Concerns with vacancies and emergencies at the forefront
The Crookston City Charter will have one slight change to its language on official bonds, but otherwise will be left the same after an hour-long meeting in the council chambers Monday. Lengthy discussions were held on elective office vacancies because of the “unique” situation the City is left in, with one open council member seat and the open Mayor seat, but the Charter Commission did not put forth a motion to amend the Charter to reflect a difference in the number of council members it would require to pass a resolution. Charter Commission member Blake Carlson said he’d “rather see a special election than give a fewer number on the council (the ability) to select someone,” adding that he personally thought changing it would be a “step in the wrong direction.”
Ward 5 City Council Member Dale Stainbrook, who is acting as Vice Mayor after Guy Martin’s resignation, said the “issue” that’s coming from the council is about a majority vote, so if there are six current council seats occupied then a 4-2 vote should/could pass.
“The way it (the Charter) reads, we need five votes to seat a person in a (empty) council chair,” Stainbrook explained. “They’re looking to possibly change that.”
“I think that would affect all our resolutions then,” he questioned.
City Attorney Corky Reynolds said each section of the Charter is an entity in itself and that some “dove tail” one another. Charter Commission member Chris Fee asked if a adding “majority” language was possible, but Reynolds contended that it could be “difficult” because “you can’t say what the situation might be.”
“It’s unique right now, you don’t often see one vacancy let alone two,” Reynolds explained.
“Do you want to change for this unique situation?” he asked.
Ward 1 City Council Member Jake Fee voiced his concerns saying if someone on the Council falls ill or someone moves then the “city just shuts down” if there isn’t a vote of five council members on a matter.
“No business can be done in that meeting?” Fee wondered.
Reynolds replied saying they couldn’t “pass anything” but they could still make “recommendations” with how the Charter current reads.
Reynolds then spoke about holding a special election for one or more of the current open positions in Ward 6 and for the Mayor’s seat.
“I know it’s expensive, but it seems like the direction to go,” Carlson added later and Chris Fee agreed that “it’s better to have the public vote.”
In Section 4.02 of the Charter on Special Elections, it reads that the “Council may by resolution order a special election and provide all means for holding it.” City Finance Director Angel Weasner said a special election could be more expensive when adding multiple openings and it was getting harder to find election judges. When there was discussion about having just one polling location to make special election voting “easier”, Weasner showed concern that the entire process of approving one location could be “lengthier” as she would have to provide proper notice to all residents.
At-Large City Council Member Tom Vedbraaten told Monday’s audience that they, as council members, were told by former City Attorney Chuck Fitzgerald that they couldn’t have a special election to fill a vacancy so wondered “why is it changing now.”
“Do you want a diplomatic answer or a straight-forward answer?” Reynolds asked Vedbraaten, referring to Section 4.02 of the Charter. “(The word) may is permissive. In this particular case, I believe, ‘may’ is a practical answer for the situation you’re in now.”
Jake Fee echoed Vedbraaten’s concerns saying they (as council members) have had two different answers in three years and that’s a “dangerous thing.” Chris Fee told the group that Fitzgerald, at the Charter Commission’s 2018 meeting, told them they could, indeed, have a special election. Jake Fee mentioned Fitzgerald said, in 2017, that an open seat had to be appointed or left open.
In a January 2017 email obtained by the Times, City Administrator Shannon Stassen told the Crookston City Council, “Good afternoon all. Please see opinion from City Attorney stating that a Special Election is not legal. Thank you.” In the email, Fitzgerald said he reviewed applicable law on Stassen’s question about whether a special election can be called to fill the 2017 mayoral vacancy and said the “short answer” was that “a special election cannot be held to fill the vacancy because there is no authority under the Crookston City Charter or state law that permits the Council to redelegate its appointive responsibilities concerning Council vacancies.” Fitzgerald then cited Section 2.05 “Vacancies” in the Charter that reads “the Council may, by resolution of a majority vote of five Council Members, or four Council Members and the Mayor or Assistant Mayor in the event of a tie, declare the vacancy to exist and may appoint an eligible person to fill the vacancy for the remainder of the un-expired term.”
“It is my opinion that the term “may” in the foregoing provision does not permit the delegation of authority by the Council; rather, it simply allows the Council to leave the vacancy unfilled until the term expires,” Fitzgerald stated in the January 2017 email.
Fitzgerald then referred to Meuhring v. School District No. 31 of Stearns County and added, “In other words, charter provisions that govern how a vacancy should be filled override the state law requirements…”
Talking about attorney opinions at Monday’s meeting, Vedbraaten wondered, after Reynolds is gone, what the next lawyer’s opinion was going to be about special elections.
REVISING SECTION 11.03 - OFFICIAL BONDS
Charter Commission member Nick Nicholas directed Monday’s group to page 14 of the Charter under “Official Bonds” and thought the language was unclear where it discusses that employees and officers must give a “corporate surety bond” to the City as “security for the faithful performance of their official duties and the safekeeping of the public funds.” Nicholas thought the language should say that the bonding is at the city’s expense, not the employee’s expense, and the Commission agreed.
Weasner told the Times in a phone call Tuesday that the bond for new employees/officials is basically the insurance policy and that every employee is “bonded” by the city.
“The city pays for a bond for all department heads and elected officials,” Weasner explained. “Mine is higher than everyone else’s by statute.”
“Everyone has to be bondable,” she continued. “If they can’t be ‘bonded’ then it could mean something happened with the background check like if they have a felony involving embezzlement or swindling.”
Weasner said Reynolds will write up the new language for that section of the Charter and a special Charter Commission will be held to approve the new language. She added that it most likely won’t be finalized yet in 2019.
At-Large City Council Member Bobby Baird brought up Section 3.07 - Emergency Ordinances in the Charter citing his concerns that the current language requires an emergency ordinance can only be passed “by a vote of at least seven Council Members.” The Section says “an emergency ordinance is an ordinance necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, morals, safety or welfare in which the emergency is defined and declared in a preamble…” Jake Fee wondered if they “ever want to put ourselves in a situation where there’s an emergency.” Flooding was the most common emergency discussed around the room with others adding tornadoes, derailments and explosions as possibilities.
Vedbraaten felt that if there was an emergency, there shouldn’t be a specific number of votes required to pass an ordinance written in the Charter especially, during a “what if” situation, that some council members weren’t able to be present. Carlson agreed with Reynolds when it was brought up that this particular reason is reason enough to get someone in the vacant council seats. Charter Commission member Betty Arvidson echoed saying this “gives teeth” to get the positions filled, adding later that “it’s never a good time to make changes when you’re in the heat of a situation.” Baird thought it could turn around and “bite them in the butt, too.”
“If there’s a true emergency, city staff will respond without an emergency declaration,” added Stassen.
Chris Fee wondered if the council is not full by March and it floods, if Stainbrook could step down from his Assistant Mayor position and “go back to the council.” Reynolds said the city needs to have someone seated as Mayor, but someone else could be appointed for the unexpired term or for a specified amount of time as long as five people (on the Council) agree.
CHANGING THE CHARTER WITH OR WITHOUT THE COMMISSION
During the beginning of the discussion, Reynolds gave a “101” on Charter-ruled cities and added that there are five different methods to changing the Charter which doesn’t necessarily have to come from the Charter Commission itself. The Times obtained a 2015 document provided to the City Council from former City Attorney Fitzgerald which stated:
“Five Ways to Amend or Revise the Crookston City Charter:
1. The Charter Commission may propose amendments or a revision of the Charter on its own and then an election must be held for passage.
2. The Charter Commission must propose an amendment or revision if a proper petition signed by the necessary number of voters is filed and then there must be an election. This petition would need to be signed by 5% of the total votes cast at the last previous state general election held in the City. The City has permanent registration of voters, only registered voters are eligible to sign the petition. There are several other requirements in the law relating to voter petitions.
3. The City Council may propose an amendment or revision of the Charter by passing an ordinance. Upon passage of such an ordinance, the City Council must submit the proposal to the Charter Commission for its review and then the Charter Commission may either accept the proposal or submit its own proposal back to the Council, at which time the Council may submit to the voters at an election either the Charter Commission’s proposal or its own proposal.
4. The City Council (because Crookston is a fourth class city) may propose an amendment or revision of the Charter by ordinance and, without submitting it to the Charter Commission, hold the necessary election.
5. If the Charter Commission is activated and so recommended, the City Council can amend the City Charter by passing an ordinance which will become effective without an election 90 days after its passage and publication or at such later date as is fixed in the ordinance unless within 60 days after its passage, a proper petition is filed by the necessary number of voters requesting an election, at which point, either the election would be held or the Council could reconsider its action in adopting the ordinance. This ordinance must pass by a unanimous vote of all members of the City Council and can only be passed after a public hearing upon two weeks but not more than one month published notice containing the text of the proposed amendment. The petition requesting a referendum on the ordinance must be filed with the City Clerk and must be signed by at least 5% of the registered voters in the City.”
Charter Commission Members include: Dale Stainbrook (Chair), Chris Fee, Tom Noah, Frank Lindgren, Donna Larson, Nick Nicholas, Betty Arvidson, Gary Willhite, Blake Carlson, Dan Johanneck, and Scott Kleven. Noah and Willhite were not present at Monday's meeting.