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City Council approves mediation agreement


BEMIDJI — The Bemidji City Council voted to approve a mediated settlement agreement with Bemidji Township on Monday night, one week after rejecting the same agreement.

The mediation agreement allows Bemidji Township to leave the orderly annexation and joint powers agreements that the city, as well as Bemidji and Northern townships adopted in 2004.

The council voted last week against the agreement 5-2, with two councilors voting against the agreement they signed just days before on May 31.

Those councilors, Jim Thompson and Reed Olson, voted to approve the agreement Monday after the council met in a closed session with legal counsel for about an hour. Mayor Rita Albrecht and Michael Meehlhause also voted to approve the agreement Monday.

Three councilors — Roger Hellquist, Ron Johnson and Nancy Erickson —voted against the agreement Monday, resulting in the 4-3 vote.

“I could have stood by my vote on (June 3), and it would have ended up costing the city a lot of money at the end of the day. That’s my true belief,” Olson said. “If I could do everything over again, it would be completely different. But I can’t.”

Bemidji Township is expected to approve the agreement tonight. Tuesday  

Northern Township doesn’t have a vote in the mediated agreement itself, but has a say in amending the joint powers and annexation agreements.

Northern Township board supervisors discussed the situation Monday night in a regular meeting, before knowing what the city council had decided.

“I do not want to throw this whole thing away,” said board chairman Mike Kelly said. “I want to be able to continue to keep the door open and the discussion flowing between all the parties.

“I would hope there could be some resolution so this could stay intact. It doesn’t appear that that is the situation.”

Kelly acknowledged a variety of options available to Northern Township, from doing nothing and working with the city to enforce the annexation and joint powers agreements, to asking for modifications to the annexation agreement, to asking for detachment similar to what Bemidji Township has requested.

Another situation could arise if Bemidji Township leaves the JPB. Without that township, the Joint Planning Board solely would consist of the city and Northern Township, if they were to opt to continue in such an arrangement.

Kelly said Northern Township would have to examine the financial ramifications of such a scenario.

Another option would be to dissolve the JPB completely.

“If that happens, then Northern Township is going to have to hire a (zoning administrator) again,” said Clark Chambers, Northern Township supervisor.

Previously, Mel Milender served as the zoning administrator for both Bemidji and Northern townships, and the city of Bemidji had its own city planner and planning department.

But as Milender was hired as the JPB’s first planning administrator, the townships eliminated their own zoning positions and the city eventually suspended its planning department.

“There isn’t a clear path for us here,” Kelly said, when listing out an array of possible scenarios. “There’s a lot of things to be taken into consideration.”

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

Meehlhause, Ward 1 councilor, said he isn’t necessarily a fan of the mediation agreement.

“But again that’s the point of mediation, is you come out with something that neither side really likes,” Meehlhause said.

Bemidji Township sued the city in August, claiming it had repeatedly breached the terms of the annexation agreement. The city has denied those claims.

The first phase of annexation was initiated in April 2012, and approved by an administrative law judge in May 2012. That brought some Northern and Bemidji township properties into the city.

The township’s attorney John Steffenhagen called Monday night’s vote a “positive development.” The city’s attorney in the matter Jim Thomson wasn’t available Monday night.