A Willmar group’s effort to remove a veteran member of the City Council failed this month when the city attorney determined that its petition was invalid.
Door-knocking for two months, the Recall Ron group had collected nearly 900 signatures against Council Member Ron Christianson, hoping to trigger a special election.
But City Attorney Robert Scott determined that the petition’s arguments fell short.
In an Aug. 7 letter, Scott said that the Minnesota Constitution sets “a high bar to clear for citizens attempting to recall a sitting officeholder” — so high that such officials can only be removed from office “for official conduct that is ‘wholly illegal and wrongful.’ ”
This petition, Scott concluded, “does not pass this high bar because it does not allege facts that, if true, would constitute malfeasance or nonfeasance in Mr. Christianson’s performance of his duties in office.”
In an e-mail last week, Christianson encouraged Willmar residents to read Scott’s response and thanked the many people who have supported him.
“The attempt to remove me from office by recall was a misuse of the provisions of our city charter,” Christianson said. “While the story provided a lot of radio airtime and newspaper print, the collateral damage can’t begin to be estimated.”
The Recall Ron Committee, meanwhile, is “incredibly disappointed by the city attorney’s ruling,” said Julie Asmus, its vice chair.
But the group will not appeal. “We have no desire to file a lawsuit against our own city,” the committee said in a statement, “which is what an appeal would mean.”
The group had argued that Christianson was at the heart of a dysfunctional council, focusing on his vote for a surprise separation agreement with the former city administrator, Charlene Stevens. That decision, approved by the majority of the council in March, will likely cost the city about $148,000, including a payment worth six months of Stevens’ salary. It also generated criticism from Stevens’ supporters, who packed the council chambers and begged to know the majority’s reasoning.
Christianson, who was re-elected in 2014 for a sixth term, said in June that the recall campaign was “strictly political” and predicted that the city attorney would conclude that the petition was invalid.
The city charter requires the city attorney to determine whether a petition is valid before considering whether it obtained the number of signatures required to bring about a special election. The Recall Ron Committee had celebrated filing its petition in time and with signatures of more than a quarter of the registered voters in Christianson’s Ward 2.
But Scott began his decision against the petition by quickly dismissing the group’s argument that Christianson ought to be removed because he “violated the law” — driving around a Fire Department barricade. That action, even if true, bears “no relation to his official duties as a City Council member,” Scott wrote.
Scott argued that the group’s allegations about Christianson opposing a housing project for personal gain, “even if true, do not amount to malfeasance or nonfeasance …”
The petition also dug into the council’s decision on Stevens, alleging that Christianson “violated the trust of the citizens of Willmar by bypassing accepted procedures …”
But the council had the authority to approve the separation agreement, Scott said. “These allegations are most properly viewed as criticism of Mr. Christianson’s policy decisions,” not of any wrongful or illegal actions.