Thursday, March 26, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Public Hearings and Rearranging the Furniture (3/26/15)

Question: Does the city council have to provide a public comment period at its meetings?

Answer: Most city councils have chosen to provide some type of public comment period at their meetings. But the truth is that the Open Meeting Law does not give the public the right to speak at city council meetings. As a result, it’s up to individual cities to decide if and how the public can participate during a council meeting.

Public hearings are another story. The whole point of a public hearing (discretionary or required) is to provide an opportunity for the public to comment about a particular issue, and the role of city councilmembers is to respectfully listen. Councilmembers should not discuss issues among themselves or debate with the member of the public that provide input during a public hearing. It’s their time to shine.

There are some p’s & q’s for public meetings and hearings that can keep these important listening opportunities golden:
  • The law doesn’t give members of the public the right to talk for however long or about whatever topic they want at public hearings or at a council meeting where public comment is permitted.  
  • City councils have authority to regulate their own procedure and can adopt reasonable parameters regarding public participation, such as regulations that limit the amount of time for each speaker and that require speakers to restrict their comments to issues relating to city business or to the public hearing at issue.
  • Members of the public do not have the right to remain at council meetings or public hearings if they are disrupting the proceedings. For example, a Minnesota woman was recently convicted of disorderly conduct after police removed her from a city council meeting for being disruptive. When the woman arrived at the council meeting, she removed a chair from the public gallery, placed it directly in front of the council’s bench, and refused requests for her to move back to the public gallery.
These rules can keep a meeting running, give opportunity for the public to be heard in a fair manner, and keep the furniture from becoming a point of contention.

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. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Urge House Leadership to Schedule a Hearing for Early Voting Legislation

The State Legislature is currently considering League of Minnesota Cities-endorsed legislation that would establish an early voting process similar to what is used in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

The in-person absentee system, the system that is currently in place, involves significant personnel and administrative expenses, as cities that administer elections discovered during the 2014 mid-term election.

Under the current system, a voter enters city hall to vote prior to the election. The voter applies for an absentee ballot and once the application is processed, the voter receives a ballot and then votes. But instead of getting placed in a tabulator, the ballot is processed like all absentee ballots—folded, placed in a series of envelopes, signed, sealed and processed at a later time—seven days before Election Day.

A true early voting system would not change absentee balloting for those who mail in their ballots, it would simply change the abundance of administrative paperwork required when voting in person. At a time when local governments continue to trim budgets to become more efficient, early voting is a cost-effective process that makes good fiscal sense for city governments and local property tax payers. Additionally, early voters would have the satisfaction of actually seeing their ballot placed in a secure tabulator in real time, rather than set aside for processing later.

Early voting legislation has already moved through the Senate, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing on the House side. Only a few days remain for the House to consider early voting before the second legislative deadline on March 27. City officials are urged to contact House leaders and their legislators immediately to voice support for the bill.

Check out a list of the 22 cities who have passed resolutions in support of early voting.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Changing the Name of a Street (3/18/15)

Question: We have a local hero coming home soon. We’d like to rename one of our streets after him. Since we’d like it to do it quietly and make it a surprise, do we have to publish notice of a street name change or hold a hearing?

Answer: Yes and no. State law allows a city to change a street name simply by passing an ordinance. A city need not hold a hearing or publish notice that it intends to change a street name. 

However, no ordinance takes effect prior to publication in the official newspaper, so it can’t be done completely on the sly. You'll still need to publish the ordinance enacting the name change. There’s also a requirement for most cities that the ordinance be recorded with the county, so don’t think you’ll surprise the county records department, either. Depending on the situation, a consolidated plat may also need to be filed with the county.

That said, there are very practical reasons for getting the word out.

While a hearing is not required, public comment could be a great way to help the city make the change easier for everyone. Also, some entities may need to be contacted directly about the street change for logistical reasons. These entities will vary from city to city, but would likely include affected property owners, providers of emergency services, providers of utility services, custodians of property records, local post offices, and those companies that still mail out catalogs you didn’t request.

Actually, you can forget that last one. There’s no hiding from them.

The American Planning Association has published a resource for cities looking to rename or renumber streets. It’s an inexpensive resource recommended to help change any street renaming project from "Difficult Way" to "Easy Street." 

Written by Edward Cadman, special counsel with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: ecadman@lmc.org or (651) 281-1229.

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Research Q of the Week: 10 Things You Should Know About WESA (3/9/15)

Question: The Women's Economic Security Act (WESA) was signed into law on Mothers Day 2014. Almost one year later, what are the main things cities should know about the act?          

Answer: Here are the top 10:

1. Things pregnant employees get: Cities with 21 or more employees must allow pregnant employees (no exceptions):
  • More frequent restroom, food, and water breaks
  • Seating
  • Limits on lifting over 20 pounds
2. Request for reasonable accommodations: Cities have to engage in an interactive process if pregnant employees ask for reasonable accommodations, which could include:
  • A temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position
  • Seating
  • Frequent restroom breaks
  • Limits to heavy lifting
3. Undue hardship: Cities could deny accommodations if they would be an undue hardship, with the exception of those listed in #1, If a city has plans to deny accommodation, it should first consult the city attorney.

4. Nursing mothers: Cities need to provide a room, other than a bathroom, for nursing mothers to express milk privately. This law applies to all cities, regardless of size. The room should be shielded from view and free from intrusion, and also include an electrical outlet.

5. Parenting leave from 6 to 12 weeks: Cities with 21 or more employees must provide unpaid leave to an employee who is a new or biological or adoptive parent. The most significant change is that this leave must be 12 weeks instead of 6, as previously required, The leave can be used for prenatal care in addition to childbirth or adoption.

6. What is family?: The definition of family for sick leave purposes include adult children, spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, step-parents mother- and father-in-laws, and grandchildren.

7. Safety leave: Cities with 21 or more employees must allow sick leave to be used as a safety leave, as well. "Safety leave" is used to provide or receive assistance because of sexual assault, domestic abuse, or stalking. Safety leave extends to all family members for whom sick leave time can be used.

8. 160-hour cap: Cities must provide at least 160 hours for sick or safety leave in a 12-month period. Time used by employees to care for themselves or their children, though, does not apply to this limit.

9. Protection of familial status: "Familial status" includes one or more minors living with their parents, legal guardians, or designees of a parent or guardian. "Familial status" has been protected in unfair discriminatory practices for housing, but WESA now includes protection for employment purposes.

10. What a city doesn't need to do: A city doesn't need to create a new or additional position to accommodate a pregnant employee. At the same time, a pregnant employee doesn't have to take or accept an accommodation from an employer.

How did you do? The list seems long, but there are even more aspects of WESA to understand. For additional information, see the League's Focus on New Laws article published last year.

Written by Irene Kao, research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: ikao@lmc.org or (651) 281-1224
This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.





Friday, March 6, 2015

Photos: Legislative Conference for Cities, Counties, Schools, and Townships 2015

Hundreds of local government officials from cities, counties, townships, and school boards across the state gathered in St. Paul early on Thursday to drink coffee and attend the Legislative Conference for Cities, Counties, Schools, and Townships.

The "JLC," as it's casually known (joint legislative conference), gives individual associations an opportunity to keep members informed on legislative issues and to gather feedback in one spot. But this chance to mix it up with each other's membership also serves as a way to give everyone a bird's eye view of issues they have in common, and subsequently more opportunities to speak with a unified voice. The classic chicken and mashed potato luncheon is really just a bonus.

A new format this year invited attendees to learn from and contribute to breakout session topics ranging from workforce housing to mental health—issues that don't fall onto any one form of government's to-do list. Within the break-out sessions, legislators involved in those topic areas stopped by to talk and listen to the front-line perspectives attendees had to share.

Did we mention some additional high-power speakers stopped by? Senate, House, and executive branch (ahem, the governor) leadership, as well as two members of the Capitol press corps, presented their up-to-the-moment perspectives on issues including property tax relief, transportation funding, education, and a little gossip too.

Couldn't make it this year, or want to reminisce? Check out the photos below! Photo credit goes to LMC staffer Jeff Korte.

JLC attendees listen to the major issues affecting local governments
and how their associations are working together.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk talks about session priorities
related to local government.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt talks about session priorities related
to local government.

City officials gather for an LMC-specific legislative update.

LMC's Anne Finn talks transportation in the morning's
association break-out session.

LMC's Jim Miller (center) and
MMSBA's Kirk Schneidawind (right)
greet Andru Peters (left) of Lake City.

Gov. Dayton discusses issues at the Capitol
related to local governments.



Briana Bierschbach of MinnPost (left) and Rachel Stassen-Berger (right)
of the Pioneer Press share the perspective of the Capitol press corps
with moderator Kevin Frazell of LMC.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Drones and Minnesota Cities (3/2/15)

Question: What can the city do to regulate the operation of aerial drones in city airspace? 

Answer: Interest in drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), is sky-high and climbing!

… Sorry, couldn’t resist. UAS are currently being used for law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, disaster relief, border patrol, port security, research, and environmental monitoring. UAS technology also has applications for industries like farming, construction, real estate, engineering, surveying, journalism, sports entertainment, and aerial photography. UAS can also be used for recreational purposes. But, serious safety and privacy concerns are on the horizon as UAS use soars. What authority do cities have to address these concerns?

UAS come in many shapes and sizes. They can be smaller than a remote control airplane or have a wingspan as large as a commercial jet airliner. However, regardless of size, UAS are subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Federal law grants the FAA authority to make rules ensuring the safe and efficient use of U.S. airspace.

Proposed new rules
Governmental and commercial entities that operate a UAS in U.S. airspace must be certified by the FAA or granted an exemption from certification requirements. The FAA has proposed new rules for small UAS involved in non-recreational operations that weigh less than 55 pounds. The proposed rules are intended to maintain safety without overly burdening the UAS industry. They address operator certification, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits. The proposed rules would not apply to model aircraft used for recreation or hobby purposes.

Just for fun?
FAA approval is not required to fly model aircraft, including UAS, weighing less than 55 pounds for strictly hobby or recreational purposes. But, model aircraft pilots still need to fly right. The model aircraft must remain visible to the operator at all times and it must be operated in a manner that does not threaten manned airplanes or persons or property on the ground. The FAA has authority to pursue enforcement action against any person whose model aircraft endangers the safety of the national airspace system.   

FAA authority generally preempts cities from enacting laws regulating airspace. According to the FAA, cities cannot pass ordinances that prohibit or limit the operation of aircraft, set standards for airworthiness, or establish pilot qualifications. So, a local ordinance that regulates that subject matter is likely to crash and burn. Cities do retain authority to control the use of UAS by their own police, fire, and other departments.  

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.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

When It Comes to Safety in Your City, Don’t Miss the Mark

Safety first. This is a phrase many of us heard from various adults in our life while growing up—whether it was a troop leader, athletic coach, camp counselor, or parent. Chances are that we reluctantly complied with their rules in order to keep doing what we wanted to do.

Truth be told, this is likely how many of us still feel today. Though as grown-ups now ourselves we may have a better understanding of the associated risks when we don’t follow safety regulations, a good number of us probably still just want to get on with whatever we’re doing.

This can be a dangerous attitude when it comes to the workplace, though. Injuries and accidents on the job can come at very high costs—to both employers and employees—which is why there is legislation that specifically outline ways to keep safe in our places of work.

Specifically, as you may already know, a Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MNOSHA) law requires employers to have safety committees and perform inspections. So how best can your city comply? And what do you need to do to keep your employees safe?

At this spring’s Safety & Loss Control Workshops, we have an all-new track devoted solely to this topic. The first portion of the afternoon will delve into the specifics of both the structure and main function of a safety committee as defined by the law—including how to investigate accidents, conduct job hazard analyses, educate employees, keep specific records, and evaluate the effectiveness of these safety efforts.

The latter portion of the afternoon will dive into the nitty-gritty of how to conduct effective self-inspections. Not only will you leave with the tools to perform this important function in your own city, but you will also have the chance to put them to use during an on-site self-inspection that day.

Perhaps the best part of this safety committee track is that it will be presented by people who have been in your shoes! Before they became the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust’s (LMCIT’s) newest safety specialists, both Tracy Stille and Troy Walsh served on safety committees in the cities where they each worked.

Tracy Stille
A recent police department retiree and LMCIT’s newest public safety specialist, Tracy says that he now has a much better understanding of how safety committees should function. “In preparing to present at the upcoming workshops, I’ve learned that many cities may be missing the mark with their safety committees,” he says. “Now that I know about how to run truly effective safety meetings, how best to solicit safety input from employees, and why it really is critical to perform self-inspections—I just can’t wait to share this knowledge with city employees.”

Troy Walsh

With a background in both public works and public safety, Troy is now LMCIT’s new public works specialist. His experience has shown him that there are many things these committees can do to provide safer work environments for city employees. “There are smaller, fixable items the committee can remedy now while they budget for some of the larger safety items down the road,” he says. And Troy also points out that while one size doesn’t necessarily fit all, a common mission is a good thing: “Safety committees can all be unique and function differently, but having a safety plan and goals will effectively move your group in the right direction.”

If you would like to learn more about keeping your city employees safe, please consider joining us at this spring’s Safety & Loss Control Workshops. We’ll be in nine different locations around Minnesota in March and April—hope to see you there!