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Charter commission looks likely after county, city complete petition reviews

The push to remake Cottage Grove city government is set to advance after officials signed off on signatures in a petition to create a city charter commission.

Washington County's Department of Property Records and Taxpayer Services last week examined a citizen petition with nearly 2,000 signatures and concluded that it contained enough valid signatures to meet state requirements for the charter effort to move forward.

In a letter provided to the Bulletin, county elections official Kevin Corbid wrote last week to the city and Washington County District Court that county election workers found 1,609 valid signatures of registered Cottage Grove voters in the nearly 200-page petition.

The petition asks the court to appoint residents to a commission that would draw up a new governing document for the city that could go before voters in a referendum; a Washington County judge is expected to appoint 7 to 15 residents who submitted applications to the court to the commission.

"The fact [Washington County] got it done is good," said Mayor Myron Bailey, who has said he is opposed to creating a city charter. "We can get the process moving."

The petition drive's organizers launched the effort after they unsuccessfully opposed the city's plans to build a $16 million new city hall and public safety facility that is currently under construction. They had estimated they gathered roughly 1,580 valid signatures following a self-review of the petition.

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

A city charter could lay out stricter parameters for governing the city, including measures like requiring a referendum on all large expenditures or giving the voters the ability to recall elected officials. Currently, Cottage Grove -- like most municipalities in the state -- is a statutory city, meaning it follows and derives is power to govern from state statute.

City officials had turned over review of the petition to Washington County early last week at the urging of City Council member Derrick Lehrke -- who signed the petition and said he supports exploring a city charter -- and his wife, Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who requested that the county assume responsibility for checking the veracity of the signatures.

The Cottage Grove City Council is set to certify the petition Wednesday. City Administrator Ryan Schroeder said it isn't clear yet when Washington County District Court Judge John Hoffman will appoint a commission.

Schroeder said the city has nearly completed its review of the petition that looked for inaccuracies like multiple signatures signed by one person, something that isn't legal according to state law.

"Some of that occurred but it wasn't in significant numbers," Schroeder said.