Back to the Jan-Feb 2020 issue

Can the City Plow Private Driveways?

City Expenditures

Q: Our city council is wondering if the city can enter into agreements with private residences/businesses to snowplow private driveways. Is this allowed?

LMC: It depends. Generally, cities are not authorized to spend public dollars on a purely private benefit, even if the city receives some level of compensation. For an expenditure of public funds to qualify as a lawful expenditure:

  • A public purpose for the expenditure must exist.
  • Specific or implied authority for the expenditure must arise out of a statute or from the city’s charter.

Specific authority is usually clear. In contrast, whether a statute or charter provision implicitly provides authority for an expenditure often becomes subject to interpretation.

You should always consult with your city attorney regarding whether implied authority for a specific expenditure exists.

Additionally, there are many situations that could result in claims, ranging from workers’ compensation to liability, if an accident occurs. Best practice would be to consult with your city attorney, who will then be able to review these issues in detail and provide the city with specific legal advice on how best to proceed.

Answered by Research Attorney Jacob Glass:

Fire Departments

Q: Are National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards mandatory for our fire department?

LMC: No. The NFPA is a nonprofit organization that develops life-safety standards and fire operating standards related to staffing and deployment for both career fire departments and volunteer fire departments. While such standards might suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to fire department operations, the reality is that what works for one fire department might not work for all fire departments in all cities.

Cities can use the standards as a helpful guideline to locally create fire services that work for their community. However, the NFPA standards do have the appearance of being generally accepted industry standards. As a result, from a liability standpoint, this means that they imply a performance norm to which a fire department can be held. In such instances, discretionary immunity, with its recognition that local governments have to prioritize decisions and make the best use of resources, can help address the issue of risk.

Answered by Loss Control Manager Rachel Carlson:

Labor Relations

Q: What is an “unfair labor practice” and how can my city avoid it?

LMC: State law lists 12 unfair labor practices that public employers can commit. Interfering, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights is one. Dominating or interfering with the formation, existence, or administration of an employee organization, or contributing to it, is another one. It is also an unfair labor practice to discriminate against an employee in order to encourage or discourage membership in an employee union.

While these actions sound easy to avoid, it is not always clear-cut. Sometimes employers do not understand the bargaining unit relationship and inadvertently commit an unfair labor practice. For example, communicating directly with a union employee about terms and conditions of employment, instead of speaking to the union representative, may constitute an unfair labor practice in some cases. Unilaterally giving an employee an increase in wages or to a health insurance premium without negotiating it could also be an unfair labor practice.

This area recently became more complex when the Minnesota Supreme Court held that an exercise of management rights can constitute an unfair labor practice when the management right has the effect of wiping out the union. In that case, the unfair labor practice involved replacing full-time union firefighters with paid on-call firefighters.

Contact your city or labor relations attorney or the League for assistance with unfair labor practice questions.

Answered by Human Resources Director Laura Kushner: