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County to take lead on verifying Cottage Grove charter petition

A Cottage Grove City Council member's complaint about the city scrutinizing a petition that could lead to big changes in city government triggered a significant change in how the petition will be validated.

Council member Derrick Lehrke had questioned the city's inspection of nearly 1,600 signatures collected by a group of residents who are seeking to create a home rule charter - essentially a municipal constitution - in Cottage Grove that they say would give citizens more of a voice in city governance.

The group, Cottage Grove Citizens Voice, submitted the petition to the Washington County District Court last month. The city of Cottage Grove started a time-consuming process of verifying the signatures to ensure they meet legal requirements, believing that no other entity would conduct a similar review.

Lehrke last week said city officials should not "pick apart" its validity and instead move forward with a charter-drafting process he said is inevitable. That drew objections from other council members who said the city had a responsibility to do "due diligence" with the petition.

Frustrated by the city's pledge to continue verifying the signatures, Lehrke triggered a series of discussions between city officials and county election workers that resulted in an agreement late Monday dramatically changing the verification process.

"It should really be in the county's hands," he said Tuesday.

The county plans to take on most of the work to verify that people who signed the petition are registered voters and Cottage Grove residents, but the city will continue verifying signatures on the petition to make sure that one voter did not sign multiple names, City Administrator Ryan Schroeder said Tuesday.

"We're shipping it to the county," Schroeder said, adding: "They have three people that do this somewhat regularly and they're good at it."

Kevin Corbid, Washington County's top election official, said when his office receives a copy of the petition from the city it will begin comparing names against a list of registered voters maintained by the secretary of state's office.

"We will move forward in checking the voter registration list because that's what we have access to," Corbid said.

The county is prepared to change the verification process if it is told to do so by the court, Corbid said.

Schroeder said the city would provide the petition materials to Corbid's office this week.

If the petition is approved, a Washington County judge will appoint a commission to create a charter that would go before voters in an up-or-down referendum. The commission could also vote to disband without forming a charter.

Lehrke said at a council meeting last Wednesday that city staff appeared to be unnecessarily slowing the process by checking the validity of each name on the list.

"I think the charter commission is going to happen whether the city gets in the way or not," said Lehrke, who signed the petition Nov. 11.

The city, he added, "should get out of the way."

Schroeder said the city clerk was one-fourth of the way through a review of the 1,580 names on the petition and had already identified issues with some signatures, including duplicates and what appear to be multiple names signed by the same individual.

Based on turnout in the last general election, a petition needs 1,350 valid signatures to be successful, according to state law.

Prior to the agreement reached this week, Schroeder said the city has a responsibility to verify the accuracy and validity of any petition it receives. If the city continued doing all of the verification work, it could have taken until March because staff cannot dedicate all of their time to the petition, he said.

Schroeder said the city initially took on the verification because neither the court nor the secretary of state's office said it would. The city had not contacted county election workers, he said.

That changed late last week after Lehrke said his wife, Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, talked with Corbid about the county's potential involvement. After that, Corbid talked with city staff, resulting in the new verification plan.

Lehrke said he is satisfied with the county taking over the voter verification, but questions how the city will determine whether one voter signed multiple signatures.

"How would you ever know that?" he said Tuesday.

When Lehrke initially complained of the city's involvement, other council members said they did not want to cut short the city's review of the petition.

"I think it's wise to do the due diligence," said council member Justin Olsen. City officials shouldn't rush the charter process, he said, after Lehrke had said he wanted to see the charter question on November's ballot.

After that meeting, however, Lehrke changed his position, saying in an interview he believed drawing up a quality charter should be the city's priority - not having a referendum ready in time for the fall's general election.

Mayor Myron Bailey, who has been a staunch opponent of the charter petition, questioned in an interview why Lehrke would want to speed the charter process after he complained the city rushed a $16 million city hall and public safety facility.

That project, scheduled to open in the fall, drew fierce criticism from the group now leading the effort to change Cottage Grove's governing structure.

"I expect the process to go forward," Bailey said. "But I think we need to vet the process out."

Leon Moe, the Cottage Grove resident who has spearheaded the charter city push, said the group compared the signatures against a state database before submitting the petition. He expressed confidence the petition will be certified but acknowledged there could be some errors on the lengthy list.

"I want it to be right, just like he does," Moe said, referring to Olsen.