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Town will consider changing into a city

Fiber optic issue in Coulee Dam encouraged move

 


The possibility of changing Coulee Dam from a “town” under state law to a “city” drew significant discussion at a town council meeting Wednesday, where the audience was packed following a door-to-door push last weekend by a candidate for council.

Fred Netzel, who is running against David Schmidt for the council, said he wanted enough people at Wednesday’s meeting to ensure a basis of knowledge on the subject among townspeople and encourage open discussion.

Mayor Greg Wilder said the question is one of importance for the town, which currently operates under the state’s more restrictive laws regarding towns. It basically forbids a town to do anything not specifically allowed in the statute.

Many other towns, including Grand Coulee and Electric City, have changed their charter to that of a “code city,” which allows them to do anything not specifically forbidden by law.

Wilder said there have been several times that difference would have made things easier.

But the discussion that followed made it clear the latest impetus for the idea came during research into whether the town could provide an internet utility, or franchise one, so that residents could gain access to high-speed fiber optics.

As a “town” the answer is no, said Town Attorney Mick Howe. But as a code city, that restriction would be off. Howe said most of the municipalities he has represented in Lincoln, Douglas and Okanogan counties over 40 years have decided to operate as a code city.

The mayor had proposed a resolution to start a 90-day process for a review of the subject, at the end of which the council could vote to change the town to a city.

Electric City recently made that switch. Grand Coulee also operates as a code city. Elmer City is actually not a city, but a town.

Some in the audience suggested the question should be put to a popular vote, not left to the council. That is an option, but would cost several thousand dollars.

Howe said six more council meetings are on the regular schedule before the final council vote would occur, each with an opportunity to discuss the issue.

Councilmember Keith St. Jeor said he knows people who settled in other towns because they have internet service that is “100 times better.”

St. Joer said people don’t want to pay higher taxes to fix town infrastructure, such as sidewalks, but they’ll “pay $100 for a cell phone bill, $50 a month for a cable bill and $80 a month for internet and telephone.”

“I think as a town we could profit on that and it would help pay for some of these things,” he said.

Councilmember Schmidt said the town is severely lacking in technology solutions and that they were not likely to come from private enterprise because of the small population. Changing to a code city would simply allow the municipality to explore more options.

“You might be surprised what solutions you find when you have more opportunties,” he said, in favor of starting the process.

He said he couldn’t imagine the city, itself, running a fiber system, but that “the ability to make it happen” through a franchise arrangement could help improve the town.

He was in favor of passing the resolution to start the review process that night, but he was in favor of holding public meetings on the subject, as were others on the council.

Wilder strongly recommended a town hall meeting.

Several pushed back on the idea of a popular referendum, however.

“We want to make sure that people are heard and that our decisions are proper,” Schmidt commented, “but in representative government, not everybody wants to have to sit down … to study and make those decisions. … I can’t imagine that a better decision would be made by having a total vote of the citizens, because this is a complex issue.”

In the end, the council unanimously passed the resolution to start the process and decide in three months whether to change from a town to a city, or whether that decision should go to a popular vote.

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