A Washington County judge is seating a charter commission for Cottage Grove at the behest of some citizens who want a local constitution -- along with the authority to recall elected officials and make other important decisions for the city.

Group members -- some of whom recently protested city decisions on financing a new city hall and public safety building -- say they have more than 1,800 signatures of city voters, well above the 1,335 required. The signatures must now be verified by county election workers to ensure they are eligible voters in the city.

They want John C. Hoffman, chief judge of the 10th Judicial District, to appoint a commission and have submitted applications from some who want to be members. The city is urging other interested residents to apply, too.

"A charter doesn't necessarily take away power from anybody," said Diana Longrie, an attorney and the former Maplewood mayor who is representing the petitioners.

"It empowers citizens to be more engaged in the creation of public policy in their local community. And so it also, then, gives more rights and authority to the citizens."

Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey says the city doesn't need a charter but that he will carry out constituents' wishes.

The petitioners want voters to be able to elect City Council members through a ward system, initiate new laws and ordinances, limit city bonding, set referendums, and to recall officials.

Longrie said a charter shouldn't be seen as a layer of bureaucracy.

"The City Council still operates as a city council," she said. "But you see, a city council under a charter could actually be given more authority than what they may currently have. Or the charter commission may do something different."

Petitioners want the judge to appoint 11 commissioners to write the charter and recommend whether the city should have one. If so, the City Council must then set an election to determine whether voters want that charter to rule the city.

If the commissioners decide early in the year, a special election may be needed at a cost of roughly $30,000 to meet legal time requirements, City Administrator Ryan Schroeder said. If the commission decides nearer November, voters would decide in the general election, he said.

Unhappy about new building

Longrie said Cottage Grove residents want more "transparency" in city government.

They point to the council's decision to change the financing of the new $15 million city hall and public safety building, and to not hold a referendum.

Schroeder said the city has held about 35 public meetings on the project and published details on the city website. He said the council chose to use cash to build the facility as the least-expensive option and under law cannot hold a referendum for such spending.

Property taxes would not increase because cash reserves are being used, he said.

The 67,000-square-foot structure has been under construction since last fall.

In July, local protesters marched into a council meeting, toting placards and urging "more economical" ways to give the cramped public safety department more space.

The current building was built in 1968, and the city has outgrown it, Schroeder said.

"We have people working out of closets now, but more importantly, our police department is woefully lacking in systems from a building facility standpoint," he said. "Some of their systems, such as evidence storage, are just wholly inadequate."

Public safety vehicles with temperature-sensitive electronic gear must be stored in a heated garage. The new garage will hold 40 vehicles, compared to 22 spaces now.

It's less expensive to build a police department and city hall together, rather than one after the other, he added.

Schroeder also is suggesting that once the new building is built, the city could use the old one as an incubator for new businesses.

Those entrepreneurs would pay less than building leases typically cost, with the understanding that they'll pay the property taxes and later, build in Cottage Grove, he said.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038