Lake Elmo considers 4-year mayor term

Lake Elmo Mayor Dean Johnston estimates that he campaigned for about four months in 2004 before narrowly defeating former Mayor Lee Hunt in the November election. Now, after a full year in office, the former council member is not eager to begin the process all over again in less than six months.

As a result, he is currently campaigning instead to increase the city’s mayoral term length from two years to four, a change that would put Lake Elmo’s mayor and four council members in office for the same number of years (currently, voters choose a mayor and two council members every two years).

“We’re a statutory city, a ‘Plan A’ city, where all council members, including the mayor, have equal power. Therefore, we should all have the same term,” Johnston reasoned at the Dec. 20 council meeting where the issue was discussed, but not voted on. “It’s asking a lot (for the mayor) to run every two years when your peers run every four.”

Some of those peers, however, did not share Johnston’s desire for change. By voting on the mayor every even-numbered year, two council members argued, the power to guide the city’s direction is put in the hands of Lake Elmo residents.

“I think that if there’s an election for mayor every two years, it gives the voters a chance to dramatically change the makeup of the council,” Council member Rita Conlin said at the meeting. “I think four years is too long, even for the rest of us.”

Council member Anne Smith was absent Dec. 20 due to illness. With the remaining members somewhat split on the issue of extending the mayoral term, it would seem that Smith’s vote might determine whether Johnston, if reelected this November, serves another year-and-a-half or another three-and-a-half years before planting signs in Lake Elmo yards again.

“It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been (at the meeting) because I probably would have made a motion to table (the issue),” said Smith, who has spoken with several residents following the meeting to gauge their opinions on term length before the first meeting of 2006 on Jan. 3. She declined to indicate her personal leanings on the issue.

“I really think this is the residents’ call. It’s not something I’m going to make a quick decision on.”

Term of employment

However deliberate the council chooses to be on the issue, City Attorney Jerry Filla reported that any change to the mayor’s term would not take effect until 2007 with whomever should be elected to the position this year (so long as the ordinance is changed at least a month before the deadline for hopefuls to file their candidacy).

Other members of the Lake Elmo staff did what research they could on other Minnesota cities at the request of the council. The League of Minnesota Cities was unable to offer many concrete statistics, as the organization had never conducted a survey on the topic. They did, however, provide a list of 25 cities that they knew were now (or were at one time) electing their mayors to four-year terms, including nearby Oakdale and Woodbury.

“There is a default set by state statutes for most cities at two years,” said League Research Manager Jeannette Bach of 746 of the 853 Minnesota statutory cities. “We don’t see a lot of movement (to four years) in general.”

But Council member Liz Johnson claimed to have gotten feedback from several mayors that are serving or have served four-year terms at a recent Minnesota Cities Conference suggesting the change was positive when it came to developing a relationship with city staff and fostering consistency in city governing. Steve DeLapp, however, fell on the other side of the issue, noting Johnston’s slim 28-vote victory in 2004 and said he believed campaigning every two years was an effective way to “get the mayor out there to the people.”

“It’s subject to question whether (campaigning is) the best use of your time with all the issues going on in the city,” said Johnston, who felt that two-year terms make it difficult to implement long-term initiatives as mayor. “We’ve had City Councils for the last 20 years that haven’t been able to site a new public works building. ... I think (a change) is in the best interest of the city.”

Conlin countered that the feedback from other cities claiming that four-year terms improve the relationship between mayor and staff merely speaks to the influence the position carries even in a “weak mayor” structure where all five council members have equal voting power.

“My feeling is that it’s good for the city and the voters to have an opportunity to change the dynamics on the City Council every two years,” she said. “I’ve been a resident of Lake Elmo for 27 years and there have been times where there’s a mayor in office who, if you had to put up with for four years, it’d be an awful situation.”

Still, Conlin said that she would remain open to the change if the council received significant feedback from a broad base of residents suggesting that desire. For Smith, voter feedback is integral to her stance, which could come to light at the Jan. 3 meeting.

“These are huge decisions that have big ramifications on the people,” Smith said. “I will support what the residents want.”

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