West St. Paul Charter Commission meeting

Charter Commission Recap: Jan. 26, 2020

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West St. Paul’s Charter Commission met this week and passed three amendments for City Council to consider. The amendments expand the mayor’s voting power, add seats to the Charter Commission, and clarify the recusal process.

The Charter Commission meets infrequently, usually only a couple times a year, though this was the second meeting of the month. The Commission oversees changes to the West St. Paul city charter and determines how city government functions. See our interview with former Charter Commission Chair Mark Tessmer for more on what Charter Commission does.

Proposed Changes

The Charter Commission passed three amendments:

  • Mayor’s voting power: The charter requires four votes for anything to pass, even when council members are absent. This has created situations where a measure gets a 3-2 majority, but still fails because it needs four votes to pass. The proposed change would allow the mayor to vote in these situations. This passed 8-1 with Tim Haubrich voting no.
  • Adding seats: Given current interest in serving on Charter Commission, they propose increasing the membership from 11 to 13. In previous years the number of members has been lowered because of lack of interest and problems having a quorum. This passed 7-2 with Haubrich and Jim McKie voting no.
  • Eligible votes: A final amendment proposes additional language to clarify eligible votes in the cases of vacancy or conflict of interest abstention. This came up after last year’s Wakota vote when three council members recused themselves. Rather than change anything, this amendment would codify the city attorney’s current position so there’s no question in the future. This passed unanimously.

The next step is for these amendments to come before City Council where they need unanimous support (including the mayor) to pass.

Other Conversations

The Charter Commission also discussed the city manager form of government, referendums and initiatives, and future trainings and meetings.

City Manager

The city manager discussion was prompted by the recent search for a new police chief and some complaints from residents about the process and wanting more oversight. West St. Paul is a council-manager form of government where the City Council handles policy and the city manager runs the city. Oversight comes through holding the city manager accountable to the City Council. The Council can advise the city manager, but decisions are ultimately up to the city manager. If the Council doesn’t like those decisions, they can remove the city manager. Any attempt to give the Council direct oversight would be antithetical to this form of government.

There were suggestions for allowing more community input into the process and the ongoing relationship with the police chief, including some kind of a police oversight committee. That’s actually something Police Chief Brian Sturgeon has planned to implement, though it was put on hold due to COVID-19.

Initiatives & Referendums

A question about conflicts between state law and the charter on referendums and initiatives prompted another conversation. In short, there is no conflict, but our charter gives residents more power with a lower threshold for the number of signatures needed to prompt a ballot initiative or referendum. The most recent referendum was on vacating Stryker Avenue, a measure that hoped to halt construction of the Dakota County Northern Service Center in 1999 (the referendum upheld the Council’s vote, with 55% of voters in favor).

Future Meetings

There will be a Charter Commission orientation and training on February 23 and the next meeting is scheduled for September 14. If City Council approves increasing the number of Charter Commission members, they could be appointed at the September meeting.

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