By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
The Sister City Committee in Little Falls is looking for answers from the Little Falls City Council.
A letter sent to all department heads and committees in the city in April, made it clear city committees or department heads were not permitted to raise funds or solicit donations.
The letter indicated that in October and November 2013, the League of Minnesota Cities and city attorney met and found that no provision in state statute allows fundraising by local units of government, including the city itself or city committees.
Individuals or businesses can make donations to the city, however, employees or city committee members may not actively solicit donations or hold fundraising events.
The letter sent in April also indicated committees or groups of individuals could form on their own if they chose and could hold fundraising events and solicit donations. They could not, however, infer the city was involved in the event in any way.
A letter to the City Council from Michael Schnider, the Sister City Committee chair, pointed out that the opinion was in stark contrast to the language in the city code, Section 2.30, outlining the duties of the Sister City Committee. Those duties, as stated in the code, are to organize community efforts to raise funds for Sister City activities and that the committee is responsible for the coordination of such activities with the approval of the City Council.
In May 2013, the Little Falls City Council approved the Sister City bylaws, which indicate the committee works to raise funds for cash resources used to fund activities for visitors from its Sister City, Le Bourget, France, during excursions to Little Falls, Schnider’s letter pointed out.
He said that the Committee was trying to abide by the city’s position and actions had been taken to address the situation with non-committee members.
In February, the group held a meeting and invited non-committee members in an attempt to address the fundraising dilemma, Schnider said. The group hoped the non-committee members could form a “Friends of Sister City” group, who could raise funds and direct that they be used for Sister City Committee projects.
“Since then, no progress has occurred regarding any formation of such a group and it appears there is no interest from the community at large to do so,” Schnider’s letter said.
Another meeting was set for those interested in a “Friends” group May 5, but no one attended and there has been no follow-up.
Schnider noted the ability to raise funds was crucial to the existence of the Sister City Committee, since the costs associated with hosting 20-30 French visitors for 10 days were significant, with costs for the French paid for out of the funds raised by the Committee.
Another issue, said Schnider, was participation on the Committee.
“Since the issue with fundraising has arisen, our Committee has failed to reach a basic quorum, three out of the past six meetings,” Schnider wrote.
Since November 2013, the Committee has lost three members and one will resign in the very near future.
“When that occurs, we will be down to seven members,” Schnider’s letter said. Of the seven, one has yet to attend a meeting, another has attended one meeting only and neither was at the meeting in May.
The treasurer resigned and the secretary doesn’t wish to remain in that post.
“At this point, the committee has five active members and its bylaws indicate it is to have nine members,” the letter said.
“It does not appear there is sufficient interest to maintain the viability of our committee. … we are unable to conduct much more business at this time,” Schnider wrote, asking that he be contacted on how best to proceed.
Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem said the Committee was faltering because it had no purpose or function. “It’s been taken away from them,” she said.
“They can’t do fundraising, what are they supposed to do? … We need to give them purpose or function to continue or say no, and it’s done,” she said.
Council Member at Large Brian-Paul Crowder asked about a friends group being formed, but he was reminded the letter said no one showed up at the organizational meeting.
Council Member Greg Zylka suggested the group get together as a non-city group.
VanRisseghem asked what would happen to the portion of fees collected by the city from the Arts and Crafts Fair that were given to the Sister City Committee.
Finance Officer Lori Kasella said a portion of the fees the city charges for each vendor at the Arts and Crafts Fair goes to the city’s parking lot fund and a part ($3,000) to the Sister City Committee. The fee would still be collected, said Kasella, but the Council would need to decide what to do with it.
Council President Don Klinker asked for suggestions.
Resident Robin Hensel stood and asked if she could speak, but was not acknowledged as the discussion continued.
Council Member Frank Gosiak said he didn’t see how the committee could continue without fundraising and felt the committee should be abolished and the money from the Arts and Crafts Fair be used for something else.
As Hensel asked again to speak, the mayor asked if the issue should be put on the next Council agenda.
Council Member Loren Boyum suggested the committee not be abolished, but separated from the city. “Let the program itself continue,” he said.
Hensel spoke up, noting that during a meeting in May 2013, it was said anyone could speak during a work session.
“We’re in the middle of a discussion here, will you sit down,” the mayor said to Hensel.
“I will sit down when I have the chance to speak,” Hensel said.
VanRisseghem suggested putting the issue on the next agenda to vote the committee up or down.
Crowder asked that the chair be informed as to how a friends group could be formed, noting a quorum wasn’t necessary to start the paperwork for a 501(c)3.
“There might be other people if it’s in the paper,” said Crowder.
“They sent out over 200 letters and advertised it in the paper and no one showed up,” said VanRisseghem.
City Administrator Dan Vogt said out of courtesy, he would contact the group about the 501(c)3.
The issue will be on the Council’s next agenda.
Hensel asked a third time to speak on the topic being discussed.
“We already said what we’re going to do,” said Klinker.
Hensel said she was being treated differently than another person who spoke in May 2013.
Council Jeremy Hanfler said the Council had changed things since that time.
As Hensel said she was speaking to the council president, Hanfler said, “You’ve been to umpteen meetings, you know we’ve changed things.”
When Hensel asked if she were being denied the privilege to speak on the issue, Klinker said, “This is our meeting, it’s not yours.”
“Duly noted,” Hensel said.
The Little Falls Sister City Committee, an official committee for the city of Little Falls, was formed in 1987 to promote a mutual friendship between citizens of Little Falls and Le Bourget, France, united through the accomplishments of Charles A. Lindbergh.
The Le Bourget Park in west Little Falls is named after Little Falls’ Sister City.
Since that time, every two years, visits take place between the two cities. Just last year, a Little Falls group traveled to France. In 2015, a group from France is expected to come to Little Falls.
That may not happen if the Sister City Committee is forced to disband and no group with the ability to raise funds is formed.