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Recall advances: Charter Commission approves language for ballot question on recall elections

BEMIDJI - Unhappy landlords had hoped to initiate recall procedures against the Bemidji city councilors who voted in favor of the rental ordinance overhaul last year.

But Bemidji's city charter, the document that governs the operation of the city, does not have a recall procedure in place.

The city's Charter Commission is hoping voters will opt to change that. During their annual meeting Tuesday evening, commission members approved the language for the ballot question that will be put forth to city voters on Nov. 6:

"Shall the Bemidji Council-Manager Charter be amended to add Section 5.07, providing for a recall procedure to remove an elective municipal officer for malfeasance or nonfeasance in office?"

Following the question are two paragraphs that summarize the recall language that would be added into the charter. The full recall language would be published in advance of the election.

"We really should have this," commission member Ben Stowe said of the recall process.

If voters support it, a recall could be prompted when five voters in that ward (or throughout the city for at-large positions) come together to form a committee, initiating a petition stating the grounds for removal from office. They would, next, need to collect enough signatures totaling at least 20 percent of those who voted for the office in the last election.

The city clerk would then determine if the signatures are sufficient. The petition would be presented to the City Council, which would then call for an election as voters would be asked to determine if the alleged malfeasance or nonfeasance should result in that councilor's removal from office.

Amending the city charter can be done either through unanimous support from the City Council or voter approval. The Charter Commission last year voted to put the question to voters, following the council's 1-5 vote against a proposed recall process.Councilor Kevin Waldhausen, who attended the Charter Commission member as an observer, was one of the five who voted against the recall language.

"I agree with a process for this," he said of the recall. But, noting that Ward 1 has had low turnout in past elections, he did not think it would be overly difficult to collect just 20 percent of 400 signatures.

"That's the only gray area," he said. "This is a small community, and names can be destroyed."

Commission member Nancy Erickson said she was approached last year by landlords who wanted to recall the councilors who voted in favor of the rental ordinance changes. She told them that not only was there no process in place for the recall of councilors, none of the councilors had committed malfeasance or nonfeasance.

"'You simply don't agree with them,'" she recalled telling the landlords.

The response from the landlords, she said, was that because they didn't agree with the councilors, in their minds that did constitute malfeasance.

Erickson said that example illustrates her one issue with the proposed language. No one throughout the recall process rules on whether the accused councilor is actually guilty of malfeasance - unlawful or wrongful conduct - or nonfeasance, or nonperformance.

That decision is left to voters to decide, commission members responded.

"We have to put the power where it belongs, and that's with the people," Stowe said.

Others pointed out that if the city has about 930 landlords, not only do they not all live within one ward, many do not even live within the city limits. If they had been able to initiate a recall, they would have had to convince the voting public of their case.

"By initiating the petition, that sort of thing is going to get the attention of the press," Stowe said. "I think they're also sticking their necks out a little bit."

Commission opening

The Charter Commission currently has an opening on its eight-member board.

Anyone living in the city limits is welcome to apply; however, Charter Commission members noted that wards 1, 2 and 4 currently are not represented on the commission.

For more information, visit the city website at