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Speakers split on Cottage Grove charter effort as vote nears

After more than a year of debate regarding a petition urging the city of Cottage Grove to relinquish its statutory form of government for a home-rule charter, a decision is expected at the end of the month.

Residents unsuccessful in their efforts to force a citywide vote on financing for the nearly $15 million city hall and public safety building collected more than 1,600 signatures asking for the city to change its governing framework.

The petition forced the formation of the 15-member Cottage Grove Charter Commission.

The commission devoted its entire monthly meeting last week to public comment regarding the issue of drafting a charter. Commission members got mixed opinions from the public.

Resident Leon Moe, part of the group spearheading the effort for a city charter, asked commission members why there was opposition to a check and balance form of government.

"As citizens, we are qualified to vote how the city government spends its money," Moe said. "I'm disappointed that this commission is going to decide for the citizens. I find it disheartening. I think that the citizens should be allowed to decide what is going to happen in the city, not 15 members of a commission."

Commission Chairwoman Karla Bigham reiterated the commission's mission, which is to "deliver a report determining a home-rule charter is not necessary or that the draft of a proposed charter, signed by the majority of its members is recommended."

Also speaking on behalf of the proposed charter was Cottage Grove resident Beverly Moreland, who collected nearly 600 of the petition signatures.

"I talked to a lot of citizens here and they all want the option to be able to get (the charter) and take some control away from city hall and give it back to the people," she said. "I don't understand the hesitancy to draft the petition."

Moreland, who also voiced her support of a ward system for city elections, said residents were not being represented fairly when it comes to development and remodeling.

"It seems like people (across Highway 61), where I live, is the part of town that doesn't get anything," she said. "It's like the slum side and (the residents) are concerned. That's why I think a ward system would work."

Speaking in opposition to the proposed charter, Cottage Grove residents Gordon Nelson and Majel Carroll said they felt they have been well represented and that a charter would slow city progress.

"I don't even feel as though my voice wasn't heard and I don't want to see that changed," said Carroll, who leads the Stone Soup Thrift Shop in St. Paul Park.

"We can be proud of our city and I just hope that we don't change what good we have now," Nelson added.

The city operates under a statutory form of governing, which is one that derives its power from and follows state statute. If the commission were to recommend a charter form of government be considered, the city would be governed by a municipal constitution created by a committee of residents and voted on at a referendum.

Since being assigned the study, the commission met with the League of Minnesota Cities to become more familiar with the statutory versus charter city language, a learning experience that Bigham said was an opportunity appreciated.

During the process, the commission also voted to, if a charter was to be chosen, forego splitting the city into a ward system and require a referendum to pass the drafted charter.

If the commission finds that a charter is necessary and voters approve it, the city of Cottage Grove would become the 108th municipality in the state of Minnesota to be governed by a home-rule charter.

The commission is expected to vote at its upcoming meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25.