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BEMIDJI CITY GOVERNMENT: Council hears fix to controversial parking regs

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BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council addressed the public uproar over downtown parking regulations Monday by discussing a possible exemption to the rules.

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Council members conferred on a pending fix to downtown regulations that some local bartenders and others say encourage drunk driving by subjecting unpermitted drivers to a possible ticket if they leave their cars overnight in public lots.

Bemidji Downtown Alliance member and pub owner Mitch Rautio presented the “Safe Choice” program he developed with the Bemidji Police Department wherein the BDA would sell permits for $5 to downtown bars, which the the bars then could distribute on behalf of potential drunk-driver patrons.

Under the plan, bar staff could put the fliers on the drunk person’s car window to show police  the person chose to park their car rather than to drive drunk.  

“It’s a compromise between everybody,” Rautio said.

The permits would be signed by bar staff and dated, Rautio said. Additionally, the permits are valid for one night only until 8 a.m., he said.   

Each bar could only purchase six permits every month in order to limit the number of cars in the lot and thus make it easier for the city to plow the lots. Although the $5 fee for each permit would go into the BDA’s parking fund, the charge is intended to make the bars more careful with the permits rather than fundraise for the organization, he said.

“If there’s no money involved, you can lose them,” he said. “If it’s a $5 bill, you’re not going to lose them.”

Although his establishment, Keg n’ Cork, would not charge patrons for the permits he could not speak for other bars, he said.

Mayor Rita Albrecht asked Rautio to explain how the controversial overnight parking ban was instituted, because “misinformation” is circulating among the public regarding the ban’s origins.

“There seems to be some misinformation out in the community that somehow it was the mayor or the City Council that made that decision and that we took a vote on it or that we had any input at all, and of course, we didn’t,” she said.

Rautio explained that the city relies on the BDA to regulate downtown parking. Just before last winter, he said, the BDA attempted to unify rules among all city lots and simultaneously make it easier for the city to plow and for customers to access adjacent businesses.

City Engineer Craig Gray said the police department and other city staff also played a role. The regulations stemmed from parking complaints made to the city by businesses, he said.

“It started a year ago when we got calls from businesses,” he said. “We had a meeting...the police chief, myself and the (BDA)... it wasn’t about ‘What can we do about vehicles there, what can we do about the people that drink too much?’; their question was, ‘What can we do, City, to get these lots cleaner, faster?’”

Two parking lots actually allow overnight parking in the summer, Rautio said: one near the intersection of Fourth Street and Beltrami Avenue and the other on Fifth and Beltrami.

“Those are safe choices for people to park, as well,” he said.

Council members Nancy Erickson and Jim Thompson questioned whether the 8 a.m. cut-off gave enough time for drivers to sober up.

“You’re sending this person out the door out at 2 a.m. inebriated, and they have to pick their vehicle up at eight or they’re going to get a ticket,” Erickson said.   

Council member Reed Olson said he found it disconcerting that only a few businesses had so much sway over public policy.

“I think that those few businesses that gripe every time the lot isn’t immediately clean have to remember that it’s not their lot, it’s a city lot,” he said. “It bothers me when we try to shape our policy over some people that will never be pleased and have way too much time on their hands.”

Gray agreed.

“We need to get to a point where the BDA is telling some of these same people -- and it’s the same three or four -- ‘You know what, (the Safe Choice) program is also important, and those three spaces may not be clean for four or five days, but we’re OK with that because of the other benefits,’” he said.

Annexation draws crowd

A crowd of about 20 to 30 gathered Monday to hear the council’s discussion of what may become the next battlefield in the city’s legal conflict over annexation with Bemidji Township: property detachment.

The onlookers were apparently township residents who came to observe the city council’s conversation about the detachment process whereby previously annexed land is turned back over to Bemidji Township. Only about five or six people entered the already-cramped conference room where the city holds its work sessions; the rest waited outside in the atrium.

The council held a conference call with James Thomson, its attorney in the lawsuit with Bemidji Township. On his advice, the council left the call open to the public although it could have closed that portion under Minnesota law. Main issues discussed included whether detachment could affect voter eligibility in this year’s elections, the establishment of a deadline for property owners to request their parcels be detached and what to do in the case of property owners who don’t want to detach but are surrounded by property owners who do.

Much of this process is either yet-to-be-determined or dependent on pending negotiations with the township.

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