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The room was dripping with irony

By Staff | Aug 19, 2012

There was much more angst, irony and confusion at Wednesday night’s Blue Earth City Charter Commission meeting than the story on the front page of this week’s Register lets on.

At one point in time, most of the commission members, the one guest, the city administrator and city attorney and the local newspaper editor all seemed pretty puzzled.

That point in the meeting came after the commission had finally ascertained that the petition from a group of citizens to have a question be placed on this fall’s ballot concerning having all City Council members be elected at large required no action on their part.

In fact, they learned they actually could do nothing with the petition except hand it off to the City Council which also can take no action except to place it on the ballot in November.

It was when Charter Commission member Mike Enger proposed that the commission itself add its own City Council election change to the ballot that the confusion started.

His idea was to have three at-large members and also keep one member from each of the three Wards. The idea was greeted with some approval from the commission as a possible compromise between having all at-large councilmen or all from the Wards.

Except that City Attorney David Frundt pointed out that the petitioners’ question would still be on the ballot. And no, the two questions could not be mutually differentiated people must be allowed to vote on each of the questions.

The problem, of course, was soon obvious to all those in attendance. What happens if both of the measures are passed by the current 51 percent vote minimum? Which one ‘wins’ and becomes the new charter procedure for selecting City Council members?

Frundt had no answer. In fact, he wasn’t sure there was any other case of such a thing happening anywhere before.

That wasn’t the only ironic point made that night.

It was suggested that the Charter Commission could actually send Enger’s proposal to the City Council for approval. If the council votes approval which has to be a unanimous decision then the charter would be changed in 30 days to having three council members elected at large and three within the Ward boundaries.

However, attorney Frundt says this coming election would still operate under the old rules.

The commission declined to send the idea to the council. And they decided not to place it on the ballot as it would be just too confusing. They are right. You are probably confused just reading this.

So, voters in Blue Earth can decide for themselves if they want to have council members elected at-large. Or keep the Ward system of two councilmen per Ward in place.

Or take what is offered behind door number three.

That would be to wait and see if the ballot question, making all councilmen at-large, actually passes in November. If it does not, perhaps the commission will implement Enger’s compromise plan.

Or not.

Just to recap, there are three ways the Blue Earth City Charter can be changed.

One, the Charter Commission can propose a change, which then needs to be ratified by a unanimous vote of the City Council. Or the council can do that same thing on its own.

Two, the Charter Commission can bypass the council and place the proposed change directly on the ballot to let the people of the city decide.

Three, citizens themselves can change the charter by placing the question on the ballot. This requires a petition signed by at least five percent of the number of voters participating in the last election. And the petition signers must be registered voters.

Just as an added note, it now takes just a 51 percent majority vote to pass a proposed change to the charter. To be clear, that is 51 percent of the votes cast on the question itself. Now the proposed change is to increase that percentage to at least a 60 percent majority.

Interestingly enough, it will take just a minimum 51 percent vote to change the charter to require a 60 percent vote minimum for change. So, a future vote to change it back to just a simple 51 percent majority will need a 60 percent margin.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Same thing for the vote to change to at large council representation. This fall it would take just 51 percent vote. If the other measure on the ballot passes, another try to alter the way the council members are elected could take a 60 percent vote.

The City Council and the Charter Commission are right about one thing. Changing the percentage of votes required to change the charter is a decision best left up to the people.