Efforts to create city charters in two Washington County cities — both the product of riled citizens frustrated by the outcomes of local issues — have taken opposite turns in recent weeks.
In Cottage Grove, months of work came to a close recently when its Charter Commission voted 10-3 not to proceed with drafting a charter that sprang from the grass-roots efforts of those opposing the city’s new $15 million Public Safety/City Hall Building, completed last fall.
In Grant, meanwhile, a Charter Commission is being formed after its City Council voted 3-2 earlier in April to go ahead in response to a petition from residents — many of whom are still fuming over the city’s role in approving the site for the new Wildwood Elementary School, slated for completion June 1, along with other issues.
State law allows two types of city government: statutory cities and home-rule charter cities. Every city in Washington County except Stillwater is a statutory city, as are most cities in the state, following the framework laid out by law where mayors are part of city councils.
Other cities, including White Bear Lake, Minneapolis and St. Paul, opt for charters, which are essentially local constitutions that offer different options for how cities are governed, including the roles of mayors and city councils — but the parameters are also defined by state law.
“One thing I learned through this process, and that included talking to a lot of people from cities that have charters, is that a charter is not good or bad — it’s just different. It’s a different way of doing things,” said Tony Jurgens, who served as vice chairman of the Cottage Grove Charter Commission.
Supporters of the charter were clearly disappointed with the outcome, but Jurgens said there just wasn’t a public groundswell to change. “I got zero feedback,” he said. And, as the vote reflects, most on the panel felt there also was no identifiable problem with Cottage Grove’s governing structure that needed fixing.
Still, he said, it was a valuable conversation in the community to have with a group of engaged citizens. As things change with growth in Cottage Grove, the day might come when a charter is examined again.
That conversation is just getting started in Grant.
The charter effort is not a knee-jerk reaction to one particular issue, said Larry Lanoux, a community activist who is the main driving force behind it. The school issue lingers, but other actions by Mayor Tom Carr (whom Lanoux opposed in the last election) and the Grant City Council — including dissolving the city’s Planning Commission and placing restrictions on how people can comment at meetings — have pushed frustration to the boiling point for some residents.
“A charter offers a chance to bring some checks and balances to our city government, much like the House and Senate,” he said. “It creates citizen participation and pride in your community.”
As with Cottage Grove, some residents in Grant — which gave Lanoux 42 percent of the vote last fall — see the charter as a vehicle to correct what they see as problems. “Right now, our citizens have no voice,” Lanoux said.
A charter is not the political hammer some might think it is, said Orwin Carter, chairman of Stillwater’s Charter Commission. “You can’t overrule the city council,” he said. “It’s a constitution that you’re creating — not the Supreme Court.”
Stillwater has had a charter since 1987, and the system has run smoothly — in fact, the commission rarely meets more than once a year. “It’s because we’ve been at it for so long,” said Carter, who has often been consulted by other cities looking at charters.
Regardless of what type of local government, there is one inescapable bottom line: If citizens don’t like how their local elected officials are running things, the ballot box trumps all.
In Cottage Grove, incumbent Mayor Myron Bailey, a strong supporter of the Public Safety/City Hall Building and an opponent of the charter proposal, collected more votes in the 2012 election than his three opponents combined in a campaign where the building and charter plans were an issue. Incumbent Council Members Jen Peterson and Justin Olsen were similarly re-elected.
In a recent community survey, nearly 70 percent of residents also said they approve or strongly approve of the Cottage Grove City Council.
Incumbents in Afton also emerged unscathed after an intensive effort to create a charter — also sparked by frustrated residents — was defeated by voters in 2010 70 percent to 30 percent. Mayor Pat Snyder and City Council Member Peg Nolz ran unopposed, and Council Member Joe Richter was easily re-elected.