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Both sides in annexation fight claim victory after ruling

BEMIDJI — The ongoing conflict over annexation between the city of Bemidji and Bemidji Township is going to go on a little bit longer.

Arbitrator David Meyers issued a ruling Thursday in an effort to resolve whether a May 31 mediation agreement between the city and township was valid.

Meyers ruled all of the mediation agreement to be “in full force and effect” with the exception of the provision that would release Bemidji Township from the annexation agreement and joint powers agreement it signed in 2004 with the city and Northern Township.

However, the two sides took away vastly different interpretations from the decision based on different aspects of the now-validated agreement they felt operated in their favor.

Bemidji city officials said the ruling effectively blocks Bemidji Township’s attempt to leave the annexation agreement.

“Although there were a few minor points that the City will have to comply with, the core issue of whether or not Bemidji Township could get out of the OAA (Orderly Annexation Agreement) and the JPA (Joint Powers Agreement) has been decided,” City Manager John Chattin said in a statement Friday morning announcing Meyers’ decision.

James Thomson, the attorney representing the city, pointed out that the ruling would also force Bemidji Township to withdraw the lawsuit it had brought against the city. Thomson said when the lawsuit is dropped Bemidji Township would not receive any financial damages and would prevent more public money from being spent on the case.

John Steffenhagen, the attorney representing Bemidji Township, said the city had no reason to celebrate.

 “I am at a loss to figure out how the city could spin this as a victory,” he said. “It is, in no respects, any sort of victory for the city.”

Thomson had almost the exact same thought — just about the township.

“I’m not quite sure how they’re characterizing this as a win,” he said.

Steffenhagen disputed Thomson’s assertion that the township has to dismiss or withdraw its lawsuit as a result of the mediation agreement being validated. He said the township would continue to seek financial damages but the specific amount was yet to be determined. The township filed a general claim for damages in excess of $50,000, he said.  

In a post on its website, Bemidji Township also proclaimed victory in that the process of “detachment,” or the turning-over of land already annexed by the city back into the hands of the township, would go forward “over the city’s objection.”

“The Town Board is pleased that its position was upheld and looks forward to implementing these settlement terms,” the post said.

Steffenhagen also said the city was opposed to detachment but the ruling compelled them to do it anyway — a win for his side.

“Northern (Township) and the city now have absolutely no say and no (power of) objection to detachment going forward, the arbi-trator ruled against them,” Steffenhagen said.

Thomson responded to Steffenhagen’s claim that the city was opposed to detachment by saying “the city agreed in the settlement agreement to detach those properties.

“It only gets detached if the property owners want it to happen, and if they meet certain eligibility requirements,” he pointed out.

The mediation agreement itself states that the city and township have to agree on which properties are eligible to be detached, but once eligibility is determined and the property owner consents, the city cannot contest the detachment.

In addition, Steffenhagen saw victory in the fact annexation under the original OAA was delayed until 2018 in the validated media-tion agreement unless petitioned for by individual property owners.

“All it does is delay the eligibility date for annexations from 2015 to 2018,” Thomson said in response.

Arbitrator Meyers declined to comment on the ruling.