City to revise its ‘ground rules’

Published 7:29 am Thursday, October 15, 2009

Did you know that Mayor Tom Stiehm is the head of the police department? Or that he can never vote during city council meetings, even in the case of a tie?

These are just two of many components of the Austin City Charter, which dates back to 1903, but they are two things that could change in coming months.

The local charter commission, whose members are appointed by a district judge, have been meeting for the past several years with the goal of revising the charter.

Email newsletter signup

And while their target date was this past spring, city administrator Jim Hurm said he’s fairly confident that they’ll be ready to go before city council before the year ends.

Hurm, who is not on the charter commission, said the idea behind potential changes is to modernize the document by making it shorter and more usable.

“It’s a huge job,” he said.

The old charter was more than 130 pages, but so far the commission has trimmed that down to around 40, Hurm said.

They’ve also looked at areas that might be better suited as city ordinances.

Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi is on the commission and said a lot has been done to clean out “antiques” from the charter, but now the focus is on bigger topics — like the questions regarding the role of the mayor.

“There are still some big issues to be worked out,” she said.

And despite Hurm’s optimism that the commission will be done this year, Amazi said she isn’t sure that goal will be attained because of the work that remains.

When the commission is finished, the revised charter will have to be approved unanimously by city council or it can go on the ballot as a referendum.

A ‘ground rules’ document

A city charter essentially lays out how a city is managed, said professor Judith Martin, who is director of the University of Minnesota’s Urban Studies Program.

“It kind of sets the ground rules,” she said.

Martin said that charters are the kind of documents that typically get ignored by citizens — they often focus on local ordinances instead — but added that cities would be wise to go through them every 10 or 15 years.

In most cases, cities look to revise rather than completely rewrite charters, Martin said.

And of the 107 chartered cities in Minnesota, many have made revisions over the years, according to statistics from the League of Minnesota Cities.

For instance, revised charters completely replaced older charters in Owatonna and Albert Lea in 1957 and 1994, respectively.

Austin’s present charter is in fact a revision of an earlier document, but that revision occurred in 1923, making it among the oldest operating charters in the state.

Mayor weighs in

While changes to the mayor position might have a bigger impact on future city leaders, Stiehm has still been interested in the charter discussion.

He said he thinks the mayor should remain the head of the police department because it provides accountability.

Stiehm, who worked in the Austin Police Department for 30 years before becoming mayor, said he hasn’t overridden police chief Paul Philipp once, but thinks the city’s leader should still be able to oversee the police.

As far as voting, Stiehm said he likes the idea of giving mayors a tie-breaker vote because it would allow council to go forward on issues.

But he doesn’t think the mayor should have a regular vote.

“It allows me and future mayors an opportunity to stand outside the fray,” he said.