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Fergus Falls council rejects petition to put hockey arena to public vote

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - The city council here rejected a petition Monday to put a new $7 million ice arena to a public vote.

The council last month passed an ordinance allowing the local port authority to issue bonds for the building project.

A group of residents wanting the measure put to a referendum submitted a petition last week with more than 1,000 signatures.

City Attorney Rolf Nycklemoe advised the council Monday to reject the petition because the city's charter does not allow petitions for referendum on any ordinance authorizing the spending of public funds.

The council voted 7-1 to reject the petition. Council members Jim Fish, Tim Jensen, Eric Shelstad, Greg Stumbo, JoEllen Thacker, Pat Connelly and Jay Cichosz voted to reject the petition based on its compliance with the city charter; Randy Synstelien was opposed to rejecting the petition.

Stumbo made a motion for the council to still consider the referendum despite the validity of the petition, saying he thought a referendum should "go forward to do it the right and proper way."

The city will pay for about $4 million of the total project, with at least $3.12 million coming from private donations.

Stumbo said judging by the amount of support the project has received from fundraising, the public would also approve the arena if it was brought to a vote.

Stumbo and Synstelien were the only members to support the measure to create a referendum for the project, and it was defeated 6-2.

Bill Schulz was one of the Fergus Falls residents to circulate the petition and said the council is overlooking residents' rights to redress the council for their actions.

Schulz said he's not against an ice arena for Fergus Falls. "I'm opposed to the underhanded method they're using to finance it," he said.

He said by using the port authority to issue the bonds, the city is purposely surpassing the voting process.

Council member Cichosz said he's comfortable going forward with the project. Residents don't vote on new facilities for police or other public utilities, and a park and recreation project shouldn't be any different, he said.

Daryl Synstelien, another resident who circulated the petition, said he will seek a legal opinion on whether or not to further seek a public vote.

Meanwhile, the project moves forward. The port authority will start issuing bonds in July with the hope to start building the ice arena later this year, Cichosz said.

The council meets today for a public forum to discuss the possibility of a sales tax to offset the property tax levy that will fund the city's share.