Friday, January 23, 2015

Research Q of the Week: That Vacant Look (1/22/15)

Question: We are a statutory city and have a vacant council seat. How do we fill it?

Answer: It is hard enough to get city business done without being shorthanded. Alas, city council seats will occasionally become vacant—but they don't need to stay that way. State law sets a procedure for getting rid of that vacant look and getting back to full speed. Note: Charter cities may have different procedures for filling vacancies in their charters.

A council seat may become vacant for a number of reasons including:

•    Death of an office holder
•    Resignation of an office holder
•    Removal of an office holder
•    Termination of city residency by the office holder.
•    Failure of a candidate to qualify for office by taking the oath of office and obtaining an official bond
•    Conviction of an office holder of a felony or offense involving violation of the official oath
•    Failure of an office holder to participate in council activities for 90 days
•    Qualifying for a second or incompatible office by the office holder
•    Expiration of an officer holder’s elected term, if no one has been elected to fill the position. In that case, the incumbent fills the office until the council appoints a successor

After investigating the facts, if the council determines that a vacancy exists, it should declare a vacancy by resolution and appoint someone to fill the vacancy. A majority vote is enough to fill a vacancy. In the case of a tie vote, the mayor may appoint any qualified person to fill the vacancy. If the vacancy is in the office of mayor and there is a tie vote then the acting mayor makes the appointment.

A person must be a U.S. citizen, resident of the city, and at least 21 years old to be eligible for appointment to fill a vacancy. Some city councils have candidates apply to fill vacancies; others find candidates by word of mouth.

Special elections
A common area of confusion involves determining if a special election will be required to fill a vacancy. 

If the vacancy occurs ...

Before the first day to file affidavits of candidacy for the next regular city election and more than two years remain in the unexpired term: a special election must be held at or before the next regular city election and the appointed person serves until a successor elected at the special election to fill the unexpired portion of the term qualifies for office.

On or after the first day to file affidavits of candidacy for the regular city election or when less than two years remain in the unexpired term: there need not be a special election to fill the vacancy and the appointed person serves until the qualification of a successor. In order to hold a special election at any time other than the regular city election, the council must adopt an ordinance specifying under what circumstances the election will be held.

For more information about city councils see the Handbook For Minnesota Cities Chapter 6 Elected Officials and Council Structure and Role.

Written by James Monge, research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jmonge@lmc.org or (651) 281-1271.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Research Q of the Week: The Tie-Breaking Vote (1/15/15)

Question: We often times have a tie vote from the council. Can the mayor break a tie?

Answer: It depends on the situation. In a statutory city, each member of the city council, including the mayor, has a vote. If the mayor has not yet voted and there is a 2-2 tie, the mayor can cast a vote and, in essence, break the tie. If the mayor has already voted and there is a 2-2 tie, the mayor cannot usually break the tie by casting a second vote.

A common exception to this is when the council is filling a vacancy on council by appointment. If the council votes to fill a vacancy and there is a tie, the mayor may break the tie by appointing someone to fill the vacancy. In this situation, state law does not place any limitation on a mayor’s ability to make an appointment. As a result, the mayor can appoint any qualified person willing to fill the vacancy even if that person was not the subject of the original appointment vote. If the vacancy is for the mayor’s office and the council casts a tie vote, the acting mayor should make the appointment. The acting mayor may not, however, appoint himself or herself.

Charter cities often have different rules when it comes to the mayor voting—check your city’s charter to see what voting powers the mayor has.

Written by Amber Eisenschenk, staff attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: aeisenschenk@lmc.org or (651) 281-1227.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Act it Out (1/8/15)

Question: How does a council pick an “acting mayor” or “mayor pro-tem” and what do they do?

Answer: It’s not theatrics. It’s city government. Even if you have a local Shakespeare expert on council, state law simply requires that city councils designate a council person to step in if the mayor is out of town or unable to attend meetings. 

Let’s go with the statutory term of “acting mayor” found in state law since 1949. At its first meeting each year the council chooses an acting mayor from the council members. The acting mayor must perform the mayor’s duties—like run meetings—if the mayor is unable to do so or off the grid for a family vacation.

Handily, if there’s a vacancy in the office of mayor, the acting mayor steps in, but just until the council appoints a qualified person to the office of mayor. So the acting mayor does not become mayor for the remainder of the term—unless the council chooses to appoint the person to that vacant office.

This is not a high paying temp job. An opinion issued by the Attorney General in 1954 finds that an acting mayor is not entitled to pay for ‘acting as mayor’ because the law does not specify any salary related to this position. Most likely, the council person appointed as acting mayor continues to receive his or her council pay, salary, or other compensation, if any.

Because I’ve always wanted to study Latin I looked it up, and the term ‘pro tem’ means “for the present time but not permanently.” Many cities do use this term to refer to the stand-in for the mayor. But if you’re searching the League website for this topic, go with ‘acting mayor’ for many helpful hits.
  
Written by Jeanette Behr, research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jbehr@lmc.org or (651) 281-1228.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015 Legislative Preview on Its Way

Lo, as the holiday fog dissipates, the 2015 legislative session emerges. Kick-off to another round of legislative work is this week, and political junkies rejoice.

If you've been knee-deep in candy canes and final city budget documents the past few weeks, the Minnesota Cities magazine January-February edition features a legislative insert that will bring you up to speed on results of the last legislative session, the 2014 elections, and city issues in 2015.

The issue will be available online soon and mails to your doorstep or office on Jan. 14. We hear the reindeer are on vacation, so expect to receive this delivery via U.S. Postal Service.

Can't wait for the magazine's full-color extravaganza? Sign up today to receive the weekly Cities Bulletin newsletter (encompassing all things city news) and Capitol Updates (breaking news on legislative issues delivered to your inbox.)
Minnesota Cities magazine legislative insert—what's inside?
Get a rundown of topics to watch, including railroad issues, city street funding, early voting, and more. See the full list of 17 priorities that League lobbyists will focus on during the 2015 session.

In addition, you'll find in-depth coverage of recent broadband developments and what they mean for economic development, as well as a feature on how cities are dealing with a shortage of workforce housing.

Want to get involved in advocating for cities at the state level? You'll also find an interview with Hutchinson city building official Lenny Rutledge, who decided to testify at a committee hearing last year and shares what he thought about the process.

And as always, the League of Minnesota Cities Legislative Action Center is your hub for advocacy tools and information, including how to contact the intergovernmental relations team

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Snowplow Operator Blues (1/1)

Question: The snow is flying and our city snowplow crews are again plowing city streets. What happens if one of our snowplow operators is involved in an accident while plowing snow?

Answer: ‘Tis the season for snow covered and icy roads. Plowing snow is a tough job which, by its nature, involves heavy equipment and hazardous road conditions. Unfortunately, accidents involving snowplows occur from time to time.

Like other drivers, city snowplow operators have a duty to exercise reasonable care when operating snowplows on city streets. But, state law recognizes the challenges of city snowplowing operations. City snowplow operators are exempt from traffic rules while actually engaged in plowing operations. This allows them to safely and efficiently remove snow in less-than-ideal weather conditions. This exemption from traffic rules only applies when snowplow operators are actually engaged in work upon the streets. It does not apply when they are traveling to or from the route where work is performed.

There are several immunity defenses to lawsuits involving snowplows:
  •  Common law official immunity protects a snowplow operator’s operational decisions that involve professional judgment and discretion. Minnesota’s winter weather requires snowplow operators to adjust to rapidly changing weather and road conditions. Official immunity protects snowplow operators’ professional assessment of existing weather and road conditions and decisions about how best to remove snow in those conditions.
  • Statutory snow and ice immunity provides immunity from lawsuits based on snow and ice conditions on city streets. It protects cities from liability for damages caused by the natural consequences of snow plowing when it is done according to an established snow removal policy. Snow and ice immunity may be a defense when icy road conditions cause a snowplow to slide into another vehicle or snow blown from a plow blade causes an accident.
  • Statutory discretionary immunity provides immunity from lawsuits challenging planning level decisions that balance policy objectives involving social, political, economic, and safety considerations. This immunity may protect a city against lawsuits challenging a city snowplowing policy or decisions about the type of equipment to use to remove snow and ice.
These immunities may protect the city from liability when snowplow accidents occur. But, it’s better for everyone if accidents are avoided. So, snowplow operators, be safe out there this winter. Drivers, don’t crowd the plow! And cities, remember to notify your insurance agent promptly if and when a snowplow accident occurs.   

Want more? The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust model snowplowing policy is at your service.

Written by James Monge, research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jmonge@lmc.org or (651) 281-1271.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Spotted: A Good Government Legacy Lives on in Medina


Mayor Elizabeth Weir of Medina is spotted here sharing a plaque commemorating former Mayor Tom Crosby, who died in 2013. Crosby set the stage for a successful public works and police department facilities expansion when, in the depths of the Great Recession, he pursued the purchasing of an existing property to retrofit. As a real estate attorney, Crosby had a hunch that the purchase would be a good deal for the city, despite the doom and gloom of the economy.

Crosby's vision lives on through the completed project—an award-winning, cost-saving, all-around great government facility (where the showers are no longer used for storage). You can read about Medina's successful expansion in the latest "Ideas in Action," featured in Minnesota Cities magazine.

Photo credit goes to Kathryn Forss

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Research Q of the Week: Don't Quit Your Day Job (12/25)

Question: I'm starting my first term in office soon, and I'm starting to worry about taking time off to attend all these meetings. Is there any information out there that will help me sort this out with my supervisor?

Answer: Hello to all of you elected officials out there in the blogosphere. Thank you for the valuable work you do for your communities. Did you know that because the work you do is so important, the Minnesota Legislature adopted a law (Minn. Stat. § 211B.10) that requires your boss to give you time off from work to attend public meetings? Here’s the scoop about the key requirements of the law:
  • A person elected to public office must be given time off from work to attend meetings required by their public office.
  • The time off may be without pay, with pay, or made up with other hours, as agreed to between the employee and employer.
  • When an employee takes time off without pay, the employer must make an effort to allow the employee to make up the time with other hours when the employee is available.
  • No retaliatory action may be taken by the employer if the employee takes time off from work to attend public meetings.
For more information about elected officials and their role see chapter 6 of the Handbook for Minnesota Cities, freshly updated with 2014 law revisions and info.

Written by Susan Naughton, research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: snaughto@lmc.org or (651) 281-1232.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.