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CITY GOVERNMENT: Council discusses appointment powers

BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council on Monday discussed a possible rule change that may limit its power to appoint replacements when spots on the council are vacated.

Currently, the City Council can appoint a replacement to fill a council spot -- no matter how much time is remaining on the vacating person's term -- as long as they do it within 30 days.

The amendment to the city's charter would limit their power of appointment to only when there is less than a year remaining on the term.

If the replacement would serve a year or more, a special election would automatically be triggered. The charter amendment requires it be held within 120 days of the vacancy.

The Charter Commission began discussing the change last year, after Reed Olson was appointed to serve the remaining two years of Rita Albrecht's council term when she was elected mayor. The means by which Olson assumed office raised eyebrows both on the Charter Commission and on the City Council.

"This wasn't the intent of the charter," Council Member Nancy Erickson said at the council's meeting to appoint Olson. "The intent was to fill this slot through (appointment) if it were just a few months, but not two years."

Speaking on behalf of the Charter Commission during Monday's meeting, member Chuck Stombaugh said some of his fellow commissioners felt the same.

"People felt there should have been an election on this one," Stombaugh said.

City Council members seemed mostly in agreement with the measure Monday, although they quibbled with some of the details.

Erickson wanted to eliminate the need to officially declare the vacancy, saying the time that passes when between a vacancy effectively occurs -- as when a council member passes away or resigns -- and when a vacancy is officially declared could mean the difference between having a special election or an appointment based on the year threshold.

Charter Commission member Michael Meuers said the City Council could hypothetically manipulate the time requirement when they declared a vacancy by deliberately timing their declaration to prevent or trigger a special election.

"There could be political skulduggery," he said.

The amendment will now go back to the Charter Commission so they can revise it and resubmit it to the council.

Mayoral term to four years?

Stombaugh also raised the informal idea of changing the term length for mayor from two to four years. Based on his research on Minnesotan cities similar to Bemidji, a two-year mayoral term was relatively uncommon, and moving to four-year term would lead to more consistency in city government, Stombaugh said.

Erickson said moving to a four year-term would eliminate voters' ability to change the majority makeup of the council.

Albrecht herself was against the idea, saying consistency in city government comes from the non-elected City Manager job.

"I think it's important to have accountability to the people," she said of the mayor's position.