Afton wrestles with charter issue

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2010 - 11:32 PM

Residents are split on changing how their government is organized; even members of the commission that drew up the document can't agree.

To understand the divide over a proposed city charter that goes before voters in Afton on Nov. 2, look no further than the panel that has spent nearly three years drawing up the document.

Jon Kingstad, an attorney who is chairman of the 10-member Charter Commission, sees the proposal as an opportunity to make an often-gridlocked local government more responsive and accountable to its citizens.

David West, an equally civic-minded former research ship captain who serves on the commission, sees a deeply flawed document that's essentially a solution in search of a problem. He is one of three Charter Commission members who opposed the document's final version.

At public meetings, on two competing websites and in personal conversations around town, voters are trying to sort through passionate arguments from both sides.

About 110 of the state's 850 cities are organized by charters -- essentially local constitutions. The rest are "statutory cities" that are organized under rules set by state law. There are advantages and disadvantages to each system.

For Kingstad, the impetus to come up with a new way to do things began in 2007, when the five-member Afton City Council bogged down in debate on funding a road project.

"The upshot is that the City Council ended up proposing a property tax increase of 38 percent -- it was a huge, huge increase all at once, just for this one road," he said. "We should have some kind of mechanism for calling people on this."

For Kingstad and supporters, it was one more frustrating example of City Council gridlock. A 3-2 majority would set policy one way, then a change in regimes would bring a 3-2 vote to undo the prior policy. On top of that, council members serve four years, and the mayor serves two years, leaving little recourse in breaking the deadlocks.

"The 3-2 votes do kind of perpetuate a sense of voting for somebody who promised to do one thing and then, once elected, doing exactly the opposite of what they promised to do," Kingstad said.

The charter would give voters a more direct say in decisions by making it easier to petition for or block ordinances and initiate referendums. It also creates a recall process for elected officials who break the law or commit malfeasance.

The Charter Commission voted 7-3 last July to approve the document, reflecting disagreement in the community.

"Their criticism forced us to take a hard look at we wanted to do, and it made for a stronger document," Kingstad said. "A robust debate is what we should be having. This is democracy in action."

West said he came to the Charter Commission with an open mind but became troubled by how the panel was being run. Meeting notices weren't announced, and minutes of most of the meetings this year haven't been recorded.

He said he and other opponents couldn't get a satisfactory answer to a basic question: "What are the problems that you think need fixing?"

If voters are dissatisfied with City Council members, they can be voted out, plain and simple, he said. "We say that's called American democracy."

Most significant to taxpayers, the proposed charter would require a 40 percent budget reserve based on a recommendation from the League of Minnesota Cities. The city would set aside 2 percent a year until that level is reached.

But West said the charter language is based on a misinterpretation. The city already had a 35 percent reserve in 2009, 35 percent in 2008 and 37 percent in 2007, according to budget documents. The charter also requires the city to set aside money for special elections, which West also said is a waste.

For a change this permanent and profound, West said, the charter must be airtight and based on consensus. "I honestly believe this thing is such a can of worms," he said.

Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999

  • FOR MORE INFORMATION

    Supporters and foes of the proposed Afton City Charter have created websites detailing their points of view.

    For: aftoncharter.org/

    Against: aftonnocharter.org/

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