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City council, charter commission spar over proposal to remove MUC from council oversight

WILLMAR -- Members of the Willmar City Council are voicing reservations about a recommendation by the Willmar Charter Commission to remove the Municipal Utilities Commission from direct oversight by the city council.

The revision is just one among numerous changes proposed to the city charter, the document that creates the framework for how the city of Willmar is governed.

It was the issue that triggered the most discussion, however, when charter commission members presented a draft of their recommendations Monday night to the city council.

Agreement by the council will be crucial when it comes time to vote on accepting the revisions to the charter. If the vote isn't unanimous, the entire measure fails.

In a sign of the potential for controversy over the utilities commission's authority, the charter commission itself has been split over whether to strike the language in the existing city charter that gives the city council veto power over the Municipal Utilities Commission.

Bob Bonawitz, chairman of the charter commission and a past chairman of the utilities commission, said removing the council's oversight would allow the city-owned utilities to operate "without interference."

"I happen to think you should let them do their job, within reason," he told council members Monday night.

The potential for second-guessing and micromanaging the decisions of the utilities commission has had a chilling effect at times, said Bonawitz.

"It has a negative impact on management. They feel they're not supported," he said. "I know that from experience. I know that from speaking to employees past and present."

But some city council members questioned whether the council's oversight should be removed.

Steve Ahmann said he was concerned about taking the accountability for a public entity out of the hands of local elected officials.

"I'm a little hesitant to accept that," he said.

With public trust at a national ebb, it's critical for city government to have checks and balances, agreed Ron Christianson.

"I feel very strongly about the oversight," he said.

No similar removal of the council's veto power has been proposed for the city-owned Rice Memorial Hospital, a fact that prompted Mayor Les Heitke to wonder why the proposed charter revisions focus on the utilities commission and not the hospital board.

"There's a different level of respect, in my opinion, given to one over the other," Bonawitz responded.

He told the council that charter commission members have conducted extensive interviews as they've worked on their proposed revisions.

"We tried to get everyone involved in this process," he said.

City council members plan to review the charter commission's recommendations before bringing the question to a vote. The council also voted Monday to have the document reviewed by an attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities who specializes in city charters, a process that could take several weeks.

The Willmar Charter Commission has been meeting for more than a year.

Many of the changes the panel is recommending are clarifications and rewording of some of the language in the charter.

Other proposed revisions get into the nuts and bolts of city government. The charter commission has recommended, for instance, that the mayor be allowed seven days, instead of 96 hours, to exercise his or her veto power. Another recommendation would reduce the size of the Parks and Leisure Board from nine members to seven. Still another proposed revision would require public bodies under city governance to record all their meetings.

John Sullivan, a member of the charter commission, said the panel hopes that at the end of the process, the city will have "a very brief, concise product that we can all be proud of."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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