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Next Wednesday, September 25, the West St. Paul Charter Commission will be meeting for the first time in 2019. What’s the Charter Commission? Good question. We talked with the chair of the Charter Commission, Mark Tessmer, to find out more.
We also talked with the city attorney, Kori Land, to get the full scoop on the Charter Commission (though any mistakes or mischaracterizations are entirely my fault).
So before we talk with Tessmer, let’s clarify what the Charter Commission actually does.
“I think the charter is written in such a way that everyone can understand it.”Mark Tessmer
What Is the Charter Commission?
First we have to back up. There are two types of cities in Minnesota, and the difference is based on where they get their legal authority:
- Statutory cities – Legal power comes from the state laws of Minnesota.
- Charter cities – Legal power comes from the city’s charter.
West St. Paul is a charter city. Of the 853 cities in Minnesota, only 107 are charter cities.
So our city charter is basically a local constitution. The main difference between statutory cities and charter cities is that if we want to change how our city government functions, we can do it through the charter. Statutory cities have to do it through the state legislature, which is a lot more complicated.
The Charter Commission is how we consider changes to the charter. It’s a group of local residents who propose and vote on changes to the charter. Those changes ultimately have to be passed unanimously by city council.
So if you want to change laws or ordinances in West St. Paul, you go through the city council. But if we want to change how our city functions—how many council members we have or the specific powers of the mayor for example—that goes through the Charter Commission.
(For more on charter cities, check out this handbook from the League of Minnesota Cities.)
Talking With Mark Tessmer
Mark Tessmer has lived in West St. Paul for over 40 years. He works in the family business, Camelot Cleaners on Smith and Dodd. Tessmer served two terms on the city council from 2000 to 2008 and has served on the Charter Commission, both before and after his terms on council. He’s been the chair of the Charter Commission since 2015. He lives with his wife, Pam, and has two grown sons. His hobbies include correcting his slice on the golf course.
The Charter Commission sounds very lawyer-y—but the commission doesn’t require a legal background. Does that give the commission and its work a ‘by the people, for the people’ feel?
Your “by the people for the people” comment hit the nail right on the head. You don’t have to be a lawyer to serve on the Charter Commission. I think the charter is written in such a way that everyone can understand it. It’s a pretty straight forward, common sense document. We do have legal staff, our city attorney, so if there are questions concerning the law or charter, she does a great job answering them.
Our members come from different parts of the city, have different income levels, different occupations, some have served in local elected office, some have run for local elected office, and while I have never asked (and don’t care what they might be) we do have different political leanings as well. I have always enjoyed our meetings and the members on the Charter Commission. I can’t recall a member who had bad intentions or a negative agenda that they wanted to pursue. I can say that everyone I served with or am serving with now cares deeply for our city, the governance of our city, and only want the best for our city.
What kind of issues or changes has the Charter Commission considered in recent years?
Some recent clarifications to the charter language or amendments include:
- How to deal with filling council vacancies.
- Clarifying the language concerning the mayor’s veto power.
- Number of years in the mayor’s term.
- Should the mayor have the veto.
- Should the mayor vote on all matters before the council or just the limited number that the charter spells out.
- Mayor and council salaries.
- Redrawing ward boundaries.
- At our upcoming meeting we’ll explore rank choice voting and sidewalk snow removal assessments.
Are there any perennial topics that keep coming up?
Mayor and council salaries are an issue that we are obligated to periodically review. I think it helps having former council members and occasionally former mayors on the Charter Commission. That way you get a different perspective that the citizens don’t have when it comes to how the charter affects the day-to-day operations of city hall from the legislative and operational sides.
So from that perspective I have brought to the Charter Commission the idea of extending the mayor’s term from two years to four years. I also brought the idea of the mayor voting on all issues before the council instead of the limited number they vote on now. To me and the majority of the Charter Commission it just made sense that there was parity. We may have looked at this twice when the council and mayor changed over the past four years. I think we passed these but the council did not.
We can pass a proposed amendment by a majority vote but in order for it to pass the council and go into the charter it needs unanimous support of the mayor and council. Their vote needs to be 7-0.
Most residents have probably never read the charter (or even heard of it). What do you think is the most interesting part of the charter?
I may be a bit nerdy and maybe care more than most about how government works, but I think the whole document is interesting. It really is how our local government works on a daily basis and the citizens of West St. Paul have the opportunity to make changes to that without running for or holding political office. Knowing the charter helps to understand how and why the council does what they do, as well as the city manager, when you watch them on TV or deal with them at city hall.
What are you most proud of in your role as chair of the Charter Commission?
I would say a number of things. One is the Charter Commission itself. We do our job in relative obscurity, which is good. By that I mean we don’t generate negative headlines or bring on bad press for our city and or the Charter Commission itself.
It’s a group that works hard, is educated about city government and issues, is thoughtful, is respectful of others’ opinions, disagrees in a respectful manner, and gets along before during and after the meeting is over. We give all the agenda items before us a fair hearing with good debate. I have had the honor to work with different mayors and council members during my two terms and I’d like to think that I brought all the best traits I saw with me as I preside over the Charter Commission meetings. We have made some positive changes to the charter and some of our discussions that we have had have led to a better understanding of the charter and some of the issues the charter deals with.
Finally I think the relationship we have had with the different mayors, council members, city managers, and city staff has been overwhelmingly positive. From what I understand, it wasn’t always that way years back.
Thanks to Mark Tessmer for sharing his insights and helping us to better understand the West St. Paul city charter. (And thanks to Kori Land for offering some background knowledge.)