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Changing charter shouldn’t be easy

By Staff | Jan 8, 2012

It struck many Blue Earth residents as strange that the mayor of the city has the authority to appoint the police chief with little to no input from the City Council.

Other than the council has the right to approve the appointment.

The city of Blue Earth is a charter city, meaning that it operates under a City Charter which spells out many of the rules by which the local city government operates.

Having three voting wards is spelled out in the charter. As is the fact that there shall be two councilmen elected from each of the three wards.

Included are the rules regarding the mayor: how long his or her’s term will be, voting rights, duties and powers.

One of those powers spelled out specifically is the ability to appoint a police chief.

What else is spelled out in the City Charter?

Well, it sets up a Charter Commission, a group that oversees the charter itself.

That commission is an interesting group itself.

They meet whenever they have a need to, but they need to meet at least once a year.

The way commission members are chosen is a bit different. They are not elected or appointed by the City Council.

The current commission members can vote themselves back onto the commission when their terms expire, and they are the ones who select a new member to join them when needed.

These appointments have to be approved – not by the City Council (which would seem logical) but by the District Court Judge. The Charter Commission needs to prepare an annual report and it also does not go to the City Council for approval but to the District Court Judge.

It was interesting to watch the Charter Commission meet the other week.

They judicially debate items in the charter, specifically as to how they apply to current issues before the City Council or in the city itself.

They get right down to whether a certain word is one that should be used. In the recent meeting it was whether the word appoint, recommend or nominate should be used when referring to what the mayor has the power to do when it comes to presenting a potential police chief name to the council.

One might think it just a matter of semantics, but the interpretation and meaning of each word was discussed, as was the real intention of the charter of itself.

Another power spelled out in the charter has to do with how the charter can be changed.

The Charter Commission can decide to change it, but they need to send that recommendation to the City Council. The council has to approve the change proposal.

If the council says no to the change – such as the proposal of eliminating the ward system – then the citizens of Blue Earth themselves can petition to have the question put on the ballot in the next election.

That is what happened with the question related to keeping the ward system in place – or not.

Citizens went out and got signatures on a petition in order to have the question placed on the last election ballot.

Of course, there was controversy surrounding the vote, when it was debated whether non votes counted as no votes. They were counted as no votes and the measure did not pass.

It takes a simple majority to change the charter by vote. At least it does now.

The commission has decided that it would be better to have a higher percentage of voters – two-thirds – needed to pass something as important as a change in the charter.

After all, the logic goes, if only 51 percent of the people want the change, that means that 49 percent don’t want it.

So, if the council approves the recommendation of the commission, it will become more difficult for the people to make a change to the charter itself, because of this change.

Confused yet?

Then how about this not so impossible scenario. The council deadlocks in deciding whether to change the charter language from a simple majority to a two-thirds vote required and that question goes to the voters to decide.

In that case, it would take just 51 percent of the voters to decide that next time there is a vote to change the charter (like eliminating the ward system) it will take 67 percent of the vote.

The commission is right. It should not be so easy to change a city charter.

But that should apply to all the ways it can be changed, including votes by the Charter Commission and the City Council.