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Three local governments meet to discuss mediation agreement

BEMIDJI - Northern Township board members had many questions Wednesday night.

The three in attendance -- Chairman Mike Kelly, Vice Chairman Clark Chambers and supervisor Tim Mountain -- discussed with Bemidji Township board members and Bemidji city councilors the mediation agreement the two reached in late May. That agreement would allow Bemidji Township to leave the joint powers and annexation agreements the three governments adopted almost a decade ago.

The mediation was the result of a lawsuit filed by Bemidji Township against the city in August, but it did not name Northern Township as a defendant. As a result, Northern Township board members said Wednesday they felt out of the loop.

"When I left the board it appeared to be moving right along," said Mountain, who previously served on the Northern Township board before he rejoined this year. "I guess my question would be 'what happened?'"

Bemidji Township's attorney, Edina-based John Steffenhagen, answered most of the questions for Bemidji Township Wednesday. Board members Pete Fredrickson and Brian Merschman were in attendance.

Steffenhagen reviewed some of the complaint the township filed, in which they argued the city breached the terms of the annexation agreement by not providing services -- including water and sewer -- immediately upon annexation, among other claims.

"Bemidji Township made a very conscious decision not to sue Northern Township," Steffenhagen said. "Because the township believed then, and believes now, frankly, that the majority of the issues within the orderly annexation agreement rested with the relationship between city of Bemidji and Bemidji Township."

Steffenhagen said they had hoped for a decision from Northern Township Wednesday night whether they would agree to amending the joint powers and annexation agreements to release Bemidji Township as a party. Northern Township doesn't have a say in the mediation agreement reached between Bemidji Township and the city of Bemidji.

But Kelly said considering the financial implications of that decision, they would need more time. If Northern Township continues with the annexation and joint powers agreements with the city, Kelly said, it will cost their residents money.

He added that Bemidji Township likely wouldn't be able to make that decision before July 24, when they and the city are scheduled to be in court to update Beltrami County District Court Judge John Melbye on the case.

"So there's direct financial ramifications for Northern Township residents beyond if we agree with how this all shook out," Kelly said.

But Steffenhagen indicated that the mediation agreement may be enforceable whether or not Northern Township agrees to it.

"Bemidji Township's position would be that the mediated settlement agreement can be implemented if Northern says 'no,'" he said. "That's not the preferable way to do it."

Kelly acknowledged that annexation issues are often contentious, but pressed Bemidji Township board members on what they felt was wrong with the joint planning aspect of their agreement.

The three townships have shared a joint planning office, as well as joint commission and board, that handles planning and zoning cases in the area.

"We're trying to figure out why you're doing what you're doing so it makes it easier for us to either agree or disagree," Kelly told Merschman. "What is so unworkable about joint planning?"

Merschman encouraged Northern Township board members to read the civil complaint that outlines their objections.

"It's got to this point, we're moving full speed forward with this," Merschman said.

Northern Township board members and Bemidji city councilors expressed disappointment with what's transpired over the past year.

"When we're out and about in the state, and people say, 'Oh where are you from?'" Mountain said. "You don't say Bemidji Township, you say Bemidji. I don't say Northern Township, I say Bemidji. We're one large community, and we actually put something together that was working to the benefit of all the communities."

"It was years of work that went into this and it seems like it was short-sighted that this death blow is being dealt to what has been a very positive working relationship between all of the (local government units,)" he added.

Councilor Michael Meehlhause said it was a "bad chapter" in the history of joint planning in the Bemidji area.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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