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Princeton voters will decide Nov. 3 whether or not to eliminate the Princeton Public Utilities Commission’s three members.

City leaders adjourned an Aug. 21 special meeting to put the question on the ballot less than a half hour before a deadline set by Mille Lacs County Auditor - Treasurer Eric Bartusch.

Since late March, Mayor Brad Schumacher has been at odds with PPU General Manager Keith Butcher, former Commissioner Mindy Siercks, Commissioner Dan Erickson, and Commission Chair Greg Hanson because the PUC adopted a resolution to discontinue city financial support through a payment in lieu of taxes mechanism, or PILOT.

Before the March 25 meeting concluded, Schumacher stated he was “extremely disappointed” the commission discontinued its PILOT payment.

The following week, at the council’s April 2 meeting, Councilor Jules Zimmer brought up the discontinued PILOT fees during a 2020 budget discussion.

In mid-May, Zimmer proposed establishment of an ad hoc council committee that would work on communications with the PUC to resolve the PILOT issue.

During the council’s May 14 meeting, that committee was approved.

In subsequent months, a group consisting of City Administrator Robert Barbian, Zimmer, Finance Director Steve Jackson, Butcher, and Hanson had been making positive progress until Schumacher acted to place the commission-eliminating ballot question on the agenda for discussion at an Aug. 13 meeting.

When Zimmer saw the agenda item to consider a Nov. 3 ballot question to eliminate the commission, he was taken aback, and felt his efforts were being undermined.

We totally concur with his assessment.

It’s one of several reasons why the Union-Times can’t support a ballot question to eliminate the PUC.

For starters, Princeton City Council members did not allow open forum and public comment during the 3 p.m. special meeting conducted Friday, Aug. 21. Voting in favor of placing the question on the ballot during that tension-filled afternoon meeting were Schumacher, Councilor Jenny Gerold, and Councilor Jeff Reynolds.

Councilor Jack Edmonds and Zimmer voted against the ballot question.

Zimmer has previously commented the entire PILOT issue was being blamed on a “knee-jerk” reaction made by PUC commissioners during the March meeting.

He blamed the PUC’s “knee-jerk” reaction directly on Schumacher. “One individual has been pounding away at the PUC for nearly two years,” he said.

We strongly concur. Here’s why. During a pause in discussion at that meeting, Hanson suggested more research was needed on a draft PILOT resolution.

After another pause, the Union-Times asked Schumacher and Gerold if the March 25 meeting discussion had turned into a continuation of a campaign issue they had initiated in 2018.

Gerold, the council liaison to the PUC, didn’t answer. Schumacher was evasive with his response.

That’s when the PUC action hammer quickly fell regarding the status of PILOT.

Schumacher’s meeting comments prompted Commissioner Dan Erickson to make a motion to adopt the resolution to discontinue PILOT. That motion was approved 3-0.

Regarding the clock ticking on a council decision regarding the ballot question, Schumacher said the Aug. 21 special meeting had been set up eight days in advance, with an hour-and-a-half to get information to the county auditor.

Zimmer was concerned that the council hadn’t addressed such an important topic in recent months of meetings.

We share that concern.

It’s our view that the Princeton City Council rushed to place a politically charged question on the general election ballot at the 11th hour.

Here’s another issue of concern: Not all PPU customers will get a say in abolishing or keeping the commission because the ballot question is city specific.

The Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office as well as Mille Lacs County Auditor-Treasurer Eric Bartusch were contacted regarding the Nov. 3 ballot question.

Bartusch said there would be no way to insure 100% of all PPU ratepayers would be able to vote on the topic, especially those who reside outside of the city’s limits.

If this question passes, under statute, all powers must be transferred from the PPU commission to the council within 30 days.

City leaders have not provided a detailed plan on how that transition would occur.

The PPU, on the other hand, has provided a “Know Before You Vote” button on the top left corner of the electric and water utility’s website page that offers background about the ballot question.

Schumacher is the most visible council champion of the Nov. 3 ballot question. In a candidate profile, he stated, “When the ballot question passes, voters will finally have a say.”

We find that statement troubling, given the fact citizens didn’t get a say when the council nixed their chance to comment.

If people are not given the opportunity to speak freely on an issue that directly affects them, it’s our view a large red flag should quickly go up.

Princeton citizens and ratepayers would be better served if city leaders and commissioners cast politics aside and returned to PILOT negotiations.

It’s our view that can only happen if the existing commissioner slate remains in place.

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