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Commission rejects charter for Cottage Grove

More than a year of in-depth study concluded last Thursday when the Cottage Grove Charter Commission voted 10-3 that drafting a city charter was both unnecessary and not desired.

In just over an hour, commission members offered their opinions of the proposed governance change from a statutory form of governing, which is one that derives its power from and follows state statute, to a home-rule charter. The majority of commission members said there was not an overwhelming compelling reason to draft a charter.

"I'm not convinced that there is a glaring problem in Cottage Grove that would be fixed with the adoption of a charter," commission vice-chair Tony Jurgens said. "Rather than change the form of government, address the problem or perceived problem instead."

The commission was formed last year after a citizens activist group that opposed the construction of the nearly $15 million city hall and public safety complex collected more than 1,600 signatures, forcing the formation of the judge-appointed commission.

During the yearlong study, the commission tackled issues such as dividing Cottage Grove into wards for city elections, an idea that was rejected early on, and they also decided they would not propose a recall process had the charter gone forward. They did support imposing limitations on some city spending had the charter advanced.

The group enlisted the help of several communities that govern under a home-rule charter for more information and performed its due diligence, commission chair Karla Bigham said.

Spearheading the effort in favor of a city charter was Cottage Grove resident Leon Moe, who said the commission's vote was frustrating and unfair.

"Is the power with city hall or is it with the people?" Moe asked in an interview. "I don't think the city is totally broken but there are some things that need to be fixed. But, I don't think that denying the drafting of a charter was in the best interest of the community."

The three dissenting voters -- Dale Andrews, Michael Edman, and Peter Staloch - addressed the question of the commission's power and debated whether killing the proposal at that level instead of bringing a draft to Cottage Grove voters in a referendum to let them decide was the best use of the commission's authority.

"I wanted to draft a charter from the beginning," Edman said. "I signed up on the premise that I would be drafting one and get to the end to see what we've got to see what's worth solidifying on a ballot. But, we haven't approached it that way. I think people should have the right to vote."

The task of the commission, according to Washington County Judge John C. Hoffman, who appointed the 15 commission members, was to deliver a clear report that a state home-rule charter is not necessary or desired, or present a draft of a proposed charter, a description Bigham honed in on during the duration of the study.

"I think (the city) is fiscally efficient and effective at addressing issues that come up," she said. "With that being said, the 1,600 residents that signed the petition so that we have this conversation should not and have not gone unnoticed."

In an effort to keep meetings transparent and open to as many interested citizens as possible, the commission moved their meeting space from the Public Works Department's breakroom to the new city hall. However, Jurgens said attendance dwindled and citizens did not reach out to him for conversation.

"With the exception of some emails from one of the originators of the petition, I have received absolutely zero public feedback to me directly," Jurgens said. "Some might think that having a charter is a magic bullet that will make everything better. Home-rule charter might be better. But, it might be worse."

Andrews objected.

"Just because people aren't showing up doesn't mean they are not participating," she said.

Commission member Chris Reese said he felt the citizens had moved on from the idea and that drafting a charter now, which would take a substantial amount of additional time, only to give it to the citizens several years later was not an option.

"Is it broken?" Reese asked the commission. "There are better ways to address concerns and things can always be improved, but the situation is not broken. Quite frankly, I don't want to make changes to something that doesn't need to be fixed."

The resolution stating that a home-rule charter was not necessary or desired will be submitted to the judge and the City Council, Bigham said, and a final report regarding the commission's actions will be compiled at its last meeting on Nov. 21.

The commission is expected to disband following the fall meeting.

"The battle may be lost, but the war is not over," Moe said.