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City critics seek to change Cottage Grove's form of government

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government Cottage Grove, 55016
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

A group of Cottage Grove residents, rebuffed in their efforts to force a citywide vote on financing for the city's new municipal complex, now has set its sights on abandoning the city's current form of government.

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Resident Leon Moe, part of the group that has outspokenly opposed the soon-to-be built, multi-million dollar city hall and public safety building, is spearheading an effort to retool the city's legal governing framework. They want to transform Cottage Grove from a statutory city -- one that derives its power from and follows state statute -- to a home-rule charter city -- essentially, a city governed by a municipal constitution drawn up by a committee of residents and then voted on in a referendum.

"What the charter does is place more control in the hands of voters," Moe said. "I don't think we're seeing that right now."

In Minnesota, a home-rule charter governs 107 municipalities. More than 700 are classified as statutory cities.

It's a move that could offer Cottage Grove voters a more direct voice in city government, Moe said, by placing limits on expenditures, borrowing, and forcing public votes on some issues.

However, some officials said it could also make the city a more difficult place to govern.

"It has the potential to be more difficult," City Administrator Ryan Schroeder said. Schroeder has previously worked in a pair of cities under home-rule, Robbinsdale and Ramsey. "It does not have the potential to be less difficult, in my opinion."

Moe and his group -- Cottage Grove Citizens Voice -- are working to gather signatures on a petition that would compel the city to form a charter commission comprised of members appointed by a district court judge. That committee would draw up a charter that citizens would then vote on in a special election.

Charter city merits debated

If passed, the city can exercise only those powers laid out in its charter, so long as those powers don't contradict state statute.

"I think once the local citizens realize the difference between a charter city and what we've been doing for years," Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said, "my feeling is they'll say no. I think they'll believe there isn't a need."

The aim, Moe said recently, is to establish a city government "that's more accountable to the citizens," something he said isn't happening with the current City Council.

On its website -- cgcitizensvoice.com -- the group has laid out its goals for a city charter that includes caps on city borrowing and debt, forces referendums on large city expenditures and offers the ability to recall local officials.

Charter petition organizers claim the city is not listening to the public. As of Monday, their website included a reference comparing Cottage Grove's two-minute-per-person time limit during open forums at City Council meetings to measures taken to cut down citizen opposition in Nazi Germany.

Any expenditures over $1 million should trigger a citywide vote, Moe said.

But that, said city officials interviewed, could make it onerous to react to unforeseen problems or make it difficult to purchase items like new fire trucks or complete road maintenance -- both items that routinely cost more than $1 million.

Bailey said he believes the effort to turn the city into one governed by a home-rule charter can be traced directly to the estimated $16 million city hall/public safety facility. He called the switch unnecessary, saying the city already operates in a fiscally conservative manner.

"We do have representative government," he said. "And if someone doesn't like what's being done ... they can vote them out of office in the next election cycle."

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