Willmar City Council delays vacancy decision

WILLMAR -- Willmar City Council members voiced no objection Monday night to a suggestion that they seek public comment first before deciding how the council should fill the vacancy created by the July 23 resignation of Fourth Ward council member ...

Jim Dokken
Jim Dokken, who resigned from his post as Ward 4 council member, is recognized Monday during the Willmar City Council meeting. His replacement can be assigned or elected. (GARY MILLER | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - Willmar City Council members voiced no objection Monday night to a suggestion that they seek public comment first before deciding how the council should fill the vacancy created by the July 23 resignation of Fourth Ward council member Jim Dokken.
Council members agreed to wait until their next meeting Aug. 17 before they decide whether to appoint an eligible person or to have a special election to fill the remaining 17 months of Dokken’s term.
Dokken, who began serving on the council in January 1999, wrote that he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Interim City Administrator Kevin Halliday said the council has 45 days from the day Dokken submitted his letter of resignation to decide how the vacancy will be filled. The deadline for making a decision is Sept. 8.
City Attorney Robert Scott clarified that if the council decides on Aug. 17 to hold a special election, the special election must be held within 90 days of that decision date.
The other Fourth Ward council member, Audrey Nelsen, said she met with Mayor Marv Calvin to discuss filling the vacancy. Nelsen said she wanted to make sure the council was OK with getting public input during the next two weeks.
Calvin said the council did not have to decide Monday night, but could wait until Aug. 17. He suggested promoting the public input session on social media, in the public and through the Tribune. Calvin said he would attend, but said no more than three council members could attend.
“Let’s get some public input, hear what the people say,’’ he said. “It’s (Nelsen’s) ward and she represents the citizens there. I just think it’s a good opportunity for us to have open, transparent government discussions.’’
Calvin said he hoped that the council would lean toward the special election. However, the council can make the decision Aug. 17 and still be within the parameters for deciding.
Calvin asked if everybody was OK with gathering input, and he did not see any opposition.
Council member Rick Fagerlie said he favored an election.
“I think there’s time for an election,’’ he said.
City Charter allows the council to fill the remaining 17 months of the four-year term in one of two ways: either by appointment or by special election.
If more than two years remain in a term, the charter requires a special election to fill a vacancy. If less than two years remain, the council can appoint an eligible person (who is 21 years of age on the day they take the oath of office, Halliday said). But the charter also allows a special election if the council so chooses, he explained.
If an election is held, candidates must file for office no later than four weeks before the election. Also, no primary will be held; the candidate receiving the highest number of votes wins; and the election must be held on a Tuesday.
Halliday said the council has used appointments to fill previous vacancies when David Lien resigned in 1992 and David Chapin resigned in 2004. Through local media, requests were made to have interested citizens remit a written letter to the mayor, noting their desire to serve as a council member. In 1992, a special council meeting was held to interview prospective applicants and appointments were made.
If the election option is chosen, Halliday said the M-100 precinct counters will be programmed and the Automark handicap assist machines must be programmed. Also, he said an absentee ballot board must be established as well as the customary costs incurred for election judges in the three Fourth Ward precincts at a cost of approximately $6,200.
Council member Ron Christianson asked if Halliday, who is also city clerk, will be able to handle an election in addition to handling other duties.
Halliday said he and his trained city staff, with assistance from Kandiyohi County in programming the ballot counters, can successfully prepare for an election. Also, he has a list of 70 trained election judges, and he said the task will be less formidable than a full election.
Support for an election came during the open forum from Willmar residents Bob Enos, and from Jessica Rohloff, president of the Willmar League of Women Voters.
Enos tried to also use the open forum to speak about his recent involvement in the ongoing discussion and debate about the economics of refugee resettlement in west central Minnesota. But Calvin interrupted, telling Enos his time was up.
Rohloff said one of the League’s goals is to promote open government. She said an election is a fair process “and I think it will go a long way to restoring us back to a more cohesive unit in this town.’’

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