Updates to New Ulm city charter in progress

NEW ULM — The New Ulm Charter Commission held their second meeting June 5.

The purpose of the commission is to update New Ulm’s city charter. The last time the city established a charter commission was in 2011.

At the previous meeting, commissioners agreed to submit discussion points to consider. A total of 32 discussion points related to the city charter were submitted. The commission debated 17 of the topics.

Most of the recommendations were minor language changes made to the document, but a few topics, such as elections, required additional discussion.

The commission considered eliminating the precincts and reducing polling places to four, one for each ward. Currently there are eight precincts, two for each ward.

Brown County Auditor Jean Prochniak submitted a letter to the commission that said the precincts also relate to the County Commissioner Districts. She would recommend the city coordinate with the county if any change is made.

The Charter Commission chose to table the precinct question to a future meeting.

It tabled a decision on whether to use ranked choice/instant runoff voting for the city council.

Runoff elections are used when there are several candidates for an elected office and no candidate receives the majority of votes. Voters rank their preferred candidate. If none of the top-ranked candidates receive the majority of votes, the second choice selection is tabulated.

Commissioners expressed interest in this change as many communities adopted it as a more inclusive voting method.

Commissioner Linda Heine, a member of the Minnesota League of Women Voters, said this was endorsed by the organization.

The commission agreed to research runoff voting and discuss it at a future meeting.

City council quorums were another section of the charter in need of clarification. To conduct business, the city council is required by the charter to have a quorum of at least three councilors present. The wording in the charter did not clarify if a total of three councilors was needed or if three votes were needed to approve a motion.

Council votes are decided by popular vote. If all five council members are present, three “yes” votes are enough to approve a motion or resolution. If only three councilors are present, should all motions require unanimous approval or would two “yes” votes be enough?

Commissioner William Swan said allowing two councilors to approve a motion or an ordinance could cause a problem on a controversial issue. A simple majority vote with three councilors could allow a motion to pass that would have been rejected if all five councilors were present.

The commission chose to table the topic until the next meeting to consider how best to clarify the quorum requirement.

The list of city boards and commissions listed in the charter was reviewed. The city’s charter specifically mentions the Board of Health, Public Utilities Commission, Fire Department and Police Commission.

City Attorney Roger Hippert said these four commissions were likely included in the charter because the boards were deemed the most important or essential.

There was discussion of removing the Board of Health from the city charter as the board does not meet often, but Commissioner David Christian suggested keeping it. He said the board is still used today in the event a building needs to be condemned for health reasons.

City Manager Brian Gramentz confirmed the Board of Health carried more weight in the 1950s. After the creation of building codes, the Department of Health and other agencies, the board is less active but still has an impact.

Commissioners chose to keep the Board of Health on the charter, but they also added the Human Rights Commission (HRC). The HRC was established under Chapter 3 of the city code, but was not part of the charter.

The main purpose of the HRC is to educate the public on human rights issues. The commissioners felt the HRC had enough involvement to be added to the charter.

“The charter is like our constitution,” Heine said. “The charter is going to be more broad and sweeping, but it will also include things that we want to be less flexible about removing.”

Moving HRC into the charter will emphasize its importance as a mandatory commission.

The Charter Commission adjourned the meeting halfway through the list of discussion points. The rest of the list will be brought up at their next meeting.