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Planned changes to New Ulm Charter follows rich history

June 5, 2011
By Josh Moniz - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM-The City of New Ulm will be holding a public hearing on Tuesday, June 7 to discuss the newest proposed revisions to the New Ulm Home Rule Charter. The changes vary from modification of wording to fundamental shifts in the mayor's powers. A useful tool to understand the significance of such changes is to examine the other ways New Ulm's government has changed in the past.

Evolution of the city

According to a history of New Ulm's government, compiled by John Johnson for the newspaper that eventually became The Journal, the city's structure of government changed seven times prior to 1940. The city's first formal government was an act of incorporation for the "Town of New Ulm" in 1857. The City was divided in four wards, despite having barely more than 100 inhabitants at the time. A trustee was elected for each ward to form the Town Council, which appointed all city officials and voted on city actions. One trustee would be nominated to also serve the dual role of President of the Council and Justice of the Peace.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, Minnesota.

Members of the 1940 New Ulm Charter Commission pose for a photograph.
Back row from left to right:  Henry Somsen Jr.,  H.H. Prahl, Herman Aufderheide, Theo. Manderfeld,  Otto Buenger, Henry A. Dietz, R. R. Kemske, Peter Kitzberger.
Front row from left: Victor P. Reim, Otto Oswald,  T.O. Streissguth, Wm. Stellges, Alois Eibner, George D. Erickson.

Later, in 1860, the governing body was amended to create the position of Mayor. The new position split the responsibilities of "President of the Council." The Mayor took over as "chair" of the council, with the added ability to vote. Also, the Mayor was granted direct control of the Police Department, essentially operating as Chief of Police. The responsibilities of Justice of the Peace, renamed Town Judge, was placed into a separate appointed position.

Just after "Township of New Ulm" was created, the city simultaneously took up its second form of government in 1858. It was created when Brown County was divided into townships by the state. Nine townships were created: New Ulm, Cottonwood, Milford, Linden, Leavenworth, Madelia, Redwood, Pajuta Zihi and Lynd.

During this time, the first and second government coexisted at the exact same time each other for four years. The document notes it's unclear why this decision was made, but suggests it was intended to provide New Ulm with prestige and representation on the county board.

The result was messy, with almost exactly identical positions filled by separate individuals by the exact same group of voters. Even boundary-wise, the county government only exceed the first's city limits by a handful of people.

Eventually, in 1862, the city had the state legislature repeal the act of incorporation and reincorporate the city into one entity with the same powers as before. New Ulm's boundaries were also reduced by a small amount to better line it up with the township.

The document noted that there may be other townships in the state to have undergone such an unusual process, but there are none that are known.

An interesting fact about the new township was that its new council was unable to serve even a full year before the Dakota Conflict in New Ulm drove all the members away. Only one council member returned in a reasonable time, so new members had to be appointed.

In 1870, the incorporated township was revised as "borough," under the charter granted by the state legislature. The new charter divided the city into three wards with one councilor elected for each for three years. The charter also contained other elected officials, including a mayor, a clerk, a treasurer, a recorder or justice of the peace and a marshal. Additionally, it introduced a borough attorney that was selected annually and had the mayor presiding over the council meetings without having a vote.

At the time, the population of New Ulm reached approximately 1,300 people, which was just over one fifth of the total population of Brown County.

The borough classification lasted until 1876, at which time New Ulm felt it had reach enough maturity and population as a township to apply for classification as a full-fledged city. The state legislature complied with the request and made New Ulm a municipality. A distinction was added to the enactment to prohibit other governance of the city from existing in the new City of New Ulm boundaries.

The new charter was closer to what we have today, but it had a few quirks. The number of councilors was increased to five, but the city was not divided into wards. The councilors were each elected at-large from the city and served for two-year terms. The mayor continued to oversee the council meetings, but lacking a vote.

This charter lasted until 1887. At that time, a new charter was obtained because there was a push in Minnesota to end special legislation, which was often also used to easily make new charters. The new charter was done as a "last chance" effort, which many other Minnesota cities also did. In 1892, the state constitution was amended to prevent special legislation. This left many Minnesota cities without the ability to change or modify their charter for many years. Eventually, new laws were passed that allow new, stricter methods of revising a charter.

Efforts were made to make a new, modern charter in 1932 and 1934, but they lacked sufficient popular support. A new charter wasn't adopted until 1940, which added the functions of the Public Utilities and the Police Commission. Finally, a major amendment was made in 1952 that added a city manager to New Ulm's government.

It was the 1952 version of the Home Rule Charter that has essentially remained unchanged as New Ulm's governing document ever since. The next step in the evolution of New Ulm's government will be the public hearing on recommended modifications to the New Ulm Home Rule Charter. The hearing will be held Tuesday, June 7 at 5 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall.



As an interesting insight, The Journal will be hosting a poll for New Ulm residents on whether they would like or dislike living under the city's first form of government, the original act of incorporation.

Here is a summary with explanations of how it functioned:

The original city leadership consisted of four trustees (essentially city councilors) on the Town Council, with one elected for each of the city's four wards. One trustee would also be nominated to the President of the Council. The position covered leading the police force, acting as judge on minor crimes in the city (typically misdemeanors) and performing civil marriages. The trustees and the President would vote on laws and ordinances similar to city council. They also appointed all city officials.

The limits on their powers also carried some quirks. They could not raise tax on essential items unless a public hearing was held each time. They also were forbidden from borrowing on behalf of the city in any way, which would make bonding impossible.

This form of government also came with drawbacks. There was an absence of any formal check-and-balance to what the trustees or the President passed. There was not an explicated way of ousting trustees or reprimanding officials for immoral acts, such as giving friends and family city positions, outside of not re-electing them at the end of their term. Additionally, the President had monopoly over both law-making and law-enforcement, which could potentially be abused by corrupt individuals. Along with the powers, the trustees and President were saddled with too much responsibility. They had to single-handedly lead and manage the entire city by their selves. That method could become too clumsy and broad as the city population grew.

The charter also carried the cultural baggage of the time. It explicitly limited women from being able to vote, and implicitly barred American Indians and African slaves from being able to vote by requiring people "with the qualification of votes of the Territory of Minnesota."

The poll can be accessed on the online version of this article at

Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at



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