John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New Squad Cars

In recent months, when driving in St. Paul I've noticed police cars with the old-fashioned black and white design becoming more prevalent. It turns out this is a trend across the metro, and Maplewood is joining it.

Starting in January, residents will begin to see Maplewood squad cars with a new look out on patrol:

The fleet will change over gradually over the next three years, as new vehicles replace old.


Friday, December 19, 2008


The word has come down on unallotments. Rather than only cutting from cities that get Local Government Aid, the governor has decided to also take money from cities that get Market Value Homestead Credit to offset property taxes.

Information is available on the Department of Revenue web page, including a PDF with a list of Minnesota cities and how much of their funding is being taken away this month.

In Maplewood's case -- if I am reading the chart right... they are taking it all. The entire payment of $244,473 that was supposed to be paid by December 26th, 2008. This was part of the 2008 budget approved back in 2007 -- but now it will never be paid at all. It's not even two weeks until the end of the year, and we will have to account for the loss of almost a quarter million dollars of money from the current year's budget.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Finalists Chosen

Last night we had a special meeting at 5:00 PM to review the resumes of a dozen semifinalists recommended to us by our consultants for the city manager search. This meeting was not in fact a closed session, as indicated on the agenda, since our attorneys informed us that there was not a basis in the Open Meeting Law for closing the meeting. Instead, to preserve private applicant data, we simply referred to each applicant by a number instead of a name.

To select finalists, each member of the council submitted a list of the applicants (by numbers) that we wished to interview. A councilmember could select all applicants, none, or any number in between. There was remarkable consensus -- two candidates were on the lists of all five of us, and another three were each on 4 of 5 lists. That gave us five candidates, the very number our consultant recommended we select as finalists. I offered a motion to name those five as our finalists; Erik Hjelle gave his second; and the motion carried unanimously.

The finalists, whose names are now public, are as follows (in alphabetical order, with their current or most recent city management position):

1. James W. Antonen, former City Manager of Davis, California
2. William P. Barlow, Village Manager of Winfield, Illinois
3. Daniel J. Donahue, former City Manager of New Hope, Minnesota
4. Stephen P. King, City Administrator of South Saint Paul, Minnesota
5. Timothy Madigan, City Administrator of Faribault, Minnesota

We also agreed unanimously on the next steps in the process. The plan is to have the finalists interviewed by our two advisory panels on January 6th or 7th. We will ask the panels to make a written report to us no later than Monday, January 12th. After reviewing the reports and interviews of the panels, we will conduct our own interviews of all five finalists later that week (most likely on January 14th).

UPDATE: The council was just informed that Mr. Barlow has accepted another job and removed himself from consideration. So, we will proceed with the four remaining finalists.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

More on the Levy

I wanted to return to the details of the final levy decision from Monday night's long meeting.

Using the staff-recommended 3.0% increase as a starting point, the council discussed further cuts and cost savings to achieve a lower levy. The motion passed 3-2, but as its details were discussed, it did seem to me that input of the entire council influenced the motion, even if it did not win everyone's approval in the end.

These additional cuts were passed:
  • $18,000 from Public Works. The expected result of this cut will be somewhat slower plowing of city-owned sidewalks and trails, as there will be less money available for overtime.
  • $5,000 from Information Technology. This amounts to putting off for a year the replacement of five computers owned by the city.
  • $9,500 from Citizen Services. This will reduce some service at city hall -- possibly at the information desk, possibly at the service window where people get passports, licenses, etc.
  • $7,400 from the Fire Department. We will spend less on uniforms and will replace 10 sets of turn out gear rather than 12.
  • $43,000 from Police. We will not buy a hybrid SUV ($26,000 savings). We also can account for $17,000 in savings from a recent change of provider for youth diversion services (the budget was written before we had finalized that deal and locked in the savings).
  • $50,000 from the fuel budget city-wide. Mr. Ahl indicated that he would get to work on a contract to lock in fuel prices for the first six months of the year. The budget had assumed more expensive gasoline and diesel prices -- again, this was a prudent expectation earlier this year when oil was through the roof.
  • $5,000 from the travel and training budget for the City Manager, Council and Mayor. This cuts in half the funding we have to attend things like the League of Minnesota Cities annual meeting or regional meetings, or the National League of Cities conferences that the mayor has attended in the past two years. It seemed fair, as we were cutting other departments, to give up something of the council's as well.
Total cuts: $137,900 from the city's operating levy and budget.

If we take these changes and use them to adjust the figures on page 28 of the draft budget, we get the following:
2008 Levy2009 Levy$Change%Change
General Fund$11,644,525$11,546,895($97,630)-0.84%
Community Center Operations Fund230,000300,00070,00030.4%
Recreation Programs Fund250,000250,00000.0%
Debt Service:
Debt Service Fund3,421,9253,779,340357,41510.2%
Totals - All Funds$15,546,450$15,876,235$329,7852.12%

Under the state's levy limits, we could have increased our operating levy by 3.9% (plus an allowance for new construction). Instead, we reduced it.

What we can't reduce are the city's debt service obligations -- we have to make payments on those bonds for past street projects and the like. Even including those bond payments, the final levy increase of 2.12% is well below the rate of inflation, whether you measure that by the Consumer Price Index or the Implicit Price Deflator for State and Local Government Consumption.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Search Continues

With the budget out of the way and the comprehensive plan sent to neighboring jurisdictions for comment, we still have a major piece of business for the council: the ongoing process to select a new city manager.

Our consultants at the PAR Group have provided to the council the resumés and applications of 12 individuals, out of at least four dozen total applicants, for our consideration in a closed meeting at Monday.

The identities of these individuals are at this point confidential. According to Minnesota Statutes § 13.43, subd. 3 (that's part of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act),
Names of applicants shall be private data except when certified as eligible for appointment to a vacancy or when applicants are considered by the appointing authority to be finalists for a position in public employment. For purposes of this subdivision, "finalist" means an individual who is selected to be interviewed by the appointing authority prior to selection.
On Monday, we will review the applications in closed session with Mr. Bernard from the PAR Group, and then select finalists for interview.

Because the identities of applicants are private data at this point, I can't say a lot about them, but I think I am not going too far by suggesting that we have a lot of impressive, well qualified choices.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Just a short note. We didn't get out of city hall until something like 1:30 AM, in order to take care of the things that really needed to be taken care of last night. The rest of the agenda will continue next Monday, after the public hearing on White Bear Ave. improvements and the special closed meeting for reviewing the initial field of city manager candidates.

A key thing that residents are probably wondering about is the final tax levy and budget. Without going into all the details, we came up with a list of cuts that reduced the final levy increase to 2.2%.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Land Use on Tonight's Agenda

Two items on tonight's agenda will focus the council's attention on the topic of land use: Item K2, Comprehensive Plan Update, and item L4, Richie Place Subdivision Proposal on Labore Road (which involves a proposed change to the Comprehensive Land Use Plan).

In preparation for these items, I've been doing some reading this past weekend -- specifically, two Minnesota Supreme Court cases that shed light on council power and its limits when it comes to land use decisions.

In Mendota Golf, LLP, v. City of Mendota Heights (2006), the Supreme Court looked at a case where there was a conflict between the zoning and the land use plan for a golf course whose owner wanted to make it a residential development. The zoning was appropriate for this development, but the city did not want to amend its comp plan. The city was ordered to reconcile the conflict between the comp plan and the zoning -- but (unlike the original lower court ruling) the Supreme Court made it clear that how to reconcile the conflict was up to the city to decide.

Mendota Golf also made it clear that how the conflict was resolved could have further implications: "Our decision also does not foreclose Mendota Golf from asserting a regulatory takings claim if the parties cannot resolve their dispute," wrote the court.

So the upshot of this case is that a city must reconcile conflicts between zoning and the Comp Plan (such as the conflict we face on Richie Place, or the conflict in South Maplewood between the current zoning and comp plan), but courts give a city broad legislative authority to decide how to reconcile the conflict (e.g., change zoning to match the Comp Plan; change the Comp Plan to match the zoning; or change both to something else entirely). However, the court also opened the door to the possibility that some changes could result in a regulatory taking, that is, a situation where the city could be forced to compensate the landowners for regulating away the use of their land.

Last year some of these issues arose again in the case of Wensmann Realty v. Eagan (2007). This case focused on that open door to a regulatory takings claims, in a case where the city wanted to maintain an Open Space land use designation on private land to prevent a residential development. The court concluded that "a city’s denial of an application to amend its comprehensive plan to permit residential development of golf course property constitutes a regulatory taking under the Minnesota Constitution if the denial leaves no reasonable use of the property."

Considering the balance of factors to determine whether or not there is a regulatory taking, the court wrote, "The citizens of Eagan clearly value the open space that the golf course provides, but if the property owner is forced to leave the property undeveloped for the benefit of neighboring landowners without an opportunity to pursue a reasonable use of the property, the city is, in essence, asking the property owner to carry a burden that in all fairness should be borne by the entire community."

In the Wensmann case, the justices ultimately felt that the court record was insufficent to determine if in fact a taking had occurred, and so remanded the case to district court. Eagan and Wensmann subsequently worked out a compromise, which involved a referendum this fall on whether or not the city would buy the land in order to keep it as public open space.

In conclusion, I see two key guidelines when the council is considering changes to our comprehensive land use plan.

  1. If there is a conflict between the comp plan and the zoning, we are obliged to reconcile that conflict. This is required by the Metropolitan Land Planning Act (Minnesota Statutes 473.865). We have legislative authority to decide how to reconcile the conflict, as long as our decision has a rational basis.
  2. To avoid regulatory takings claims from landowners whose land use plan designation is changes, we need to make certain that the designation allows a reasonable use of the property. Again, a city has fairly wide latitude, since as the court writes in Wensmann, "A taking does not result simply because the property owner has been deprived of the most profitable use of the property."

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Search Committees and the OML

I concluded my previous entry by saying that "it seems clear from the court's opinion that no one even questioned the fact the advisory committee was not subject to the Open Meeting Law."

The reason for this is simple -- it was already established case law from sixteen years earlier (Minnesota Daily v. University of Minnesota, 432 N.W.2d 189 (Minn. Ct. App. 1988)).

A legislative information brief about the Open Meeting Law explains, referencing this case (p. 4):
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has held that the open meeting law does not apply to certain types of advisory groups. In that case, a presidential search advisory committee to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents was held not to be a committee of the governing body for purposes of the open meeting law. In reaching its holding, the court pointed out that no regents were on the search committee and that the committee had no power to set policy or make a final decision.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

I do not think it means what you think it means

At our last Council Manager Workshop, we were discussing the application of the Open Meeting Law to the citizen panels that are helping screen finalists for the position of city manager. At the meeting, Mayor Longrie cited a 2004 court case, Star Tribune et al. v. University of Minnesota Board of Regents, et al., to support her contention that all of the panels' deliberations -- specifically, their development of questions that they would ask the candidates in the interviews – needed to be public.

After Monday's workshop, I thought I should look up the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision and read it for myself. The mayor read aloud some sections that would seem to support her position. However, what the court was interpreting in that case was whether or not the Board of Regents itself (the university's equivalent to the city council) – not their advisory search panel – was subject to the Open Meeting Law.

In discussing the case, the court mentions a Presidential Search Advisory Committee (PSAC), which was created by the Regents to "recruit, screen and recommend candidates." And, "From those candidates recommended by the PSAC, the Regents would select finalists who would be publicly interviewed and considered by the Regents, as required by the Open Meeting Law and the Board of Regents Bylaws." In other words, the PSAC is similar to the advisory panels the Maplewood City Council has set up to help evaluate our city manager candidates.

No one questioned that the work of the PSAC was not done in public. On the contrary, the plaintiffs only raised their objections about the actions of the Board -- after the PSAC's work was done.

The mayor drew a false analogy, comparing the University of Minnesota Board of Regents with our advisory search panels. The true analogy would be between our panels and the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. And it seems clear from the court's opinion that no one even questioned the fact the advisory committee was not subject to the Open Meeting Law.

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