Cottage Grove city charter panel nearing key decisionCommission close to vote on whether to write charter
By: Scott Wente, South Washington County Bulletin
They’ve spent nearly a year learning and now they’re close to a decision.
After a methodical, months-long educational process, Cottage Grove Charter Commission members soon will decide whether to write a new governing document to put before voters in a referendum or to leave the city’s operating structure unchanged.
A charter essentially would serve as a city constitution and could include checks on big-ticket city spending and borrowing and other provisions intended to provide more citizen control that do not exist under the city’s current statutory structure.
The commission generally has been meeting monthly to learn about the charter process and to discuss proposals that were included in a citizen petition that last year triggered the formation of the commission. That petition was pushed by opponents of the new Cottage Grove City Hall and public safety building near Ravine Parkway.
Commission members decided last week that if they vote to write a proposed city charter, the document will place limitations on city spending, though they did not articulate what limits would be included and whether certain spending, such as for public safety, would be exempt from public referendums.
Still, that decision could affect future city building projects and perhaps is the key measure charter proponents want to see — the ability for voters to have a direct say in whether large projects go forward.
Commission members were unanimous in suggesting that be included in a charter.
“Otherwise it seems like a bit of a ‘Why bother?’ thing,” said commission member David Olson.
When a city council considers spending millions of dollars on a project, “maybe the voters should be able to say ‘no,’” added commission member Marie Skinner.
Leon Moe, who helped organize the citizen petition that created the charter commission, said a public referendum on major city issues and spending is important.
“In that any money the city gets must first be taken from the citizens who labor to earn it, is it not fitting to allow those citizens a vote on major issues, spending and bonding, etc.,” Moe told the Bulletin after the recent charter commission meeting. “A well-written charter would merely help provide some additional framework for honesty and accountability.”
Commissioner members also decided at their Jan. 31 meeting that if they write a charter, it will not include the right to recall elected officials, such as council members, because that process already is spelled out in state law. They also previously decided that if they write a charter they will not propose the city switch to a ward system for elections.
Later this month the commission will get an overview on city taxing and spending issues from Cottage Grove officials. In March, the commission could meet to take public input on the charter issue and then vote whether to proceed. Most commission members have not publicly indicated whether they support moving forward with the charter process.
Commission members said even if they vote against writing a proposed charter, they should not vote to disband the commission, which was appointed by a Washington County judge and is not directly associated with city government. Instead, they said that the commission could meet annually to decide whether to re-explore the charter issue.
The commission’s meetings are public but have not generated much public interest. Citizens rarely attend the meetings at Cottage Grove City Hall, nor do those who advocated for the charter process.