Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Questions? Research says, 'Bring it on.'

Have you ever called the League with a municipal-related question? If so, chances are you talked with one of the staffers in the Research and Information Service, or simply "Research."

This photo of  research staff from 1980 is staged, but we like it anyway.
No question too small; no situation too parochial; the spirit of the League's Research service remains largely unchanged from the early days when our sister organization, the Municipal Reference Bureau, was answering the many varied questions of city staff and officials.

But instead of fielding concerns about oiling streets and licensing coin-operated phonographs, Research staff today find the most popular questions are often related to complex city operations and best practices related to managing finances, public data, police departments, and more. And of course, there are the perpetual problems such as barking dogs and unkempt property that will continue to perplex councils and staff for at least 100 years more!

What else has changed? Well, volume, for one. In 1913 there were 51 inquiries to the Municipal Reference Bureau. These days, research receives about 4,000 inquiries a year. The mode of contact has also changed. While the first questions were hand-written and received by mail, city officials and staff now submit questions through an online form, via email, or by picking up the phone.

Have a question of your own? Bring it on—the League's Research staff is here for you!

The top 5 types of questions Research tackles every day:*

1.    How does the open meeting law work? For example, can some or all of the councilmembers attend meetings electronically or from a remote location? What notice is required for a special meeting?

2.    What are the rules for financial operations?  Can tax dollars be donated to an art fair to be held in the city, or used for a city celebration? How does the city raise money since cities may not borrow money from a bank? How does state tax law affect cities?

3.    Can you answer a contract question? Joint powers, solid waste removal, law enforcement—you name it, how does our city do it right?

4.    How do we comply with the Data Practices Law? Which data requests should the city comply with? What is the classification of particular types of data? This law is so all-encompassing, cities have many questions about it!

5.    What are the "dos" and "don’ts" of managing citizen engagement? These questions revolve around interactions between elected officials, staff and the public. Questions often touch on protocol when dealing with an upset citizen, as well as how to handle public hearings.

(Other frequent questions deal with operating city utilities and billing, conflict of interest and compatibility of office questions, providing and paying for law enforcement, all those pesky nuisance complaints, and questions related to volunteer fire departments.)

Learn more about the history of League research staff in the July-Aug. issue of Minnesota Cities magazine, and check out last week's blog post for more information about the Municipal Reference Bureau!

*A big thanks to League staffers Elaine Clark in technology services and Jeanette Behr, our research manager, for their efforts compiling and summarizing this data!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Collegiate Roots, Fresh Air and Independence

The air is crisp, classrooms are humming, and somewhere out there a lone groundskeeper is retouching a bright white 50-yard line. It's fall, and we're feeling mighty collegiate today. What can we say? It's in our roots!

The timeline of Minnesota cities and the League is of course interwoven with Minnesota's rich history, and one of the state's most notable institutions is no exception. Ski-U-Mah, anyone?

League office space in the library building, 1938.

That's right, the League of Minnesota Municipalities started out as a part of the University of Minnesota's Extension Office alongside a new Municipal Reference Bureau. The League benefited from the resources of the University and the Reference Bureau. Our first established offices were even in the campus library building.

Executive Director Dean Lund
But the time came when the interests of the League and the interests of the University diverged. Among other concerns, the Board of Regents wanted the League to keep its focus on research and information services, while member cities and staff recognized the importance of expanding efforts to advocate for cities in the political arena.

And so in 1972, amidst budget pressures of their own, the University's Board of Regents voted to stop funding League activities to the tune of about $160,000.

 LMM Executive Director Dean Lund and President Phil Cohen convinced the Board to give the League one more year of funding in order to create a plan for the future.  A+ on that one, guys.

A flyer from 1973 announces the move to new off-campus digs.
A swiftly formed Future of the League Committee pulled out their pencils and got to work. After surveying members and inspecting operations, they recommended that starting in 1974 the League should operate independently, relying on its members for funding; that the League should continue to provide the same level of services to its members; that advocacy efforts on behalf of cities should continue; and that the new fee rates should sustain the League's activities for several years.

Rather than disbanding or providing just a fraction of its former services, the League was instead bolstered by the support of its members (the best!) who agreed to sharp dues increases to keep their organization alive.

While the years to follow weren't easy, it was the right play for Minnesota cities. Looking back, we can see that independence was just what the League needed to grow and thrive—refreshing, just like a breath of autumn air.

Learn more about the Municipal Reference Bureau and League research in next week's centennial blog post!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, 2001: How the League Responded

Everyone remembers where they were that day.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Minnesotans joined the rest of the nation to mourn after terrorists hijacked and crashed four planes in New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania—killing thousands of innocent people. Citizens across the United States were left shocked, frightened, and uncertain in the aftermath of the attack.

The League of Minnesota Cities urged preparedness, not panic, in our member cities. LMC asked municipalities to take reasonable measures to ensure they were prepared in the case of emergency, but to avoid going overboard with measures that could cause undue alarm.

The League also responded in part by devoting significant energy to educating members on issues surrounding emergency preparation and disaster response, including:

  • Why cities should organize before a disaster occurs, stressing the importance of emergency management and preparedness.
  • Insurance issues to consider during a crisis, including what the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) offers for coverage. Questions were addressed around city employees who go to another state to assist with disaster relief efforts—as well as whether city buildings damaged by a terrorist action would be covered.
  • How to access anti-terrorism resources via the National League of Cities (NLC), as well as information on their new relief fund called “Always Remember 9-11” that provided various types of assistance to the families of the public employees killed or injured that day.
Finally, LMC Executive Director Jim Miller penned the following thoughts that still resonate
12 years later: 

The events of September 11 and what has followed represent more than cumulative acts of courage. They are also a poignant demonstration of the fundamental reason we have government: to provide services and a quality of life that would not be achievable in its absence. It is not just in emergencies, but day in and day out that the actions of government have direct bearing on our lives.

These were unparalleled circumstances requiring unparalleled responses. We can all be justifiably proud of how so many met that challenge. At least in those moments, people again saw the value and purpose of government. But, the challenge for those in public service now is sustaining that connection in the minds of our citizens.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Calling All Future Leaders!

Download your entry form here:

Do you know any kids who’d like to be in charge, even if it’s just for 24 hours? Tell them they can win $100 when they enter the League’s “Mayor for a Day” essay contest!

Though much of our centennial year has been spent looking back over our first century, the League now wants to hear what our future leaders have to say.

LMC wants to know: what would Minnesota residents age 7-12 do if they ran their city for a day? And though it might be tempting for these students to declare, “That’s easy: ice cream for every meal!,” the contest does ask them to think through real-life municipal services.

As the essay intro states: Cities do lots of things to make our lives better. They provide services such as clean water, fire, libraries, parks and recreation, police, senior services, sewers and garbage, streets and sidewalks.

If you were mayor for a day, what would you do to make these services even better than they already are for all the people in your city?

Entries must be handwritten and postmarked by November 1, 2013. Four prizes of $100 each will be awarded in two age categories and the winning entries will also be published in a future issue of Minnesota Cities magazine.

So whether it’s your neighbor, your relative, or your friend’s third cousin’s niece—if you know a child in this age range, please tell them about this contest (or simply print out and hand them this entry form!).

We can’t wait to read what the future holds for Minnesota cities!