Council Meeting Recap, March 17, 2015

The Crystal City Council held Citizen’s Input Time, two work sessions, an EDA meeting, and a council meeting on March 17, 2015.

Because of time restraints I’m going to do a slightly abbreviated recap this week, focusing on two of the major issues we discussed at the council meeting.  My colleague Olga Parsons did a more comprehensive recap and I’ll send you over to her site for more details.

I do want to point out before I start that this was a fairly unique meeting in that we had three members absent.  Two were sick, and one had planned out of town travel.  One of the absent members was Mayor Adams, which meant that council member Julie Deshler, who is Mayor Pro Tem this year, acted as mayor for this meeting.

The two major issues I want to discuss are tobacco/alcohol penalties, and a cooperative agreement with Hennepin County.

State law requires that stores that sell tobacco be licensed by a city, or in areas where cities don’t do the licensing, by the county.  The law also requires that at least annually, the city (or county) perform compliance checks to make sure stores are not selling to underage individuals.

When an individual sells tobacco to a person who is under age, the individual is personally charged with a crime. In addition to charging the seller with a crime personally, state law requires cities to charge an administrative penalty to the holder of the tobacco license.  The state law proscribes a minimum penalty, but allows cities to adopt their own, stricter penalties.

The laws governing alcohol are a bit different, but most cities, including Crystal, have implemented compliance checks and civil penalties for license holders who violate the laws regarding the sale of alcohol or tobacco to minors.

After the person who illegally sold the item has pled or been found guilty of the criminal act, the civil portion of the process is begun and the item will come before the city council.

The council has adopted guidelines for civil penalties by ordinance. The guidelines for a first violation are for a fine of up to $750, and loss of license for up to one day, and get more severe from there, ending with a revocation after the fourth violation within 36 months.  These are only guidelines.  The council has the discretion to adjust the penalties up or down based on the circumstances of each case, provided they don’t go lower than state law allows ($75 on a first tobacco offense).

There are a few instances where the council must act in what’s called a “quasi-judicial” manner, meaning that although council members are not judges in a court, they do act in a similar way.  They must have open minds, they can’t prejudge a matter, they must consider the circumstances of the matter in front of them, they can’t act in an arbitrary or capricious manner.  Considering civil penalties is one of those instances.

Both of the incidents in front of the council were first time offenders, one for tobacco, one for alcohol.  Both failed their compliance checks.  Both made significant changes to their business processes to ensure they would not make a second offense.  One owner (tobacco) changed store policy to not allow anyone under 21 in the store, and the other (alcohol) bought and installed new software that wouldn’t allow a sale to complete until a valid ID was swiped into the cash register.

I voted in favor of a $750 fine for each business.  This is 10 times the state minimum required for tobacco violations.  The council was unanimous on the tobacco violation, and had one dissenting vote on the alcohol violation, with Mayor Pro Tem Deshler preferring a one day suspension of the alcohol license in addition to the fine.

I was really on the fence about the alcohol violation, and almost supported the license suspension.  However, the mitigating measure implemented by the owner (requiring a swiped ID at the point of sale) seemed very likely to prevent a second offense.

The second item I want to discuss is the adoption of a cooperative agreement between the City of Crystal and Hennepin County on the purchase of land that would be involved in the proposed rail connection in Crystal.

Hennepin County announced on March 11 that they had secured a purchase agreement for the land in the 5100 block of West Broadway, where Thomas Auto Body and North Suburban Towing currently sit.  This is the land the railroad would need to acquire in order to build the connection.

However, there was a question about whether Hennepin County had the authority to purchase this land outright.  The attorneys at the county felt that they would have the authority if they purchased the land under a cooperative agreement as authorized under MN law in section 383B.79.

This meant that the county would not (and maybe could not) purchase the land if Crystal did not sign a cooperative agreement.

I had, and still have, several concerns about this approach.  For one, the city of Crystal did not cooperate in a material way with the county in the acquisition of the land.  The entire deal was done by the county, and Crystal council members and staff were notified of the deal at a public rail meeting at the same time everyone else was.  I didn’t want to have the city sign a document that overstated our role in the process.

My other major concern is that I wanted to make sure that it was perfectly clear that the county was responsible for this purchase, including the full cost of acquisition and any legal costs that may arise out of the purchase.  I fully expect a legal challenge in this case, and I wasn’t going to commit the citizens of Crystal to a potentially expensive legal battle without some serious discussions about it, which were not had before this agreement was presented to us.

The initial draft of the agreement that was presented for us to vote on did not include any explicit language regarding Crystal’s financial obligations.  In fact, the entire agreement was quite vague.

All of my colleagues that were present at the meeting expressed similar reservations, and it was clear that the agreement would not be accepted in its current format.

Because the county was saying they would not purchase the property until we signed the agreement, this was a time sensitive manner.  We voted to continue the meeting from Tuesday night until Thursday night and asked for a new draft of the agreement that addressed our concerns.

The document that was presented when we reconvened included a statement that explicitly addressed that Crystal has no financial or legal obligation toward the project.  It also included some other clarifying language to address our other concerns.

The proposed agreement was passed by the council unanimously (by the members present, we were still short two members due to travel and illness).

I do believe that the county’s acquisition of the land was a good tactical move as we attempt to negotiate through the situation with the railroad connection.  But that said, the acquisition is not a “silver bullet”.  The matter is not resolved, and most likely will not be for some time.

It will require the attention and focus of the citizens of Crystal to keep themselves, and their elected officials at all levels, engaged in this process until it is ultimately resolved.

Finally, I would like to take a moment to thank council member Juile Deshler for her great work this past week.  As I mentioned above Julie is the Mayor Pro Tem which means that she has to step up when the Mayor is unavailable.  While Jim was at home with a nasty case of pneumonia, Julie had to run two council meetings, a few work sessions, deliver a State of the City address, and testify down at the capitol on rail safety.   She encountered a big unexpected challenge and really stepped up to the task.  Thanks Julie!


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