Thursday, August 21, 2014

Research Q of the Week: No, You Can't Phone It In (8/21)

Question: We have a council member that is going to be out of town on the night of our meeting. Can she attend the meeting by telephone?

Answer: No. Not for the purpose of satisfying a quorum requirement and not as a voting member. City councils are only authorized to conduct meetings by telephone when a health pandemic or emergency makes meeting in-person a not-so-good idea. So, a council member can’t just "phone it in."

However, the Open Meeting Law does authorize city councils to conduct meetings by interactive television provided certain conditions are met:
  • All members of the council participating in the meeting must be able to see and hear one another and all discussion and testimony. A council member that attends a meeting by interactive television is considered present for purposes of determining a quorum and participating in the meeting.
  • The council must provide notice of the regular meeting location and any site where a council member will be participating in the meeting by interactive television.
  • Members of the public present at the council’s regular meeting location must be able to see and hear all discussion and testimony and all the votes of council members. 
  • At least one member of the council must be physically present at the council’s regular meeting location. Every location where a council member is present must also be open and accessible to the public. 
  • To the extent it is practical, the council must allow the public to monitor the meeting electronically from a remote location and may require viewers to pay the marginal cost the city incurs to make the additional connection.
Members of the public viewing council meetings remotely are also responsible for furnishing their own popcorn or TV dinners.  

What about Skype? The Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) has issued an advisory opinion holding that a council member can attend a meeting by Skype as long as all of the other conditions required for holding a meeting by interactive television are met.  
For more information on city council meetings and the Open Meeting Law, check out LMC's information memo on Meetings of City Councils.
 
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, August 18, 2014

Play the Cities Matter Game Show Live at the State Fair

Do you know why some cities require licenses for dogs? Or what kind of jobs are done by a city's public works department?

Learn the answers to these and other examples of "meaningful municipal minutiae" by visiting the League's Cities Matter booth in the Education Building at the Minnesota State Fair (Aug. 21 - Sept. 1), and playing the interactive "Cities Matter Game Show."

Test your knowledge of Minnesota cities and city governments and win valuable (sort of) prizes, while impressing friends and family members with your perceptive prowess.

Minnesota students entering grades 4-6 will also have the chance to compete in the League's annual "Mayor For A Day" essay contest  by picking up an entry form at the booth, or by printing a form from the League's website. The deadline to submit an essay is Oct. 15.

So don't forget to add the "Cities Matter Game Show" booth to your fair-going agenda. It's more fun than a bag of deep-fried walleye-flavored chocolate-covered doughnuts-on-a-stick.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Research Q of the Week: All About the 'Benjamins' and Election Judge Pay (8/14)

Question: Which laws govern pay for election judges?

Answer: Lots of laws apply. And first, let us just say that election judges rock.

New this year (because it went up) consider Minnesota's state minimum wage law. For cities with a smaller annual budget— under $500,000—that state minimum is now $6.50 per hour. For cities with budgets higher than that, the minimum pay is $8 per hour. State law Minn. Stat. § 2014B.31 requires that election judges be paid at least that much, but city councils may decide to pay more than that. That same law allows a person to volunteer as an election judge and receive no pay, but they must submit a written statement about that to the city council at least ten days before the election.

What about federal minimum wage and election judges? A federal appeals court judge says no, election judges are exempt from federal minimum wage laws. Evers v. Tart, 48 F.3d 319, 321 (8th Cir. 1995).
The weeds
Ok, so we know the minimum pay for these helpful people. How does a city pay them and do they withhold taxes from that pay? Here’s the quick list:
  • Federal and/or state tax withholding, including withholding for Social Security and Medicare. If an election judge is paid less than $1,600 in 2014, no Social Security or Medicare taxes are withheld.
  • Issuing W-2s. If an election judge earns more than $600 in a year, cities must issue that person a W-2. (According to IRS contacts, W-2s may be issued to judges earning less than $600 for software and bookkeeping purposes).
  • PERA withholding. According to the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), election judges are local governmental employees, but the wages earned in these positions are not subject to PERA withholding.
  • Payroll. The federal government classifies election judges as employees. Therefore, it seems reasonable to pay election judges through the payroll system, rather than other accounts, to ensure accurate tracking of wages paid to each judge. However, this is offered as a practical tip, not as a requirement in law or rule
There you have it, a few laws governing election judge pay. No, these judges probably will not earn many “Benjamins,” a.k.a hundred-dollar bills, but they DO help cities, and especially city clerks, with probably their most important responsibility— conducting elections. 

For more on election procedures, see Chapter 5 of the Handbook for Minnesota Cities. And thanks to all you election judges out there. 

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. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Research Q of the Week: Are You 'Odd'? Primaries and Local Control (8/7)

Question: Next week is the primary election, and I was wondering why our local officials are not on the ballot. What gives?

Answer: There are a few reasons why this may be the case. First off, not all cities have primary elections because whether to have a municipal primary is a decision made at the local level.

Any city can establish a city primary and have their city races on the primary ballot if the council adopts an ordinance or resolution by April 15 in the year when a municipal general election is held. The city clerk must notify the secretary of state and the county auditor within 30 days after the adoption of the resolution or ordinance. 

Once the city adopts a primary, it stays in effect for all ensuing elections until revoked by the council. The city must hold the primary on the second Tuesday in August of the year in which the city general election is held. 

For nonpartisan offices, a primary is not necessary if no more than twice the number of people to be elected file for office ( i.e., if two council seats are open, and four or fewer candidates file). In that case, the names of the candidates go directly on the general election ballot, sans partisan designation. There would then be no city races listed on the primary ballot alongside legislative, school board, or any other races happening that year.

Another reason you may not have city offices on your ballot is if you are "odd." And by that I mean, you have odd-year city elections. Cities have the option to have their local elections along with state and federal races in the even years or by themselves in the odd years.

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

GreenStep Cities Welcomes 70th Participating City (VIDEO)

 When the City of Roseville passed a resolution to join the Minnesota GreenStep Cities program in July, it became the 70th Minnesota city to affirm its ongoing work toward sustainability and quality-of-life goals for its residents.

The GreenStep Cities program, which was officially launched at the 2010 LMC Annual Conference, is led by an eight-member steering committee of public and private organizations, including the League. Participating cities range in size from Milan (population 326) to St. Paul (290,770).

GreenStep is an easy way for participating cities to track and publicly report best practices while achieving "steps" that lead to public recognition, according to program co-director Philipp Muessig, who represents the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on the steering committee.

"Some of the additional benefits cities often mention are that the GreenStep website is an easy, one-stop site, and that the GreenStep resources enable volunteer commissions to focus their limited time to get the most done, and help cities save money while adding to the city’s appeal," Muessig added.

Watch officials from several participating cities describe the benefits of the GreenStep Cities program in the quick video posted above.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Research Q of the Week: Open Meeting Law and Job Applicants (7/31)

Question: Can a city council close a meeting to consider allegations against a job applicant?

Answer: The short answer is no.

One of the seven exceptions to the Open Meeting Law requires a city council to close a meeting for “preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual subject to its authority.” City councils have typically used this exception to close meetings to discuss allegations against city employees—not fun.

But recently, a city council closed two meetings under this exception to discuss allegations against a job applicant.

The city council made a job offer to an applicant for the position of police chief that was conditional on the applicant passing several examinations. The city council later learned about some allegations against the applicant and closed two meetings to discuss them.

Here’s how that played out

 The local newspaper challenged the city council’s decision to close the meetings and requested an advisory opinion from the Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD).

IPAD advised that the city council had violated the Open Meeting Law by closing the meetings. IPAD concluded that a “public body’s ability to impose discipline and an individual’s obligation to submit to the authority of the body are what makes an individual subject to that authority.”

IPAD determined that the job applicant was not subject to the city council’s authority because the city council had no authority to discipline him or to direct his actions in any way.

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.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Local City Policy Maker Takes the Lead on a National Level

What inspires city council member Michael Wojcik these days? A passion for transportation and making sure that workers can find affordable housing in his community of Rochester, MN.

That's why he advocates for local and national policies that will benefit his constituents.

Late last week, Wojcik joined more than 200 other local elected officials from all across the nation for three days of policy workshops and policy committee meetings at the National League of Cities (NLC) Summer Policy Forum in St. Paul. The forum is held annually in a NLC member city.

Wojcik serves as the vice-chair of NLC's Community and Economic Development Committee (CED), one of seven NLC policy committees that met in St. Paul. Elected officials from cities as diverse as Wichita, KS and Broken Arrow, OK also serve as CED committee chairs.

The CED is responsible for developing policy positions on issues that extend into such far-reaching topics as land use, recreation and parks, historic preservation, and international competitiveness.

Those policy positions will be used by NLC staff and member cities to lobby at the federal government level for city-friendly legislation.

"In Rochester, I've been quite outspoken about the issue of affordable housing, and that's one of the policy areas of focus for CED," says Wojcik. "Through my NLC work, I've learned how other cities similar to Rochester are dealing with housing needs, as well as transportation issues related to local workforces."

Wojcik says he's also learned there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all policy solution. "While our communities all have some things in common, we still need to consider size differences, regional differences, and many other factors," he said. Sounds a lot like the legislative policy development process for cities right here in Minnesota, doesn't it?

NLC's executive director Clarence Anthony, formerly the mayor of South Bay, FL was among the St. Paul Policy Forum presenters that also included officials from the Federal Communications Commission.