Bulletin editorial: Charter change is unnecessaryResidents who are generally satisfied with city government ought to think strongly before backing a charter-city effort.
By: Staff, South Washington County Bulletin
The city of Cottage Grove this week begins construction on a long-planned and well-vetted city hall and public safety building.
In a related development, some Cottage Grove residents are working to dismantle the city’s governing structure and replace it with an alternative system of governance. The group wants Cottage Grove to be a home-rule charter city – guided by a municipal constitution of sorts – instead of continuing to be among the large majority of cities whose governance is derived from state law.
That change would be far more than merely technical. It could involve work by a district court judge; efforts from community leaders to draft a city charter; a citywide election on whether to adopt a charter; the creation of a new volunteer commission; and a cost to taxpayers that, while perhaps not exorbitant, is hard to quantify this early in the process.
Switching to a charter city also is entirely unnecessary.
A group of residents has been collecting signatures on a petition that could trigger the formation of a citizen commission to draft a proposed city charter. Proponents argue that it would give local voters more sway over city operations.
The charter-city effort appears to be fueled largely by frustration over the decision by four of five City Council members to build the $15.7 million government center. Those pushing for the change have been vocal in their opposition to the project over the past year. However, their ranks do not appear to have swelled, at least publicly, even after numerous public meetings on the project, so it does not seem accurate to conclude that a large bloc of Cottage Grove residents joins them in strong opposition to the project or to current city leadership in general.
Still, the petition effort should not be dismissed. Organizers need only roughly 1,300 signatures to trigger the charter process. That’s an attainable threshold.
Among priorities for charter proponents is a limit on how much the city can spend before an expense must go before voters. A $1 million cap was suggested. That could prompt City Council members to need approval for a public works project, for example, from the very people who for decades – generations even – have elected them to make those decisions.
A charter also could be written to split up the city and its elections into wards. It’s hard to argue that would serve Cottage Grove better than the current at-large elections. The ability to recall elected officials also could be made available through a home-rule charter.
Charter cities, while not rare, are not the norm. Minnesota has 107 charter cities, but more than 700 other cities share Cottage Grove’s statutory status. A home-rule charter may work well for some communities, but it is difficult to believe that Cottage Grove’s form of government is in such a flawed state and is so unresponsive to its residents that it should be entirely revamped.
Residents who are generally satisfied with city government ought to think strongly before backing a charter-city effort. And for those who are unhappy with the decision by City Council members on one, albeit major, municipal project, there is a more appropriate solution: cast your ballot for someone else in the next election.