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Charter changes hit a wall

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Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Citizens will not be voting on any Detroit Lakes Home Rule Charter changes at the November election this fall.

No public outcry was heard Monday evening when the Detroit Lakes City Council held a special meeting regarding proposed changes to the Home Rule Charter.

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Instead, the outcry came from the council.

Council members voted at the regular July council meeting to pass the first reading of the amendments proposed by the charter committee.

There was then a special council meeting July 17 to discuss more changes, where aldermen voted and changed some other amendments. There was no audience comment at either meeting.

Monday, a public hearing was held and while only one person in the audience spoke, aldermen spoke enough for the public to know the charter amendments would not be passed that night.

"You've had very little input from the public. They are totally in the dark," Clay Schott said, suggesting the matter be tabled.

The city ran into the possibility of legal problems, and that put a damper on the progress of the charter.

The charter changes must be published in the official city newspaper, the Detroit Lakes Tribune, two times before the council passes the proposed changes. The council must approve the changes three months before being put to a public vote.

City Attorney Bill Briggs said the original changes were published twice, but the changes made on July 17 were not published and could be challenged in the future. He said his concern was the changes made to the Public Utilities Commission.

The number of people and council members serving on the utilities commission was changed, compensation was changed and term limits were changed.

"By all practical matters, the council can go ahead and adopt with the changes as proposed by the council," he said. But those changes could be challenged, he stressed.

Briggs' recommendation is to publish the July 17 changes twice, hold a public meeting, and then hold a public vote at some other time.

"It's not a clear black and white issue, unfortunately," he said.

Mayor Larry Buboltz said he felt "personal responsibility" for the tight deadline on publishing, public meetings and the November ballot. He said he felt that with the time the committee put into the changes, there wouldn't be problems and the charter would pass.

Even though time was crunched, he also noted that he didn't like the idea of holding a special election because of the low number of people that turn out to vote.

"There are very few special elections," he said. "I'm not (in favor) of that where 300-400 decide (the outcome)."

The options for the council came down to:

n Hold the second reading of the changes made by the charter committee that had already run in the newspaper, therefore having the issue on the November ballot.

n Have a second reading, including the changes made by the council on July 17, and have the issue on the November ballot but be subject to a challenge.

n Hold a first reading of the council's revised charter, have the publications and then a special election in the future.

n Do nothing, with no changes to the current charter.

Alderman Bruce Imholte said he agreed that a special election isn't the answer.

"Is there an urgency to (wait until a) vote in November 2008," he questioned.

Alderman Matt Brenk asked if the council voted in favor of the commission's changes, how many of the council's changes could be addressed in the administrative code.

Basically, it was answered that the mayor could ask one council member to vote on the PUC, and the council could change compensation.

Alderman Walt Tollefson said he agreed with Brenk to pass the committee's recommended changes and then make changes in the administrative code.

Alderman Leonard Heltemes said there has been lots of input from the committee and some from the council, and the July 17 meeting results shouldn't be overlooked.

While the code now says there can be three to five members on the board, the council on July 17 voted to increase that number to five to seven members, including two voting council members.

Utilities Commission members would no longer get city health insurance, but their monthly compensation would increase from $225 to $400 -- the same as a city council member.

"Basically, what you want to do is throw out the changes the council made," he said.

Alderman Ron Zeman said he was "disappointed" because the council was asked for input and now it was as if it wasn't wanted.

Alderman Jim Anderson said he didn't want to see the time spent on the charter wasted, but he was comfortable waiting until 2008 for a vote if the commission's changes weren't passed.

"Waiting, to me, is poor business by a group of people that can do better than that," Alderman G.L. Tucker said.

Alderman Jim Hannon made a motion to table the charter issue until 2008. It was defeated, with Zeman and Heltemes voting in favor of the wait.

Tucker made a motion to approve the commission's suggested changes -- as they were already published -- and make changes in the administrative code. That was also defeated, with Hannon, Zeman and Heltemes voting opposed.

Not knowing what was left to discuss or what would get an 8-1 vote to pass the charter, a motion was then made to adjourn the meeting, tabling the item. It passed unanimously.

So, while it's not certain when the issue will be resolved or when there will be a vote, it won't be in November 2006.

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