Clennon responds to criticism regarding her stance on charter

Published 10:53 am Tuesday, January 5, 2010

City councilwoman Marian Clennon on Monday responded to criticism she’s received for not supporting proposed changes to Austin’s charter, saying council wasn’t kept involved.

Clennon and councilman John Martin both expressed concerns over proposed changes during a Dec. 21 meeting, leading to some heated debate between council and the Austin Charter Commission, especially between Martin and Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi, who is on the commission.

At one point during that meeting, Amazi asked Martin if he wanted his city jail back — a reference to an archaic part of the charter and a reason for the proposed changes, the sheriff said.

But Martin responded with criticisms regarding the jail and justice center being built downtown, setting off a round of discussion.

“He has no idea what he’s even opposing,” Amazi said a day later.

Failing to get unanimous council support, Amazi said the commission will now likely put the proposed changes on the ballot during next year’s general election.

Clennon has said she opposes the idea of having city job descriptions in various ordinances, rather than in the charter. The councilwoman said having them in the charter makes them harder to change, which she sees as a good thing.

However, Clennon said she wasn’t afforded enough opportunities to work with the commission on her concerns. She said there were only two joint meetings between the council and the commission, the first coming Nov. 30.

But the charter commission did meet often during the nearly two years it spent tweaking the document — 24 times by Mayor Tom Stiehm’s count — and these meetings were all open, the mayor said.

Stiehm said other councilmembers attended several charter commission meetings and Clennon could have done the same. Instead, the mayor claims that Clennon and Martin formed uninformed decisions without anyone else knowing.

“This came right out of the blue,” Stiehm said.

Clennon said she received advice from the League of Minnesota Cities that she couldn’t, as a councilmember, comment at these meetings unless they were officially declared as joint meetings. Doing that would be a violation of state open meeting law, Clennon claimed.

Austin city attorney David Hoversten offered contrasting legal advice Monday, saying such meetings wouldn’t have to be declared as joint meetings because the commission was never under obligation to take public comment at them. Instead, commission members decided if they wanted to take outside advice or not, including from councilmembers that happened to be present.

“So, it is not a deliberative joint exercise,” Hoversten said.

Commission members have been pushing to trim-down and update the 87-year-old document in an effort to make it more user-friendly.

They have also proposed several substantive changes, including a recommendation that the term for mayor and councilmember at-large be bumped from two to four years. Commission members also want to allow the mayor to vote if the council reaches a tie vote, something the mayor can’t do currently.

Clennon said she stands by her decision to oppose the changes, but noted that she understands the citizens of Austin may choose to enact them, which could happen in November if the issue makes the ballot.

“If the citizens want to make a decision (regarding the charter), that’s their choice,” Clennon said. “I just hope they’re informed.”