East Grand Forks voters will have at least one referendum on their ballots this fall.
City Council members voted 6-0 at a special meeting Monday to approve a series of changes to the city’s charter, but residents there will need to affirm those changes in citywide elections this November to finalize them.
A town’s charter lays out the structure of its municipal government: who’s in charge of what, who reports to whom, when city leaders are elected and how long their terms are, plus a host of other civic fundamentals.
But the changes that voters will be asked to affirm would, more or less, catch the charter up to the way the city already is being run, making the changes on paper more than in practice.
Revisions approved by City Council members would mean the East Grand Forks police chief would report to the city administrator for day-to-day work, but would ultimately be responsible to the city’s mayor. As it’s written now, East Grand Forks’ charter puts direction of the police department solely at the mayor’s feet but, in practice, City Administrator David Murphy has been Police Chief Mike Hedlund’s direct supervisor because Murphy is more readily available than Mayor Steve Gander, who can delegate those responsibilities as he sees fit.
It codifies a “hybrid” chain of command that’s different than the one already in place for every other city department head, all of whom report to Murphy and, ultimately, the City Council.
Council members Clarence Vetter and Marc DeMers pushed against the triangular arrangement between the mayor, chief and administrator.
“It would just seem the logical step to make the police chief under the city administrator also, and not under the mayor,” Vetter said shortly before Monday’s vote.
Gander characterized it as a way to ensure accountability to residents rather than a city staffer.
“It’s a good connection to have,” he said at a June 9 meeting.
DeMers, who was absent from Monday’s vote, said that’s an expectation for each city department, not just the city’s police force.
“I don’t see a reason why that should be vested in one person rather than the council,” he said. “I think you have more accountability when you’re accountable to the council than you do with one person.”
Hedlund told council members on Monday that he doesn’t entirely agree with the reasoning behind requiring him to also report to the mayor, but that he was comfortable with the arrangement if the revised charter kept the provision in which he’d report to Murphy for routine business.
Other changes to the charter also set ways in which the city already runs, such as a clarification of the relationship between East Grand Forks’ water and light utility with the city government.
Beyond that, most of the changes mean cleaning up grammatical errors -- “run-on paragraphs,” Murphy said at a June 9 meeting -- and changing language to be gender-neutral, which means replacing a “he” to refer to the city’s mayor with a “they,” for instance.
All of the charter revisions were drafted by the city’s Charter Commission, a group of East Grand Forks residents who met monthly to pore over the existing charter one line at a time, consulting Murphy and City Attorney Ron Galstad as necessary. The charter is only 29 pages long but it’s far from a beach read, and commission members met for about 16 months to come up with their recommended revisions.
“It’s truly an honor to get to the heart of your government,” Punky Beauchamp, one of the commission’s members, told council members last month. “I wouldn’t call it fun, but it’s a necessary thing to do occasionally.”