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Judge names Northern Township as party in annexation lawsuit

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BEMIDJI — The plot has thickened in Bemidji Township’s lawsuit against the city of Bemidji as Ninth Judicial District Court Judge John Melbye ordered Tuesday that Northern Township be added as a party to the lawsuit.

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“Northern Township is so intimately related to the principal claims” that they need to be part of the lawsuit, Melbye concluded.

Northern Township officials were finding out for the first time Wednesday their township was now directly involved in the suit. One of the next steps for the township is to apply for legal insurance coverage through the Minnesota Association of Townships. If they’re approved, the association will choose an attorney to represent Northern Township.

It was unclear Wednesday if Melbye’s order means Northern is now a defendant in the lawsuit or if they will be liable for the financial damages Bemidji Township is seeking from the city.

James Thomson, the attorney defending the city from the suit, said that the term ‘party’ generally could mean a variety of different roles within a case. He said he assumed that meant Northern Township was now added as a defendant but he couldn’t be sure.

“The judge has just added them as a ‘party’,” he said “The nature of that, I’m not sure what that is right now.”

John Steffenhagen, Bemidji Township’s attorney, said Wednesday afternoon he had not yet read the order and could not speak with certainty until he had a chance to look through it.

Amid the confusion over the order, there’s a chance the outcome of a court appearance scheduled for Christmas Eve may cause the lawsuit to be dismissed entirely.

Thomson said Wednesday he has filed a motion for the judge to dismiss the case by confirming a ruling Arbitrator David Meyers made in October that itself confirmed the majority of a mediated settlement between the lawsuit opponents was valid.

“One of the provisions in the agreement is that the lawsuit would be dismissed,” Thomson said.

Steffenhagen disagreed.

“I think they’re misinterpreting what the arbitrator ruled,” he said.

In Steffenhagen’s view, the arbitrator’s ruling doesn’t affect the lawsuit, but rather the settlement the city and the township came to in May.

“I’m surprised that the city will try to argue that the arbitrator ruled on the merits (of the lawsuit)” he said Tuesday.

Under the shadow of the looming court date, both sides are working toward another mediation session by attempting to pick a new mediator. Steffenhagen said as of Tuesday the township had sent the city several candidates that the city rejected and the city had sent him a candidate he had not yet made a decision on.

Thomson said he was “hopeful” a mediation session would take place in December.

Although Steffenhagen said the back-and-forth over picking a mediator is normal, he still was doubtful the potential session would happen this month because there are other variables besides choosing the mediator, such as selecting a meeting date where the mediator, the lawyers, and a quorum of both the Bemidji City Council and the Bemidji Town Board can all attend.

Steffenhagen also said Bemidji Township has been circulating a petition to annexed property owners who want to detach from the city back to the township. He declined to state the specific amount of signatures the township had received so far, but said it was a “significant” number.

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