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Annexation talks break down

BEMIDJI --- Representatives of the city of Bemidji as well as from Bemidji and Northern Townships met Monday at Bemidji Town Hall in Bemidji Township to talk about joint planning and annexation, but the discussion quickly devolved into an argument.

At one point, Northern Township officials threatened to walk out of the talk that was supposed to help resolve issues related to the Orderly Annexation Agreement (OAA) and Joint Powers Agreement (JPA), signed by the three parties in 2004. The discussion ended when the Bemidji City Council actually did walk out an hour after talks started at about 5:30 p.m. They did so in part because they had their own regular meeting scheduled for 7 p.m, but also because in the words of Council Member Roger Hellquist, “we’ve heard enough of the circular discussion.”

Bemidji Township and the city of Bemidji have been locked in a legal battle since Bemidji Township sued the city in August 2012, claiming it had violated the terms of the OAA.

Surprisingly, most of the fireworks at Monday’s meeting were between Northern and Bemidji Township officials as Bemidji city councilors watched. The key argument was whether the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, which was formed via the JPA should be scrapped entirely and replaced by something new, as Bemidji Township put forward at the meeting, or if changes should be hammered out within the existing framework under the OAA and JPA, as Northern and the city favor. Both Northern and city officials called dissolving the planning board a “nuclear option.”

Jan Heuer, chair of the Bemidji Town Board, opened by saying the township had an issue with inadequate representation on the board. Bemidji and Northern Townships each have two representatives on the board, while the city has four.

“Two, two and four is not equal,” she said. “The representation of two townships equals the representation of one city.”

Northern Township representatives responded by saying although the planning board isn’t perfect, it had achieved results. The number of representatives each government gets was agreed upon between the three of them when the OAA and JPA were signed, said Mike Kelly, chairman of the Northern Town Board.

“It may not work perfectly for everyone, but over the last 10 years, it’s accomplished a great deal,” he said.“As far as equal representation, that representation… was agreeable to previous boards.”

Kelly said he feels the lawsuit and Bemidji Township’s desire to dissolve the board are selfish and juvenile. If Bemidji Township were to somehow leave the planning board, it would mean the city and Northern Township would pay more money in order to make up for Bemidji Township’s stake in keeping the board going

“We just don’t get to take our ball and go home,” Kelly said.

Kelly eventually became fed up with the stalled talks.

“This discussion is not working,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s frustration with the lack of progress at the meeting was shared by Bemidji City Council member Michael Meehlhause.

“We still have a chance to be adults in this room and come together like civilized people and work through our problems,” he said. “It’s really frustrating to sit back here and listen to all this arguing.”

Meehlhause suggested Bemidji Township submit a specific list of things it wanted changed within the annexation agreement.

The meeting was brought to a close when Mayor Rita Albrecht said the city was done.

“I think the city of Bemidji is not seeing anything that is going to be changed... if we sit here for another 10 hours,” she said. “Since we have a meeting to go to, I think we’re ready to go.”