City Charter requires five council votes in favor of mayor, but Vice Mayor Stainbrook is permitted to vote only in the event of a tie
The Crookston City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday evening in favor of a resolution appointing Wayne Melbye as mayor to finish out the two years remaining on the first term of Gary Willhite, who resigned at the end of December in the wake of his election to the Polk County Board of Commissioners.
But after a few seconds of most everyone in the city hall council chambers assuming that Melbye, seated in the back row, was indeed now the mayor, City Administrator Shannon Stassen alerted everyone in the chambers to a voting quirk in the City Charter that requires five council members voting in favor of a mayor. With Ward 5 Council Member Dale Stainbrook presiding over the meeting as vice mayor after being appointed to that post by the council on Dec. 27, he did not vote on the resolution, and Stassen said that since the council's vote on the resolution wasn't a tie, Stainbrook could not cast a vote in favor of Melbye as mayor and provide the required fifth council vote in favor.
So here's what transpired Tuesday:
Ward 6 Council Member Tom Vedbraaten, while stressing he had no issue with Melbye personally, said that since the council at a Ways & Means Committee on Dec. 27 voted in favor of Stainbrook's recommendation to appoint Melbye mayor, he's gotten a lot of phone calls and heard from a lot of constituents whom, he said, feel like the public is being shut out of the process.
"That's all I've been hearing from the public, that the mayor position is the city's, not just the council's," Vedbraaten said. "We need to find a way to get the public involved in this."
At Large Council Member Bobby Baird, elected to the seat vacated by Melbye, who decided against seeking a fourth term and instead sought a seat on the Polk County Board but failed to advance past the September primary, agreed with Vedbraaten. So did new Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee.
Vedbraaten suggested that the council set a certain amount of time - maybe until the end of January - for interested citizens to indicate their interest in serving as mayor for the next two years. If that potential process didn't pan out as hoped, Vedbraaten suggested that a special mayoral election might be necessary.
Other council members said they'd heard only positive things from Crookston residents since the committee last week recommended full council approval of Melbye as mayor. Stainbrook noted that five council members have less than two years of experience, and said the council needs Melbye's 12 years of council experience at this time.
Stainbrook asked Vedbraaten, who voiced concerns on Dec. 27 but eventually voted in favor of Melbye as mayor, what had changed in his mind since. It was simply the public's concern about being shut out of the process, Vedbraaten said. Baird echoed those sentiments, saying he ran for council to serve the public, and citizens who have spoken to him in recent days aren't in favor of what has transpired. Baird, too, along with Fee, said they have no personal issues with Melbye. If there's a process inviting public interest and Melbye ends up emerging as the leading candidate, Vedbraaten added, "I'll be one of the first ones to vote for him."
Vedbraaten said he was prepared on Dec. 27 to vote in favor of Stainbrook as vice mayor. He said he wasn't ready that night, however, to appoint Melbye or anyone else as mayor, saying Stainbrook's recommendation to appoint Melbye on Dec. 27 was "sprung" on him. Stainbrook disagreed, saying he had spoken to Vedbraaten and others about his pending recommendation to appoint Melbye, and that Melbye himself had called several council members indicating his interest in the position. Vedbraaten acknowledged Melbye's call, but said he now thinks the public needs to have a say in who's mayor for the next two years. "The more time I've had to think about it and the more people I've heard from, this is what I think we need to do," Vedbraaten said. "That's how I feel."
Vedbraaten also mentioned that Melbye himself has said over the years that sometimes the council acts too swiftly on certain matters. "I think we're acting too fast on this," Vedbraaten said.
Three votes transpired Tuesday. Vedbraaten's motion to deny the resolution to appoint Melbye was rejected 4-3. Vedbraaten, Baird and Fee voted in favor of the motion, and council members Bob Quanrud, Dennis Regan, Steve Erickson and Clayton Briggs voted against. So, then, the council returned to the original resolution to appoint Melbye mayor. That vote was 4-3 in favor, and that's when Stassen alerted everyone that the vote was one less than the requirement in the City Charter. At that point, Vedbraaten made a motion to table the resolution so the Ways & Means Committee next week can figure out the best process to appoint a new mayor. But that resolution failed, with yes votes by Vedbraaten, Baird and Fee outnumbered by no votes from the remaining four council members.
"I don't know what to do now," Vice Mayor Stainbrook said.
Stassen said the council was at a stalemate and said that the best way to "get on with the City's business" would be to have the Ways & Means Committee when they next meet on Jan. 9 figure out where to go from here. In the meantime, Stainbrook will continue to preside over council and committee meetings as vice mayor.
Stassen said he felt it was important to mention that the council acted within its authority allowed by the Charter when it moved to appoint Melbye as mayor. Regan seconded that notion.
Erickson, who wondered what might happen if no suitable mayoral candidates emerge and then Melbye decides he no longer wants the position, said that if people want the Charter changed, then he's open to looking into that possibility. But, Erickson added, that discussion could easily commence and changes could be put into effect even with Melbye as mayor.
Fee, who said during the campaign that the City's operation needs to be more transparent, said involving the public in the search for a new mayor would be an example of that. "I agree, yes, that we need experience, but maybe some experience will step forward," he said.