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Two 'subcommittees' will try resolve annexation issue

City and township officials will meet in two small groups in the coming months to determine if, and how, existing annexation lines should be redrawn.

The Bemidji City Council and Bemidji and Northern town boards met in a joint session Wednesday evening at Northern Town Hall during which they spent about 50 minutes determining how they should proceed with re-examining the previously adopted annexation plan.

Unanimously, they adopted a process through which they will create two "subcommittees," one with two Bemidji Town Board members and two Bemidji city councilors, and one with two Northern Town Board members and two Bemidji city councilors. Each group also would be assisted by city and joint planning staff.

"That gives us a starting point; then we can discuss it," said Dan Bahr, Northern Town Board vice chairman. "We all perceive different things after listening to our residents. There's going to be some disagreement up front, but hopefully we can work together and get some lines drawn."

In 2004, the three governments signed on to an orderly annexation agreement dictating a three-phased annexation plan with identified properties to be annexed in 2010, 2015 and 2020. The city and townships now are set to begin re-examining those annexation boundaries to see if they make sense or if they should be adjusted.

The agreement included a 60-day target for completion of the process.

"This could drag on forever without a timeline," said Jim Thompson, a Bemidji city councilor. "There just has to be a timeline. It doesn't make sense to not have one."

Northern Township Chairman Mike Kelly led the meeting, which included significant discussion on whether the process should be led by a facilitator such as Cliff Tweedale, the executive director of the Headwaters Regional Development Commission. Tweedale facilitated the initial process about 10 years ago that led to the current annexation agreement and creation of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board.

"I think we need someone to facilitate this, to pull it together, to call the meetings, to get us all on the same page," said Ron Johnson, Bemidji city councilor.

But others didn't agree.

Jim Humeniuk, a Northern Town Board member, said the reason Tweedale was involved in the first process 10 years ago was because the city and townships then were barely on speaking terms.

"I think we're beyond that stage," he said. "I think we should be able to sit down and come to some sort of agreement as far as drawing some lines."

Once Bemidji Town Board representatives said their position was to move forward with Tweedale as a facilitator, Tweedale himself, who was in the audience, said he would not be effective unless all board members together wanted him to lead the forthcoming process.

"I get the sense that you guys have a good enough relationship and know what you're doing that you can do this without my help," he said.

Greg Negard, a Bemidji city councilor, suggested that the effort move forward without the facilitator initially.

"I'm certainly of a mindset that we can give it a try," he said. "But if we do come to a stalemate, we bring him in."

The meeting was held at the request of Northern Township. Kelly opened the meeting by stating that Northern Township is committed to moving forward quickly. That town board, he said, supported the idea of two small township-city groups that would begin meeting soon to begin examining the annexation lines.

"We're very much in favor of expediting this process," Kelly said. "We're not interested in dragging this out."

Jan Heuer, the vice chairwoman of the Bemidji Town Board, said that town board had not, before Wednesday, heard about a potential timeline or committee formation and requested that the Bemidji Town Board be allowed to meet and discuss those options during a regular town board meeting.

Negard and Kevin Waldhausen, a Bemidji city councilor, both said they had expected a proposal or plan from Bemidji Township as well stating how it would like to move forward.

"We need to move on. I would certainly expect to hear something, some kind of proposal from Bemidji Township, tonight, in what their plans are," Negard said. "Otherwise we're wasting our time."

On Jan. 3, the Bemidji City Council voted 5-1 to proceed with the Northern Township portion of planned annexation, opting to not pursue the annexation of Bemidji Township parcels at that time, allowing time for Bemidji Township and the city to re-examine the Bemidji Township annexation lines. That decision was canceled on Jan. 17 as the City Council voted 7-0 to withdraw the previously approved annexation resolution. The intent was that the city and townships all would meet to re-examine the annexation boundaries.