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City Council, Commission session hits on residency requirement

WILLMAR -- Should the Willmar City Charter continue to require that people appointed to city boards and commissions live within the city limits?

That's a question members of the Charter Commission and City Council discussed but reached no consensus on during a 90-minute work session Wednesday night at the Fire Station.

The idea of amending the residency requirement was raised at the Dec. 7 Charter Commission meeting by member John Sullivan, according to City Clerk Kevin Halliday. The commission did not discuss the issue but placed it on the catalog of items to be discussed at the Jan. 11 meeting.

The charter states, in Article 4, Section 4.01, that members of boards and commissions, with the exception of a licensed physician representing Rice Hospital Board, shall be residents of the city. In addition, the charter describes the membership and duties of the Planning Commission, Park and Leisure Services Board, the Rice Hospital Board and Municipal Utilities Commission.

Mayor Les Heitke, who continues in office until Monday night when Mayor-elect Frank Yanish is sworn in, asked for some discussion.

Sullivan told council members that he was asked by people -- including a First Street businessman who lives out of town, pays a lot of taxes and is interested in city government -- if someone who lives out of town could serve on a board or commission.

Yanish attended the work session and said people who pay taxes -- who have businesses in Willmar, but who live outside the city -- should be eligible to be appointed to boards and commissions.

"As long as they own businesses inside of town and pay taxes, I believe there are just a number of well-qualified people that live outside of town that would serve the city well by being on these boards and commissions,'' he said.

Council member Ron Christianson said the council is having a difficulty finding people. "We are running out of people to choose from,'' he said.

Council members Bruce DeBlieck, Steve Ahmann and Doug Reese said they do not support removing the residency requirement.

Another area of contention was language proposed by the Charter Commission that would eliminate council appointment of department heads.

The proposed language would also prohibit the council from interfering with the city administrator in appointing department heads and hiring employees, and would require the council to direct administrative activities solely through the administrator, except for purposes of inquiry.

Charter Commission vice president Shawn Mueske said the ability to hire and fire city employees currently resides within the council.

"We believe that that's a management piece and you should let your managers manage,'' Mueske said. "We suggest that the council has that (management authority) by having hire-and-fire power over the administrator. The council can exercise their power over that piece and let managers do their job.''

Christianson said he favors keeping the council's appointment authority and he spoke against the proposed language.

Heitke said the proposed language clearly defines the council's policy role and the management role of the administrator.

On another item, the commission is proposing a new twist on the council's overriding veto authority over the Municipal Utilities. The commission had earlier proposed removing the council's overriding veto authority, but council members at a Nov. 17 work session opposed the idea.

Utility representatives believe that removing the authority would create a more autonomous utility.

Instead, commission members are now proposing the number of affirmative council votes needed to override the utility commission be increased from 5 as now stated in the charter to 6.

Mueske said the Charter Commission is recommending 6 affirmative votes, also described as a supermajority, which would be consistent with other veto powers that are given to the mayor and other entities in the charter.

A few council members thought the number of veto votes should be increased to 6.

The commission has ended its second year of reviewing and making proposed charter revisions. Mueske said the commission will be looking for common ground with the council because the commission has the ability to take recommendations to the public for a vote.

"But we prefer not to do that if we can find some consensus,'' he said in an interview after the meeting. Also, the commission will try to pare down the size of the charter. "We'd like it to be readable. Right now it's very large,'' he said.

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