Friday, March 28, 2014

A Hole-istic Approach for Repairing Minnesota Streets

It's going to be a bumpy ride.
'Tis the season when drivers on Minnesota city streets and roads have (nearly) officially traded snow and ice for axle-jolting potholes. Though the appearances of roadway holes, fractures, and splits are typical post-winter sights in our beloved state, the past season—featuring multiple polar vortex visits—has proved to be particularly stressful for motorists.

Before you put a down payment on that Florida condo, though, consider this: the horrid winter weather should not get all of the blame for the condition of neighborhood streets in our Minnesota cities. Indeed, just as state government has fallen behind in making transportation investments in state-run highways, some cities faced with budget challenges in recent years have made the difficult decision to delay scheduled street projects that might have mitigated some of this season's March pothole madness. As League lobbyist Anne Finn noted in recent legislative testimony, "Much of the condition of our roads is a result of neglect. What we hear from city engineers is that they need the tools and resources to get the repairs done."

While the state has indeed proposed to grant an emergency allocation of $15 million for the latest spring pothole fixes, a longer-term solution is needed for city streets in Minnesota. League-backed Street Improvement District authority legislation has been introduced that would allow cities to collect fees from property owners to fund municipal street maintenance, construction, and reconstruction. The bill would help property owners in a community fund expensive street projects by paying relatively small fees over a period of time—a better alternative to special assessments.

Finn notes that quick passage of the legislation could save cities millions of dollars down the road. In fact, for every dollar spent on maintenance, a road authority saves about $7 in repairs at a later date—a staggering difference in cost for local taxpayers in the state. Pothole prevention is substantially less expensive than pothole remediation.

Unfortunately, the Street Improvement District authority legislation is currently stalled in the House and Senate tax committees. It's possible though, that with enough city officials and city residents contacting legislators to express support, legislation could resurface at a later date as part of an omnibus bill, or as a stand-alone bill. Something to think about while you're between calls to auto repair shops to get realignment estimates.

Watch LMC's video on Street Improvement Districts featuring Minnesota city officials:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Research Q of the Week: Primary Election Newbies (3/27)

Question: Can our city have a primary election? We have never had one before.

Answer: Yes, a city council can choose to have a municipal primary election for the purpose of nominating elective officers prior to the municipal general election. 

For most cities, elective officers are the mayor and councilmembers. However, some cities have elected clerks and even more rarely an elected treasurer. 

Some cities choose to hold a primary because they regularly get a lot of candidates filing for office or because their city charters require it. 

If you think your city would benefit from a primary election, it's time to get the process underway. First, your council must pass a resolution or ordinance calling for the primary election. The resolution or ordinance must be adopted by April 15 and is effective for all future primary elections until the council revokes it.

The city clerk is responsible for notifying the county auditor and Minnesota Secretary of State within 30 days of the council adopting the resolution or ordinance.

The municipal primary election must be held in conjunction with the state primary election, which in 2014 is on Aug. 12. So while it may create more administrative work for the city, at least there will not be an additional election day the city would be responsible for.

Who advances
After the city council has canvassed the primary election results, the two candidates who receive the highest number of votes (or a number of candidates equal to twice the number of individuals to be elected to the office) are the individuals listed on the ballot during the general election. For example, on the general election ballot there would be two candidates listed for mayor. If the city was electing two councilmembers then there would be four candidates listed on the ballot to choose from. These individuals do not need to pay an additional filing fee to be on the general election ballot.

For more information, see Minn. Stat. § 205.065.

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

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Falling in Love With Our Cities

What do you love most about where you live? For most of us, a little laundry list of favorite things about where we call home likely pops into our head. For Peter Kageyama, this is a bigger and more central question he explores in his work.
Peter Kageyama

Peter is the co-founder and producer of The Creative Cities Summit—an ongoing exploration into the complex problems and remarkable opportunities that our cities provide—and author of For the Love of Cities. He delves into the love affair between people and their places, and illustrates for city leaders what little things matter in the relationship with place-making.

This June, Peter will be the opening keynote speaker at LMC’s Annual Conference, where he will discuss how you can create more engaged citizens without major resources, which are the “most lovable” cities and what we can learn from them, and how a small number of people who are “in love” with their city can have major impacts.

Peter recently took some time to answer our questions about people and their places:

What kinds of things create strong emotional connections between residents and their places? On the flip side, what kinds of things turn people off?
I have seen over and over again that small, often silly things, create enduring emotional connections between people and their places. I call them “love notes” in my book. Things like dog parks and farmers’ markets are great examples. Public art is another. And these types of things are often the first things cut as budgets shrink because they are seen as nice to have and not must have. As for the flip side, it is less about turn off than it is about tune out. Much of what cities want to offer us—like parking decks, paved roads, big box retail, and chain restaurants—just blends together and does nothing to excite or emotionally engage us. 

When budgets are tight, how can cities make these kinds of lovable projects a priority?
We have to get beyond the purely financial method of accounting because in purely financial terms, you will never justify anything like public art or landscaping. Think about how many potholes you could fix for the cost of that piece of public art.  We need to consider the value of things as well as just their cost—and in that type of accounting, things like beauty, art, and fun have tremendous value. The value of the dog park and the farmers’ market is in the social connections we make, in the smiles generated, and the positive attitude we have because of the experiences.  And remember that—compared to things like roads and stadiums—these love notes are incredibly cost effective in their emotional return on investment.

How do we motivate citizens to step up and do sometimes extraordinary things for their communities?
Bottom-up community development begins when people realize that city building is not just something that mayors, councilmembers, and city managers do. City building can be a very small, hyper-local effort that can be fun as well as meaningful.  Once people start thinking about the lighter, faster, cheaper things they can do—and not wait for the city to lead on—they open the door to bottom-up participation.  These efforts become expressions of people’s emotional connection to their place. They start small, get some experience and some confidence, and then tackle something bigger and bigger. Iterate this a few times, and you may have game-changing, citizen-led projects for your community.

Like what you’ve read? Don’t miss your chance to hear Peter in person when he opens up the 2014 LMC Annual Conference! He’ll speak on Thursday, June 19 from 9-10:30 a.m. Hope to see you this summer!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Getting On Board with Freight Rail Safety

Photos: Officials from the cities of Wayzata, Big Lake, Glyndon, Winona, and staff from the League of Minnesota Cities met with Congressman Tim Walz (top right) and other rail safety stakeholders this week. 

Congressman Tim Walz (D-MN) met with city officials and other stakeholders on Wednesday at the League of Minnesota Cities to talk about freight rail shipping safety and what cities need to better prepare for rail-related disasters.

While only a small fraction of freight rail travel each year is impacted by failures such as leaks, explosions and derailments, the impact of these incidents can be catastrophic—think of the Quebec derailment that killed 47 people last year.

Recent headlines regarding spills of dangerous chemicals and derailments have clustered in the northern US and Canada. A boom in the oil industry has in part driven an increase in regional freight rail traffic, said Walz. And while freight rail use has gone up, things like inspections and equipment upgrades may not have kept pace.

City officials at the hearing voiced a need for communication and coordination of training opportunities for local police and fire—those who would be first on the scene of a derailment, fire, or spill. They also stressed that the average city does not have the resources such as compressed air foam to fight a large oil fire for more than a few minutes.

Just getting the range of perspectives present into the same room was a big deal. State, city and rail industry representatives all thanked Walz and each other for the opportunity to work together.
Walz said that action taken in Minnesota could ultimately influence policy on a federal level—meaning that the feedback provided by Minnesota cities today could result in better safety policies and procedures for all U.S. cities in the future. All aboard? Thought so.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Research Q of the Week: Help with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (3/20)

Question: A citizen requested copies of some city records, and staff isn't sure whether the information is public data. We've checked with the city attorney, who reviewed the law, but the answer is still unclear. What now?

Answer: Well, one of your city council’s options is to request a free advisory opinion from the Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD).

The commissioner of the Department of Administration uses IPAD to issue non-binding, advisory opinions on questions about the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. This includes questions about public access to data, the rights of data subjects, and the classification of data. For example, here’s a recent advisory opinion  addressing the classification of data a city maintained on driving offenses: (IPAD 13-013)

To request an advisory opinion:
  • Send a letter or an email to the Commissioner of Administration, c/o IPAD at 201 Administration Building, 50 Sherburne Ave, St. Paul, MN 55155 or
  • State that you are requesting an advisory opinion.
  • Explain the facts briefly and state the issue or issues that you want addressed.
  • Provide copies of any related documents or correspondence, including citations to any relevant statutes, rules, or case law.
After receiving the request, IPAD will:
  • Mail you a letter within five business days if it chooses not to issue an advisory opinion.  (The Commissioner has the right to refuse to issue an opinion.)
  • Contact the city if more information is needed.
  • Send the city a confirmation letter if your request is accepted.
For more information about cities and the Data Practices Act, see the LMC information memo, Data Practices: Analyze, Classify and Respond.

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spotted: Firefighters Staying Safe in Brutal Winter Conditions (Photo)

Perham-area firefighters were recently “spotted” by LMC’s Public Safety Project Coordinator Rob Boe.

In one of his recent public safety blog posts, Rob illustrates how 130 firefighters (representing 17 different departments) communicated, coordinated, and cooperated in well-below-zero conditions to safely battle a large warehouse fire.

Though the firefighters worked through the night to take down this massive blaze, not a single one of them was injured.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Fresh City Reads Available in March-April Issue of 'Minnesota Cities' Magazine

The March-April issue of Minnesota Cities magazine mailed this week to subscribers, and is available online for your digital consumption.

What’s inside? Take a look at these three highlights:

 Red Wing's Universal Playground, accessible to all children regardless of disability, opened in 2009. Some of the features include a rubber ground surface and ramps on some of the play structures. Looks like fun? You bet. Best of all, the park’s design features are also in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Is your city among those with parks and recreation facilities that are out of compliance with the ADA? You might be surprised to find out that there are low-cost ways to improve accessibility to your own city’s programs and facilities. Find out more in “Parks & Rec For All!

The “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) trend is projected to grow as employees become accustomed to accessing work email, calendars, and applications from the myriad of gadgets available these days. In addition to concerns about security and protection of public data, BYOD also raises the issue of device-induced overtime. Learn what other cities are doing to incorporate BYOD while keeping networks, data, and budgets safe in “Technology Trends: ‘BYOD’ and the City.”

While initially hesitant, the city of Albertville is now a big fan of the free public works ergonomics survey and equipment inventory they received gratis through LMCIT.  They emerged with a list of equipment modifications that now assist employees in getting the job done safer and more efficiently. The review also provided data that the city needed to prioritize investments in safety, and it made applying for an OSHA Safety Grant a cinch. Check out an interview with Albertville’s city administrator, public works director, and city engineer (one guy, many hats!) to see how the process evolved in “Safety First—Review Helps City Reduce Risk.”

Do these subjects grab your attention? Check out LMCIT’s spring Safety and Loss Control Workshops. These $20 workshops are being held in nine different locations throughout the state! See the list of locations and more information here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Future of Cities: Two Great Reads to Get You Thinking

Still not convinced winter is over, despite daylight savings and all of the dripping and melting over the last few days? Neither are we. In that spirit, we thought we’d recommend a couple of great reads that will get you through until spring takes a firm and confident hold!

First up is For the Love of Cities by Peter Kageyama. In this book, Peter explores the love affair between people and their places. He delves into just what it is that makes cities lovable—and what motivates ordinary citizens to do extraordinary things for their places. Peter illustrates how some cities are using the passion of their people to fill in the gaps that “official” city makers have left as resources have disappeared.

In Nice Bike: Making Meaningful Connections on the Road of Life, Mark Scharenbroich demonstrates how being part of a community and experiencing a greater affiliation with others can improve your work and your life. The premise began when Mark accidentally stumbled on Harley-Davidson’s centennial celebration and noticed how two simple words—“nice bike”—embodied three important actions: acknowledging, honoring, and connecting with others.

So besides writing great books, what do these two authors have in common? They’ll both be keynote speakers at this year’s LMC Annual Conference! Peter will kick things off on Thursday morning, and Mark will wrap up at the closing luncheon on Friday.

Both For the Love of Cities and Nice Bike are available in paperback format and for Kindle readers. If you do buy a paperback, don’t forget to bring it and get it signed at the conference! In the meantime, enjoy the reads, and we’ll see you in June.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Research Q of the Week: Disappearing Fire Hydrants (3/6)

Question: If there’s one thing we’ve had plenty of this winter it is snow. Whose responsibility is it to remove snow from around fire hydrants?

Answer: Snow-covered fire hydrants are just another reason to look forward to a spring thaw. Accumulated snow can bury fire hydrants, making them hard to find and access in an emergency. Finding and digging out fire hydrants can take up valuable time during an emergency and divert firefighters from fighting a fire.


 There is no state law that addresses who is responsible for removing snow from fire hydrants. Some cities assign public works crews to remove snow from fire hydrants. Other cities simply do not have the resources to remove snow from what could be thousands of fire hydrants.

When that’s the case:

 • Cities may request by newsletter and on the city website that citizens remove snow from fire hydrants to protect their neighborhood.
 • Cities may establish an “Adopt-A-Hydrant” program where citizens volunteer to remove snow from specific fire hydrants in the city.

With consent from the volunteers, cities with Adopt-A-Hydrant programs might want to consider recognizing volunteers by featuring their names and the hydrant they have adopted on the city’s webpage or posting pictures of citizens with their adopted hydrants.

Whatever policy a city decides to adopt for removal of snow from fire hydrants, it is a good idea to document the policy and the reasons for it. This documentation will help protect the city if there is ever a legal challenge to the policy and the city’s response to fighting a fire.

Don’t forget, the League of Minnesota Cities Research Department can answer your questions about snow removal. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about the weather.

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

Surprise! It's Federal Law and Manufactured Home Zoning Law

The Planning and Zoning Pyramid of Discretion
Trailers, mobile homes, manufactured housing—whatever you call them, federal law regarding these abodes can create another potentially sticky situation for city zoning.

Once upon a time, it was up to a city to regulate whether mobile homes in their boundaries had building features such as a foundation or a minimum size requirement.

These were probably good ordinances to have at the time.

But since the 1970s, a federal manufactured home building code has been in force specifying how manufactured homes can be built, and along with that building code came protections in federal law.

Most notably, cities may not have zoning ordinance rules that apply only to manufactured homes and not to other types of residences. 

“Much like there are protections in law for religious institutions, there are also protections in law for manufactured housing,” says land use and loss control attorney Jed Burkett. “And much like with religious institutions, there were traditional zoning practices in place that often times may be inconsistent or in conflict with state and federal law today.”

Manufactured home parks

Manufactured home parks can be another area of confusion for cities. How cities can regulate manufactured home parks, which are licensed through the State Dept. of Health, has its own set of laws.

What's the most common hitch for cities? Under state statute, these parks can be considered a conditional use in zoning districts that allow multi-family housing. That means it would be wise for cities to address these parks in their zoning ordinances, says Burkett. And no, a city may not require manufactured homes to only be located in a manufactured home park.

Surprised? You’re probably not alone. “They are out there,” says Burkett of outdated ordinances. “That’s one of the reasons we continue to talk about this decades after this law changed.”

Here are a couple resources for cities that want to get it right:

Still have questions? Call Jed. “I’m always happy to talk to city folks about these issues,” says Burkett. “I’m available as a resource to them.”

Contact: (651) 281-1247 or (800) 925-1122.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Joint Legislative Conference 2014: Hashtag, You're It

When nearly 500 local government officials from cities, counties, townships and school boards got together last Thursday for the annual Joint Legislative Conference, there was bound to be some side discussion on social media commenting on policy, cooperation and the conference highlights.

In fact, League staff encouraged it!

LMC members helped identify conference discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #LMCleg. Meanwhile, staff uploaded photos on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr to share the experience with those who couldn't make it to Saint Paul.

Scroll through the Storify feed to see highlights from the social media conversation, and add your own comments below!

View the League's comment policy here: