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BDA proposes "sober permit" for downtown parking rules; Council to discuss exemption to controversial regulations Monday

BEMIDJI -- After months of controversy, the Bemidji City Council will consider a proposal Monday that loosens parking restrictions many fear would encourage drunk driving.

The dust-up started this spring when the Bemidji Downtown Alliance and the Bemidji Police Department instituted new regulations wherein un-permitted cars parked overnight in downtown public lots could be ticketed. Before, the parking ban only extended to cars that parked for several hours at a time without a permit.

At multiple council meetings, downtown bartenders used the public comment period to talk about their concern the regulations would spur people to drive drunk.

"I feel like if (bar patrons) go out there and they get a ticket, or if they're we're worried they're going to to get towed, they're not going to use reason. At 1:45, you're going to see waters all around the bar; people trying to sober up in 15 minutes, trying to drive home," one bar employee told the council. "I think we're just asking for DUIs with this new parking ordinance."

In a June 11 letter to the council, BDA President Mike Headlee recommended implementing "on a trial basis" a plan that would allow local bars to provide permits to customers that parked overnight in a city lot rather than driving drunk.

The "Safe Choice" plan is the brainchild of Mitch Rautio, BDA member and owner of downtown pub Keg n' Cork, the letter said. The BDA will sell permits to downtown bars for $5 each, which the bars can then distribute to patrons to put on their cars. However, each bar can only get six permits a month, the letter said, in order to "minimize the potential for abusing the permits."

Headlee's letter cautioned that the plan could be changed.

"The BDA is in support of the proposed Safe Choice parking program and recommends it be implemented on a trial basis with the the understanding that adjustments may be made as needed," the letter read.

The City Council will consider the program at a work session in the City Hall conference room at 5:30 p.m.


Also at Monday's meeting, the city will also tackle the ongoing annexation fight with Bemidji Township. The council is scheduled to review a list of annexation properties chosen by City Engineer Craig Gray for "detachment", or turnover of jurisdiction back to Bemidji Township. As part of a mediated settlement in 2013, the city agreed to give some properties back as long as they were not served by city utility lines and they requested to return to the township.

In a memo to the council, Gray said the city had received a list from the township's attorney, John Steffenhagen, of 136 properties whose owners wished to go back to the township. Gray said all of these were eligible for detachment except for two that have access to a city water main. There are an additional 29 properties eligible but they have not sent in a request, he said.

The agenda released last week said the city's attorney in the case, Jim Thomson, "will be available via conference call at the work session." The council may try to close that portion of the meeting to the public, as certain discussions between city governments and outside attorneys are considered exempt from Minnesota's open meeting law.

Sanford Center

The city also will consider possibly revising its contract with VenuWorks, an Iowa-based company that operates the Sanford Center. City Manager John Chattin said in a memo to the council that although the city had considered terminating its contract with VenuWorks due to mismanagement in the past, executive director Curtis Webb has turned the center around and VenuWorks' contract with the city should continue.

"With the hiring of Curtis Webb in January 2013, I believe all agree that the leadership and performance issues have essentially disappeared," he said. "I would recommend that the City continue to engage VenuWorks for the operation of the Sanford Center. However, I would also recommend that we renegotiate our contract to eliminate some of the potential liabilities contained therein and shorten the term of any new contract to provide more flexibility to the City."

Contacted Friday, Chattin said there was a financial reason behind his recommendation.

"It's just potential obligations where we could owe them more money based on performance and some other criteria that they haven't necessarily exercised to date," he said.

Chattin declined to elaborate, saying further details were sensitive as part of the negotiating process.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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