Election-time candidate forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters's have a long, familiar tradition in Minnesota, but this year the Tonka Bay chapter ran into something new.

It was asked to pay a fee to hold a forum at Tonka Bay City Hall.

"We are all appalled," said Sue Dodson of Shorewood, the voter service coordinator for the South Tonka League of Women Voters, which serves Tonka Bay, Excelsior, Shorewood, Greenwood, Deephaven and Woodland.

After decades of sponsoring free public forums where candidates state their qualifications for office, explain their positions on issues and answer questions from the audience, a request to pay a $50 fee and a $300 damage deposit to use Tonka Bay City Hall came as an affront to the league's mission, Dodson said.

"This is troubling because as an organization at the local, state and national level our mission is to encourage citizens to be informed and active participants in the governmental process," Dodson said. "It makes it seem like the city government is putting obstacles in [the way of] easy access to their citizens to learn about candidates and be informed."

The Tonka Bay City Council adopted the fee policy in January to cover the costs of heat, cooling, electricity and cleanup for events.

First to pay the fee was the Republican Party for a caucus on Feb. 5. Council members voted unanimously to deny a request by the Republican Party to waive the fee.

The League also asked to be excused from the fee, arguing that the forum would be a benefit to residents. Council members said no by a 3-2 vote.

Mayor William LaBelle wanted to give the league free use of City Hall. "I think the League of Women Voters provides an invaluable service to the public," said LaBelle, who has participated in many league forums. "I wanted to encourage those efforts, and I thought we should waive the fee." Council Member Clayton Tessness sided with the mayor.

But the other three members stuck by the fee.

"The meeting hall is used by different organizations, and we are trying to recover some of the cost associated with that," said Council Member Ken Folley. "We did charge other groups, so we thought we should keep it the same and charge all groups."

When candidate filings closed on Tuesday of last week, Tonka Bay ended up having no contested elections this fall. Because the league does not conduct forums for candidates without challengers, the board will not be forced to look for another location this year.

But at a meeting of the league board last Wednesday, members remained concerned about the precedent of being asked to pay for a town meeting hall, Dodson said.

"My concern is that if the precedent is set that we are to pay Tonka Bay to provide this public service to their constituents, that the other cities we deal with will feel they should do this also," she said.

The South Tonka league, which has a budget of about $1,600 funded by donations from individuals and businesses, would not have the money to pay fees for every forum every two years, she said. Money is best spent on producing handouts, operating voter registration booths and getting publications out to the public, she said.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711