Where did this nuisance language come from?!

Last week the Minnetrista city council took up the matter of modifying its nuisance ordinance primarily because of a single property on the same road a council member lives on. Several council meetings on this property over the last few years always ended in agreement, by most, that this was an isolated occurrence, not impacting the community-at-large, and with council members not willing to spend money on attorneys to rewrite an ordinance that had served the city well and had provided resolution to virtually all nuisance complaints in the city with the exception of this one. The property is located on a large parcel in rural Minnetrista.

The new nuisance ordinance now being drafted by attorneys from Kennedy & Graven includes a section titled “Additional Public Nuisances Defined.” In a memo from Kennedy & Graven to the council it states this “ordinance tracks closely to the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) model nuisance ordinance” and included the following additional public nuisance definition:

“The public exposure of persons having a contagious disease or condition which
endangers public health, safety or welfare.”

Yes, you read that correctly. The League of Minnesota Cities is quietly slipping in municipal control and enforcement over where Minnesota residents can freely go and giving cities authority to decide what amounts to a contagious disease or condition. A common cold could be construed as a contagious disease or condition and punishable as a violation of the city’s ordinance. The City of Medina, who also employ Kennedy & Graven as their legal counsel, have already adopted these new “nuisances” into their city code.

It appears the Minnetrista council was uncomfortable with some of the language provided by Kennedy & Graven and will likely remove this contagious disease language from the new Minnetrista ordinance. It should, however, give Minnetrista residents pause that the city’s law firm, who should be representing residents, is attempting to include the LMC’s invasive language into ordinances for cities it represents.

Readers can see the draft nuisance ordinance on page 44 of the March 15 work session packet.

Ground mounted solar ordinance on tonight’s agenda

After residents vehemently protested an application for a large and unsightly industrial ground mounted solar energy system in western Minnetrista, last November the city council slapped a moratorium on ground mounted solar systems. The ill conceived ordinance written in 2015 that allowed them is now in front of the Planning Commission tonight for revision.

Interested residents can listen in by calling the number at the top of the Minnetrista Planning Commission agenda. The suggested revisions to the ordinance are there as well, beginning on page 9.

Mediacom awarded grant for Minnetrista

Last fall, Mediacom, in partnership with the City of Minnetrista, applied for the Border-to Border Broadband Grant Program through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED.) The purpose of the program is to aid in the expansion of broadband service to areas of Minnesota that are unserved or underserved.

This project will consist of three separate buildouts including areas in Ox Yoke Circle on the north side of Minnetrista, Northview Drive up to the southern edge of Whale Tail Lake, and Farmhill Road between St. Bonifacious and Six Mile Creek. The project will serve 80 unserved households and will provide speeds of 1 Gbps download and 50 Mbps upload. Construction for the project has an estimated completion date of December 2021.

Crickets on school district favor…for now.

As readers may know there was a public hearing Monday night on the Sunnyfield Road project. The Westonka School District, the only assessed property, and the only property, along the route, had submitted a letter to Mayor Whalen asking the city to waive the normal 5% interest on the school district’s assessment which it would have 20 years to pay. The city has proposed paying for 60% of the project cost and the school district 40%. That is already a deviation from the city’s policy of a 50-50 split for everyone else who is assessed for reconstructions. I wrote about that issue here.

It was anticipated that a school district representative, perhaps Westonka School District Superintendent Kevin Borg himself, would’ve addressed the city council at the public hearing Monday night since his letter to the mayor appeared in the council’s agenda packet. Surprisingly, no one from the school district spoke and there was no mention of the interest rate at all during the meeting. That doesn’t mean the matter has gone away, however.

Perhaps the school district would like the issue to fade from public scrutiny a bit before bringing it up again. That next opportunity will be the assessment hearing, likely in May, when the council will formally adopt the assessed amount as well as the interest rate.

Minnetrista taxpayers will be watching then, just as they were Monday night.

More favors from Whalen?

As a result of a compromise at the council’s last meeting January 4, the Westonka School District will pay 40% and Minnetrista taxpayers will pay 60% of the Sunnyfield Road reconstruction costs for the road to the high school.

You may remember Mayor Whalen had advocated the city pick up 80% of the cost for her buddies at the school district but lost that battle January 4, no doubt a disappointment to Westonka School Superintendent Kevin Borg and school board members that worked tirelessly to get Whalen reelected last November.

Now Mr. Borg is back begging Whalen for another special favor. He’s asking the city to waive the interest on paying back the assessment…completely…something the city has never done for other property owners it has assessed.

Think about this. One of the reasons the city’s policy is to cover 50% of road reconstruction costs for property owners and not charge property owners for 100% of the cost is because property owners are taxpayers and some of those tax dollars should be used for their roads. The Westonka School District is not a taxpayer. The Westonka School District is only a consumer of city services (snow removal, public safety) but actually pays nothing for those city services as residents do.

According to city policy, if your street needs reconstruction you, as a property owner, and your neighbors along the project route would be assessed 50% of the project cost which can be paid back over 20 years. The interest rate you and your neighbors would pay the city, unless you chose to pay it back all at once, would be 5%. There have been a handful of exceptions over the years to the policy for some low-density areas but for the most part the city has been consistent in applying its policy.

Mr. Borg, in his letter to Mayor Whalen, claims that it would be reasonable not to charge the school district interest on their assessment because the city isn’t bonding for the project and it’s being paid for with MSA dollars. So what? Whether or not the city bonds for the project has absolutely no bearing on whether the city charges property owners interest. Why should the school district be exempt when no one else is? We’ve never exempted other property owners from interest payments when MSA funds were used on their roads.

What Borg is doing in his letter to Whalen (on page 61) is what’s called “anchoring” in a negotiation. By asking for the interest to be waived completely he’s hoping the council might come back with a compromise and lower it from the 5% city policy, especially if Whalen pleads his case. I hope they have the backbone to say no.

By virtue of the fact the school district isn’t a taxpayer in Minnetrista, has a budget close to ten times that of the city’s, is primarily responsible for the road’s condition and whose students are from many other cities, not just Minnetrista, they should not be asking Minnetrista taxpayers for favors. They should be glad we’re not making them pay 100%.

To listen live to the Minnetrista City Council meeting Monday 2/1/2021, call +1 (872) 240-3212 and enter meeting Access Code 604-552-845 #, or join the meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone by accessing the following: https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/604552845
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Mayor’s attempt to pay back friends?

Minnetrista’s road assessment policy is to assess property owners along a project route (gravel to paved or for reconstruction) 50% of the project cost with the remaining 50% paid by the city. The Sunnyfield Road reconstruction planned this year has only one property owner along the route, the Westonka School District. Mayor Whalen, at the council’s work session last night, thought they should get a break. She suggested only assessing them 20%.

Of course it couldn’t possibly be because members of the school board and Westonka School’s Superintendent were instrumental in her reelection (view story here). Maybe it’s because Whalen thinks Minnetrista residential property owners should be assessed more than a school district with a budget almost ten times that of the city and a much larger tax base over which to spread the cost? Or perhaps she doesn’t realize that school bus traffic and student/parent traffic are largely responsible for the road’s condition and much of that traffic comes from outside Minnetrista.

Yes, there have been exceptions to the city’s assessment rate on a few occasions in areas with low density but the majority of Minnetrista’s road projects are assessed at 50%. That is policy.

Both council members Reffkin and MacGregor responded to Whalen’s suggestion to lower the rate for the school with their opinion that the 50% policy should stand. Whalen kept pressing for her school district friends as council members Mortenson and Tschumperlin remained silent, ostensibly gauging the political wind direction. MacGregor finally proposed 40% in the spirit of compromise and Reffkin supported that although somewhat reluctantly.

Mortenson and Tschumperlin saw the compromise as palatable and indicated they could “probably” support it but Whalen kept pushing for her friends. She then said “What about 35%? Would any of you support 35%?” Ultimately Whalen’s valiant effort went unrewarded and the 40% rate prevailed for the school.

Got to give Whalen credit for standing up for her friends if not for Minnetrista taxpayers. Readers can listen to the recorded January 19 work session.

Minnetrista Internet service plan discussion Tuesday night

There are few topics more agitative in rural Minnetrista than internet service, especially now that its become a necessity for most of us to function at work, school, purchase goods and services or conduct business of any kind. It is an infrastructure as necessary as roads, water and sewer but isn’t seen that way by many rural cities and townships.

If the roads are blocked by an accident, snow, or natural disaster the city will rush resources to clear the roads but if internet services go down it’s not their concern. It should be. Access to high-speed internet is at the top of most home buyer’s lists these days and property values in Minnetrista will reflect that. Having a vibrant real estate market is important to the city’s financial health.

If potential buyers happen to check out social media sites like Nextdoor.com, however, they will find pages and pages of complaints about slow speeds, unreliable connections and nonexistent customer service from major providers in Minnetrista and surrounding area.

I’m hoping the discussion Tuesday night focuses on proactive things the city can do like removing obstacles to entry for internet service providers, establishing a fund as we’ve done for road maintenance to finance this critical infrastructure, and having a staff person attend the virtual meetings of the Minnesota Broadband Task Force to stay up to speed on the resources they offer rural areas. Inviting providers to Minnetrista without making changes to how we do business with them will not result in better internet services for anyone.

Hiring a consultant may sound like a great idea but many consultants have loyalties to specific providers or technologies and ferreting out those biases can be a challenge if you’re an outsider. Minnetrista would do well to find some savvy residents to help it in this endeavor if they really want to get something done. But that’s the question, do they?

Residents may download the work session packet for Tuesday night’s discussion and listen in by calling (872) 240-3412 and enter meeting Access Code 711-795-981 #, or join the meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone by accessing the following: https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/711795981
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Minnetrista public hearing on local street improvements extended

There was a notice sent to Minnetrista residents affected by the 2021 local street improvements indicating a public hearing at last night’s council meeting but the notice didn’t have the correct access numbers and residents will be notified of another opportunity to attend a hearing in front of the city council, most likely the next scheduled meeting on January 19.

Residents can find call in numbers to all council work sessions and meetings in the council agendas and packets available here for 2021. Audio recordings of the meetings are also found there as well.

Minnetrista’s Parks and Planning Commissioners appointed

Last night, after interviewing candidates for openings on Minnetrista’s Parks Commission and Planning Commission, the city council made the following appointments:

Parks Commission (three year terms):
Sarah Hussain, Parks Commission (incumbent)
Hal Goldstein, Alternate #1 Parks Commission
Nancy Richeson, Alternate #2 Parks Commission

Planning Commission (four year terms):
Damian Young, Planning Commission (incumbent)
John Sturgess, Planning Commission

Candidate applications were provided in the council’s work session packet starting on page 2. The Parks Commission appointments vote was unanimous (5-0) but the Planning Commission vote on Mr. Young’s appointment was not with one dissenting vote (4-1), but a unanimous (5-0) vote on Mr. Sturgess.

Sarah Hussain, incumbent candidate for the Parks Commission, and Andrew Beitler, candidate for the Parks Commission were not present for the interviews.

Newly elected Council Member Cathleen Reffkin expressed concern over the fact that both incumbent Planning Commission members, Damian Young and Robert Rabin, recently voted to recommend approval of the ground mounted solar farm application on CR92 which residents widely opposed. That, she suggested, indicated the Planning Commission needs new commissioners more aligned with residents.

Who are the candidates for Minnetrista Parks and Planning Commissions?

Monday night will be a first for Minnetrista. For the first time city residents interested in serving on one of the city’s commissions will actually have an opportunity to compete for those seats against incumbents that have already served.

In the past the city council automatically reappointed any commission member that wished to serve another term after their term had expired, without notifying residents of the opportunity to apply for the expiring seat. That all changed during a heated council meeting on December 7 where the practice was exposed and criticized for shutting out resident involvement on the city’s Parks and Planning Commissions.

The reason given for not advertising the openings in the past had been these volunteer positions had been difficult to fill and when someone had served and was willing to continue it was best to hang onto them. Somehow, however, the commission seats were almost always full and when a vacancy occurred it was quickly filled.

The city received 8 applications for the 5 commission assignments: 1 vacant seat and 2 alternate seats for the Parks Commission; and 2 vacant seats for the Planning Commission. Candidates and their applications are listed (starting on page 2) in the council’s work session agenda for Monday night. Applicant names are below (*incumbent):

Andrew Beitler (Parks Commission)
Hal Goldstein (Parks or Planning Commission)
*Sarah Hussain (Parks Commission)
*Robert Rabin (Planning Commission)
Nancy Richeson (Parks Commission)
Paul Stone (Planning Commission)
John Sturgess (Planning Commission)
*Damian Young (Planning Commission)

It will be interesting to see if Monday’s interviews are just a pretense of fairness or if these new applicants actually have a chance at taking an incumbent’s commission seat. There are only 3 incumbents and 5 seats to fill so by default there will be at least two new appointees. I have a feeling at least one of them, Hal Goldstein, will be appointed because he was apparently recruited and applied back in October before there were even any openings. You can read about that here.

There are some impressive resumes from some of these applicants and I hope they are legitimately evaluated for what they have to offer the city. Minnetrista needs commissioners that think for themselves, have a genuine interest in city planning and will do the research and work to make good, reliable recommendations to the council.