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Bemidji Charter Commission: Amendment would give voters ability to recall city councilors

Should Bemidji voters have the ability to recall their city councilors?

The Bemidji Charter Commission today is expected to discuss whether that question should be put forth to Bemidji voters in a future election.

Had the Bemidji City Council voted unanimously last week to support a proposed city charter amendment, a public vote could have been avoided, but the council voted 1-5 against it. Councilor Jim Thompson was absent.

"They don't want to give the people this power? I don't understand it. I really don't," said Michael Meuers, a Charter Commission member.

Councilor Rita Albrecht was the only councilor to support the amendment.

"I think it's a positive thing," she said.

The Charter Commission met Sept. 12 with the council in a work session to present the proposed amendment.

"We offered them the opportunity to ask all of the questions they wanted to," said Chuck Stombaugh, a Charter Commission member.

While councilors did ask a few questions about the fairness of the numbers required to prompt a recall, Charter Commission members said they did not leave the meeting thinking councilors were overwhelmingly opposed.

"I did not get any feeling whatsoever that was going to happen," Meuers said of the 1-5 vote.

The amendment would allow five voters in a ward to form a committee to begin the recall process against that ward's councilor. They would have to draft a 250-word-or-fewer proposal stating why the recall should occur. They then would need to gather signatures representing 20 percent of those who voted for the elected official in the last election. If that happens, a special recall election would be held.

"Giving that much authority to five people is not something that I think is appropriate," said Mayor Dave Larson, who was among those voting against the proposal.

The recall language is not unusual for home-rule charters, said City Attorney Al Felix, who worked on the language with the Charter Commission.

"It's pretty common fare," he said. "We would probably be one of the few that doesn't have it."

Councilor Kevin Waldhausen said he had two issues with the proposal, one of which was that contentious issues, such as the building of the Sanford Center for example, could easily spark five people to start a recall and 20 percent to sign on to it.

"Once it goes to recall, the image is out that the individual has done something wrong," he said.

Larson said area media would likely run news stories about a potential recall even as signatures were still being sought.

"By that time, it becomes public information and you spend the rest of your time defending yourself against allegations that may or may not be founded at all," he said.

More so, Waldhausen said, he believes that the charter belongs to the citizens of Bemidji.

"I hold it at the highest regard," he said. "Any change to the city charter should be initiated by the people that the charter represents."

The Charter Commission meets in a meeting at 5:30 p.m. today at City Hall, at which time is expected to discuss whether the proposed recall language should be put before voters.