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Lehrke says city should stop review of Cottage Grove charter petition signatures

A Cottage Grove City Council member on Wednesday called on the city to halt its scrutiny of a petition that could lead to big changes in how the city is governed, saying officials should not "pick apart" its validity and move forward with a process he called inevitable.

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

The group submitted the petition to the Washington County District Court last month; the city of Cottage Grove is now responsible for vetting the list of names to ensure it meets legal requirements.

Once 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, who said he signed the petition and supports exploring the possibility of a city charter, said at a council meeting Wednesday that officials appear to be unnecessarily slowing the process by checking the validity of each name on the list and challenging an effort he said will ultimately be successful.

"I think the charter commission is going to happen whether the city gets in the way or not," Lehrke said Wednesday. He added the city "should get out of the way."

City doing 'due diligence'

City Administrator Ryan Schroeder said the city clerk is one-fourth of the way through the 1,580 names and has 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 statute.

Schroeder said he doesn't expect the city to complete its review before March. The process of comparing each name to lists of registered voters and city residents, he said, will take 160 hours of work.

Other council members didn't express a willingness to cut short the city's review of the petition, saying the city should confirm the legality of the petition by vetting the pages-long list of signatures.

"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 the meeting, however, Lehrke said 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.

Leon Moe, the Cottage Grove resident who has spearheaded the charter city push, said the group compared the signatures it collected against a state database of registered voters before submitting the petition to the court.

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's comments in support of the city clerk's examination of the nearly 1,600 signatures.

But, Moe said, he believes city officials are moving too slow in inspecting the list.