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Willmar, Minn., City Council member continues opposition to Chamber of Commerce dues

Willmar Councilman Ron Christianson has restated his opposition to the Rice Memorial Hospital Board and Municipal Utilities Commission paying dues as members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR — Willmar City Council member Ron Christianson restated his opposition to the Rice Memorial Hospital Board and Municipal Utilities Commission being dues-paying members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Rice Board and Utilities Commission minutes submitted to the council reported that members approved resolutions of support and documented their reasons for reauthorizing and supporting Chamber membership.

“You know, 99.9 percent of the time I support all of their decisions. This one I disagree with them. But I will move to file the minutes when I’m done with my comment,’’ Christianson said.

Christianson spoke at the start of Monday night’s City Council meeting during which Councilman Jim Dokken pulled the hospital board’s Feb. 20 meeting minutes and Christianson pulled the Utilities Commission’s Feb. 25 meeting minutes from the council’s consent agenda.

The consent agenda consists of meeting minutes of various boards and commissions such as the Utilities Commission, Rice Board, Willmar Design Center and Community Education, Recreation Board; and gambling permits and accounts payable. Under the consent agenda, the council approves some minutes, such as the Utilities Commission and Rice Board, and accepts other minutes and items.

Council members can remove, or “pull,’’ minutes from the consent agenda for further discussion and then offer a motion to file, or approve, the minutes.

“I find it rather odd that taxpayer money is used to pay dues to a local political action committee that actually lobbies the elected body here,’’ Christianson said. “Something just doesn’t sound right. I don’t comprehend this.’’

Council member Bruce DeBlieck commented on Christianson’s reference to taxpayer money.

“It is taxpayer money, but it is not tax money that is being used to fund this organization,’’ DeBlieck said. “I think there’s a distinction there.’’

Council member Steve Ahmann, who said he had the audacity to raise the Chamber membership issue and to refer it to other city groups, said he wanted to make one final comment.

“After looking at the board of directors in both utilities and Rice Hospital, I question how many of them are members of the Chamber of Commerce,’’ he said.

The resolutions of support for Chamber membership that were approved by the Rice Board and the Utilities Commission were drafted with the assistance of City Attorney Robert Scott in response to a council directive asking both entities to look at their relationship with the Chamber and define the benefits.

Scott had earlier issued an opinion that said, among other things, that public entities have legal authority to enter into contracts with any organization, including the Chamber, provided the Chamber’s services further a public purpose served by the public entity.

At two January meetings, Christianson raised concerns that the council has a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens with their money, that any revenue raised by the city-owned hospital and utility is actually tax dollars, and that tax dollars are being used by the Chamber to lobby the council.

After discussion Monday night, the council approved both the utility and hospital board minutes.

Chamber membership is $5,000 a year for Rice and $1,000 a year for the utilities.

In other business, the council unanimously approved an ordinance amending a section of the City Charter dealing with appointive offices of the council. All charter amendments enacted by the council require an affirmative vote of all eight council members.

The amendment adds language to the city administrator subdivision that states the administrator shall perform the duties required by the council and that such duties including enforcing the charter shall be enumerated in a city ordinance.

Also, the amendment adds a new subdivision for the city attorney. Language states the council may contract for legal services with a licensed individual or law firm and that the city attorney shall perform duties required of the council and that such duties including enforcing the charter shall be enumerated in an ordinance.

The amendment approved Monday was among amendments worked out between the council and the Charter Commission as the commission has reviewed the charter over the past three years. The latest amendment represents a compromise between the council and the commission.

Charter Commission Chairman Shawn Mueske said the commission had wanted the administrator’s and attorney’s job descriptions stated in the charter. However, the council had said amending the charter is cumbersome and wanted flexibility to change job descriptions without changing the charter, he said.

“This was the compromise position on that … so you can change them as you need and yet they are memorialized in that ordinance,’’ said Mueske. “Both are laid out. The city attorney’s job did not exist in the charter and it would now.’’

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