrey Nelsen.

"If we stand by it, we're going to have to sell it to the voters," Sullivan added.

Sullivan asked if the commission should reconsider the decision. Some members of the council are adamant about maintaining the veto power, he said.

Commission member Shawn Mueske said he felt the process would take more time, too, because the commission will need to discuss the charter revisions again after the City Council reviews and comments on it.

"We should not be disappointed if we don't get our work done; we are a standing body," said commission member Mike Nitchals. "There's another year; there will be another election."

The commission will meet next on July 15 to discuss the revisions again.

In other business, the commission voted to send a letter to the City Council, mayor and city attorney, asking that city employees be directed to follow the recommendations of the Charter Commission in a timely manner. Some commission members felt the city staff delayed in forwarding commission membership nominations to the Kandiyohi County District Court.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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