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Council votes down mediation agreement

BEMIDJI —  The Bemidji City Council voted against approving a mediated settlement agreement that would allow Bemidji Township to leave the annexation and joint powers agreements during its Monday night meeting.

The agreement reached early Friday that allowed Bemidji Township to exit the annexation and joint powers agreements was contingent on approval by both the township and the city council.

Mayor Rita Albrecht and Ward 1 Councilor Michael Meehlhause were the only “yes” votes Monday night. Bemidji Township is scheduled to vote on the agreement June 11.

The township’s lawyer John Steffenhagen said last week he expected unanimous approval by the board. He said Monday night that he planned to file a motion asking Beltrami County District Court Judge John Melbye to enforce the settlement agreement. 

Monday’s council meeting was full of emotion. At-large Councilor Jim Thompson, one of four members of the council to sign the mediated agreement early Friday, said he was “coerced” into doing so.

“I do regret that I signed that but I did,” he said during the meeting. 

Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson, who raised his voice when voting no, railed against the process that led to the agreement being reached, including the scheduling of the session itself.

Johnson wasn’t able to attend the entire Thursday mediation session, he said. Ward 2 Roger Hellquist wasn’t able to be there at all due to a scheduling conflict, which he said he made clear beforehand.

City manager John Chattin said at the beginning of the debate that the judge’s order required only a quorum of city councilors to attend mediation.

“I know the judge said a quorum, but our city manager, and certainly our mayor should have insisted that everybody been at that table,” Johnson said. 

Ward 4 Councilor Reed Olson indicated early in Monday’s debate that he would vote to approve the agreement he signed early Friday, although with some misgivings. But later, citing discussions he has had with his constituents since and his experience sitting on the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Commission, he changed his mind.

“I’ve been having a very difficult time all day today trying to figure out whether it’s better to do what I said I would do on Friday morning or if I should admit I made a mistake and go against it,” Olson said. “But after thinking about it, in my heart of hearts, it’s the wrong decision. So I’m going to switch my vote to ‘no’”

The mediated settlement reached Friday came about after Bemidji Township sued the city in August, arguing that it had violated the terms of the annexation agreement by not providing city services like sewer and water immediately upon annexation, among other claims.

The agreement reached Friday with Bemidji Township requires property taxes paid by annexed properties in 2013 to be paid to the township. It also stipulates that the city cannot initiate any annexation of Bemidji Township property until June 2018, unless a bordering property owner petitions to be annexed into the city.

The first phase of annexation was initiated in April 2012, bringing some Northern and Bemidji township properties into the city.

Hellquist said he talked with several people who were “integral” in the formation of the annexation and joint powers agreement who “literally begged to do what I could to make sure this agreement stayed intact and goes forward.”

“This was trotted out across the state and nationally as something to point to as a very cohesive, well-done agreement between townships and the city,” Hellquist said. “This was the first cohesive process that we’ve had on planning anywhere within this region. And that’s exceptional.”

Albrecht said avoiding going to court with Bemidji Township was important, not only in terms of potential costs but as well as allowing elected officials decide the outcome of the mediation.

“We’re all disappointed in this agreement that we have come to,” she said.

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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