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Recall process stays the same after Willmar council refuses charter amendments

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly describe the duty of the Willmar city attorney to rule on the validity of a recall petition. The attorney does not make any determination about the truth of the allegations in a recall petition, only whether those allegations, if true, would constitute malfeasance or nonfeasance.

WILLMAR — Despite unanimous recommendation from the Willmar Charter Commission, five of the eight Willmar City Council members voted against making changes to the recall section of the City Charter, keeping the process as it is.

Councilors Ron Christianson, Rick Fagerlie and Andrew Plowman were the only three to support the amendments. Christianson was the focus of a recall campaign in 2015.

City Attorney Robert Scott found the recall petition invalid because it did not allege facts that, if true, would constitute malfeasance or nonfeasance in Christianson's performance as a City Council member. However, this ruling was only made after the hundreds of signatures of eligible registered voters were collected and several weeks after the recall campaign went public.

The main change the Charter Commission proposed for the recall process would have the city attorney rule on the validity of the recall before the petitions are presented to voters to sign.

"That will speed up the process simply by stopping any petition that doesn't meet the requirements of a recall," said Charter Commission Chairman Kevin Halliday.

The amendment would also have made it mandatory for the petitions to carry the signature of the city clerk and the date the petition was certified. This would make sure no signatures would be collected early.

The council's desire to make the changes to the charter seemed low from the start, as the motion to vote on the proposed amendment almost died due to a lack of a second. Mayor Marv Calvin had called the motion dead, but Councilor Ron Christianson seconded it moments afterward.

"I think they need to be made, there is no doubt about it. I am surprised no one seconded it. Not one of these elected officials up here want to go through what happened last time," Christianson said.

Christianson firmly supported the amendments, saying he wanted to make sure no other elected officials went through what he did.

"It's terrible, it is absolutely terrible. And not to support these changes, you are going backwards. We're going back to the dark ages when you can lambaste somebody, bastardize them publicly for a period of three to six months and get away with it," Christianson said.

Fagerlie also supported the amendments and made the motion to vote on it, saying he trusted the commission members to know what they are doing.

"I thought it was a travesty what happened earlier," Fagerlie said.

Those who were against the amendments had concerns about attorney power and silencing the public.

Councilor Shawn Mueske, who at one point served on the Charter Commission, agreed with most of the amendments, but said he was worried about an unelected attorney making the final decision on the recall's validity.

"It feels to me there is a major shift of power just to the city attorney," Mueske said.

Kelly Welch, a member of the Charter Commission, said the city attorney has had the power to rule on a recall campaign for some time, power given to the office by the Charter Commission and City Council.

"We haven't changed a thing. As far as the power given to the city attorney is concerned, he has always had that power: It was just later on in the section. It is the same power he had in the original version," Welch said.

In the past, the city clerk used to make the decision on the validity of a recall, but the Charter Commission decided to give that power to the attorney while the clerk still dealt with certification of the petition and voter registration.

Councilor Kathy Schwantes said her issue with the amendments was they were giving power to one individual who is selected by and represents the council to make the decision on the recall.

"That person has the sole ability to silence the voice of all the other members of the community in their desire for that effort. I cannot support it for that reason," Schwantes said.

With the 5-to-3 vote, the proposed amendments were defeated. To amend the charter, all eight council members must approve of the changes.

State law provides another avenue to amend a city charter. At least 5 percent of the registered voters in the city can submit a petition to bring a proposed amendment to the charter to the voters in a referendum.

At least 51 percent of the votes cast in the referendum need to approve the amendments for the charter to then be changed.