Commission members don’t want to deter candidates from running by adding months to the campaign, and they don’t have the stomach for adding recall language at this point
The City of Crookston Charter Commission’s once-per-year December meeting Monday evening at city hall lasted a hair under 20 minutes, a lengthy meeting by the commission’s standards, since the commission rarely makes changes to the document that dictates the way the community is operated and governed.
Commission members spent the 20 minutes discussing the possibility of modifying the charter by adding a primary election to the City’s election system, and also adding specific language to the charter that would make possible the recall of a elected official holding a City office.
In the end, commission members agreed to leave the charter as is on both fronts.
Adding a primary?
City Administrator Shannon Stassen said talk in the community has grown louder in recent years about adding a City primary election, driven mostly by the fact that certain City officials, specifically the mayor and two at-large seats on the council, have generated several candidates. It’s led in some cases to the person elected on election day garnering only 20 to 25 percent of the vote.
“Is that the best reflection of the will of the people?” Stassen asked, echoing the question that has driven much of the recent chatter about adding a City primary. “We’re not recommending that we do it, but we’re not saying we shouldn’t do it, either,” he added. “But it’s something that’s been asked about quite a bit.”
While the general election is held in November, the primary is held in August to whittle the number of candidates seeking various state and county offices. Typically, those seeking City offices have a two-week window to file their candidacy in August, but if the City added a primary, commission members figured that the candidate filing window would have to be moved up on the calendar, possibly all the way to May. Extending the campaign process to several more months and requiring candidates to essentially campaign twice was too much for charter commission members to stomach.
Commission members noted that the past two elections seemed to have spurred a considerably larger number of candidates to seek City office than most typical elections prior to the past two. Commission members said having more candidate choices is a good thing for local voters, and, as Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson noted, if adding a primary ended up leading to some potential candidates deciding against running, that would not be a good thing.
Ward 5 Council Member Dale Stainbrook, who presided over the meeting in the absence of Mayor Wayne Melbye, also noted that voter turnout in primaries is generally low, so the candidates who advance from the primary to the general election might not exactly have earned a mandate from a large majority of voters.
“I think we should leave it as it is,” commission member Frank Lindgren said. “It would get to be too long of a process and I think it would discourage people from running.”
“That’s right,” commission member Dan Johanneck added. “If (adding a primary) would deter anyone from running then I’d be against it. We need people to want to come out and run for office.”
City Finance Director Angel Weasner noted during the discussion that, since Polk County already has a primary, the added cost to the City for adding one would be essentially a non-factor. She did add, however, that it would add to staff’s workload, since they’d basically be adding a second election to coordinate.
Stassen also said that questions have increased of late about any potential procedures on the books involving a process for recalling someone elected to City office. Stassen said the matter was brought to the city attorney’s office, and attorney Chuck Fitzgerald told charter commission members Monday that while there is no actual recall authority in the city charter currently, there are certain instances listed in the charter, involving things like criminal offenses or moving out of the community, that could lead to the removal of a City office-holder.
“But it’s pretty limited,” Fitzgerald said, adding that in the past, whenever a City office-holder has moved out of City limits, the person has resigned on his/her own.
Johanneck noted that there’s a section in the charter that gives the city council the authority to declare a vacancy in a City-held office, mostly involving felony convictions. He said that language could potentially be expanded to include things like intentionally violating the open meeting law, persistent drunkenness or conflicts of interest due to incompatible offices. Johanneck went on to add that the one language change that could potentially be made when it comes to the council declaring a vacancy is changing the current phrase “council may” declare a vacancy to “council shall” declare a vacancy.
“It seems like you have a method to deal with people not meeting the conditions of the charter, but the self-policing by the council makes it tougher,” Johanneck explained. “That’s why maybe you could change ‘may’ to ‘shall,’ which would put the rubber to the road. But it’s still hard.”
Fitzgerald said he thinks it is intentionally made difficult to remove an elected person from office. “The person was elected, and the assumption is that they should be able to fill out their term unless there is some real emergency type of situation,” he explained.
Stainbrook said that removing someone from office would require a lot of documentation and would likely lead to a ‘he says/they say’ situation. “Would we just be opening up a can of worms by doing this?” he wondered.
Park Board concerns
In the days leading up to Monday’s charter commission meeting, as the discussion on potential items for discussion circulated, it was suggested that the charter be changed to make members of the Crookston Park Board elected officials instead of appointees as part of an effort to give the board more clout than it currently has.
In voicing his concerns, current Park Board member Chris Fee noted in an email that the park board as it currently exists is a “bit of a joke,” and he added that board members don’t have an opportunity to have meaningful input on the Parks & Recreation budget and are simply told what the budget will be.
Stassen responded that he thought the Park Board as it currently is designed to function is working well.
The subject didn’t come up for further discussion during Monday’s meeting.