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Community development director job elimination enters City Council debate over Quality Neighborhood Initiative study

A council majority is a council majority, reasoned Bemidji City Councilor Barb Meuers Tuesday night.

Stating that she was "tired" of having select Bemidji City Council members continue to fight for the continuation of the city's community development director, Meuers said the council must "abide by the 4-3 vote" to eliminate the job by the end of 2009.

"We have a 4-3 vote on the event center and I have to live with it," Meuers said.

The City Council was debating whether to solicit Requests For Proposals from consultants who may be interested in leading an eight-month Quality Neighborhood Initiative, a potential study that has formed based on the failed effort to place a temporary moratorium on the conversion of single-family homes to rental properties.

The preliminary estimate for such a consultant has been estimated at $35,000 to $50,000.

Mayor Richard Lehmann suggested the council should take back its previous vote on the elimination of the community development director and allow that person, currently Rita Albrecht, to instead lead the process.

"We could repeal or rescind that council decision and maintain the position," he said. "We could move forward without an RFP."

The community development director receives about twice in salary and benefits as the city would pay for a $35,000 consultant, Lehmann noted, and would provide more services for the city for that cost.

The City Council on Aug. 10 voted 4-3 to eliminate Albrecht's position. Voting in favor of eliminating the position were Councilors Greg Negard, Meuers, Jerry Downs and Roger Hellquist. Opposed were Lehmann and Councilors Ron Johnson and Kevin Waldhausen.

"We have a 4-3 vote and we need to abide by the 4-3 vote," Meuers said Tuesday.

The QNI study, modeled after a similar study done in St. Cloud in 2006, is intended to accomplish the following:

- Establish a task force composed of city officials, community organizations, real-estate agents, landlords, renters and homeowners.

- Identify a purpose, scope, goals and process for a study.

- Develop a work plan to include gathering data from the community; tabulate current issues, involvement, policies and plans; examine the numbers involving the current housing stock and future community housing needs; and identify solutions.

- The plan dictates an eight-month timeline.

A group of officials, which included Downs, Johnson and Waldhausen, has already met to establish the QNI proposal. However, the first meeting of the QNI task force is tentatively set for 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at City Hall.

"We still want to make sure we do the study and that study needs to be pretty broad-based," Johnson said.

The council at first considered waiting two weeks, until its next regular meeting on Sept. 21, to take action on the request. Downs did not attend Tuesday's meeting but is expected to be back in town for that meeting. But Johnson and Waldhausen both said Downs supported the action in sending out an RFP.

Both Johnson and Waldhausen also voiced their support of Albrecht's ability in leading the QNI study.

"It is certainly something a community development person could do and probably is exactly the type of thing she should be doing," Johnson said.

Hellquist said he served on the city's planning commission when it first was developing a rental ordinance. That effort, he said, had a lot of input from planning commission volunteers without a facilitator.

"I don't doubt there is room for a consultant for some small portion of it," he said. "I don't see where it's going to hinge on one person."

Negard also said the city has a lot of experts on staff with its city manager, building officials and joint planning staff.

"We have formed a team of staff people to be able to do the work that needs to be done for the city," said City Manager John Chattin. "Rita is the team person who does that facilitation. She is the one with the planning experience."

The council voted 5-1 to move forward and request RFPs from potential facilitators. Lehmann was opposed. Responses are expected to be on the Sept. 21 council agenda.