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Paynesville Press - February 8, 2006

City council discusses issues with local legislators

By Michael Jacobson

The Paynesville City Council held a special session last week to discuss legislative issues with Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville), Rep. Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph), and county commissioner Don Otte.

The discussion, ranging from city topics like administrative fines and eminent domain to general subjects such as bonding and legislative process, lasted 70 minutes on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at city hall.

Fischbach, in her introduction, said it should be an interesting year that hopefully will be shorter and more productive since both the House, Senate, and governor will be up for election next November.

Though the session does not actually start until March, it already seems to have began, added Hosch, since committees are beginning to meet around the state.

Mayor Jeff Thompson, in light of the Highway 23 project being planned for Paynesville, started the discussion by asking if the state would consider some sort of dedicated funding for interregional corridors.

That sounded like a good idea, said Fischbach.

Hosch agreed, noting that MnDOT has intense competition for scarce resources when it comes to roads. He also added that changing MnDOT funding could be difficult. "MnDOT is one of those agencies that is very resistant to change," he said. "They are, I think, very ingrained in what they've done in the past."

Councilor Jeff Bertram, who served ten years in the legislature, lamented "the money we could have saved" during the long draft EIS process and told the legislators that he expects the city to need to call them for help with the bureaucrats during the rest of the Highway 23 improvement project.

For eminent domain, Fischbach and Hosch both expected tightening of definitions to limit its use.

City council members said the League of Minnesota Cities is very concerned that the legislature will overreact, which Otte said, too, noting county uses for eminent domain.

Hosch, a former mayor of St. Joseph, acknowledged public uses for cities, such as roads, water lines, and sewer systems. "No one is questioning that," he said.

When it comes to eminent domain for economic development, though, the public purpose is not as clear, he said. Hearings are already being held on eminent domain, he added, and he expects better definitions of "blight" and "fair compensation" to emerge to limit eminent domain uses for economic development.

Fischbach, a former member of the Paynesville City Council, also said she expects definitions to be tightened for eminent domain. Her preference would be to tighten the definition of "public use," she said, to prevent uses for private development like Best Buy Company headquarters, one of the prominent cases that has attracted legislator attention to eminent domain.

Councilor Tom Lindquist suggested that only public officials should be able to use eminent domain.

"Anyone making eminent domain decisions should be accountable to voters," agreed Hosch.

City attorney Bill Spooner expressed another concern over eminent domain, namely the proposal where the government would have to pick up both side's attorney's fees if its appraisal is off by over 20 percent. Sometimes, said Spooner, the government's appraisal could be off by 20 percent and still be closer than the landowner's, and it would not be fair if all the risk was put on the government's side, which could in effect encourage high appraisals from property owners.

Putting a possible penalty only on one side would not be fair, he told the legislators. "The goal should be for both sides to get realistic appraisals the first time," he explained.

Hosch agreed that the rule should be same for both sides.

Another issue of great concern to cities is administrative fines, which the city of Paynesville still uses. Fischbach said she expects this issue to surface again at this year's session, but again more in an attempt to better define areas of authority. In other words, she expects cities will retain the ability to levy administrative fines, but the scope might be limited.

"I feel strongly that you guys should be able to do that," she said. "Why not? Give me a good reason not to do it."

Chronic violators, Fischbach is told, do not have administrative fines for speeding put on their state record, but neither are warnings, she said.

Hosch agreed, saying that the state caused this problem itself with its high fees. Of a $132 speeding ticket, only $50 is the actual fine, said Hosch. The rest is fees, of which the city gets $17.

"The state deserves it," Hosch said of the administrative fine controversy. "We've upped fees so much. To pay $132 for going six miles per hour over the speed limit is harsh."

Police chief Kent Kortlever told the legislators that law enforcement would like the authority to use administrative fines for all petty misdemeanors, and he also asked about making failure to wear a seatbelt a primary offense, meaning police could make a traffic stop for anyone not wearing a seatbelt.

The council and legislators also discussed proposed legislation to allow wine and beer sales in grocery stores and proposed legislation to end municipal liquor stores, subjects raised by liquor store manager Marilyn Fuchs.

Fischbach confirmed that the proposals are out there but said she did not support them.

Hosch added that he opposed the beer and wine in grocery stores proposal and also said that the legislation to end municipal liquor stores was not very credible. It is usually submitted only in the House - not both chambers - and last year got nowhere in the local government committee.

Anyone of 201 legislators can submit a bill, Fischbach and Hosch said, which does not mean it has the support to become law.

Councilor Dennis Zimmerman also asked about the seeming lack of "common sense" in St. Paul. When there is good cooperation and bipartisanship in their dealings with legislators, why is there so much posturing at the state capitol?

"We have those discussions. We really do," said Fischbach, who attributed it to having 201 opinions in St. Paul and a "mob mentality," especially during long sessions, where legislators get caught up with details in St. Paul and forget about their constituents.

"Is our process screwed up?" she asked.

"Common sense," said Hosch, "is what you think until someone else tells you what to think. There are a lot of people telling us how to think down there."

Hosch said he intends to introduce legislation about government reform, including seven items so far. He added that he enjoyed being mayor of St. Joseph but did not always enjoy his first session as a legislator. One highlight is being a member of the "posse," a group of 12 moderate legislators, whose only membership requirement is being willing to vote against your party leadership.

Another main topic for the legislature this year is another bonding bill. Bertram thanked both Fischbach and Hosch for their help with the Lake Koronis Recreational Trail, for which $365,000 was obtained in last year's bonding bill to connect it with the Glacial Lakes State Trail, which also got another $500,000 for improvements.

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