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Willmar Charter Commission looking to amend recall provisions

Tribune file photo The Willmar Charter Commission is hoping to amend the city charter to update the recall procedure. If amended, the city attorney would rule on the validity of the recall petition before any signatures are collected.

WILLMAR — When the last attempt to recall an elected Willmar official took place over the summer in 2015, the decision on whether the petition had merit wasn't made until Aug. 7, nearly 90 days after the committee first filed its intent on May 18, and after 900 signatures were added to the petition. The petition was found invalid by City Attorney Robert Scott, because it did not prove malfeasance or nonfeasance in Councilor Ron Christianson's performance as a City Council member, negating all physical work and mental trials that impacted both sides of the issue.

Two years later the Willmar Charter Commission is hoping to amend the City Charter, to make the recall procedure more efficient.

"The commission took it upon itself to look at the procedures, to see what could be handled better on behalf of our citizens and their work lads and the anxiety and angst of the elected officials," said Kevin Halliday, Charter Commission chairperson, during the Oct. 2 city council meeting. Halliday was the Willmar city clerk/treasurer and the interim city administrator during the recall in 2015.

The most significant change proposed is having the city attorney rule on the validity of the recall petition before any signatures are collected. The charter currently requires any recall committee to submit a statement that outlines the alleged misbehavior of the elected official. If the charter is amended, that statement will need to be examined by the city attorney, who will decide whether the potential recall campaign meets the standards for such an action within 14 days of receiving the statement.

"We feel it is best to put that ahead of the circulation of any petition," Halliday said. "The members would know they have a legitimate petition going forward."

Halliday said the committee would also like to see the city attorney rule on the validity of other referendums and initiatives before any signature solicitation is conducted. The charter committee could be coming back to the council at a later date to attempt to amend the charter to reflect those wishes.

"We need to have the city attorney opinion in the forefront," Halliday said.

If the petition is allowed to go forward, there could also be change to the petition itself. During the last recall, Halliday said there were rumors that signatures were being collected before the petition was certified by the city clerk. He said the chairperson of the committee came to his office to have the petition initialed and dated by him. When the petition was turned in, all copies had his initials and date on it, proving the petitions had been circulated only after Halliday certified it.

"That was a procedure discussed by the charter commission, and it felt it was imperative to put in the ordinance. That would take care of any of those rumors that efforts were made ahead of schedule and put that to rest," Halliday said.

The recall committee will have 90 days after the city attorney makes his ruling on the legality of the petition to collect the signatures of at least 25 percent of the total number of registered voters who can vote for the elected official who is the focus of the recall. This provision would also be added to the charter if approved.

The remaining updates to the charter are more wordsmithing, breaking up larger sections into individual pieces and cleaning up obsolete language.

"We think we have this fully reviewed and ready to improve the process if it is ever used again," Halliday said.

To amend the city charter, either a referendum needs to be held, or the entire 8-member city council needs to approve the changes within 30 days of a public hearing.

"This procedure is entirely driven by state statute," said City Attorney Robert Scott.

The council set a public hearing for Nov. 6, during the city council meeting. The council would have the Nov. 6, Nov. 20 and Dec. 4 city council meetings to act on the amendments.

"You have three opportunities. If you are all not here on Nov. 6, you have two other chances," Scott said.