By Mary Jane Smetanka
Even the smallest Minnesota cities are required to have a city clerk. But in tiny cities with only one or two office employees, who keeps the books and records city council proceedings if a clerk gets seriously ill or has a family emergency?
On the shores of Lake Mille Lacs, clerks in the adjacent cities of Isle and Wahkon have long had an informal agreement to back each other up. This year, they’re working to codify that arrangement with a mutual aid agreement.
A helping hand
Cities usually use such agreements to lend support to police and fire departments and for essential services such as public works, where only licensed staff can deal with infrastructure like water plants. But Minnesota Statutes, section 471.59 gives cities broad power to create mutual aid agreements for any purpose.
“Water plants need to keep operating, and streets need to be plowed,” says Chris Smith, risk management attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. “If someone is gone for a week, it’s good to have an agreement where we can call on you if we need help, and you can call on us.”
Mutual aid is usually provided for a short period of time. Some agreements involve fees but often services are exchanged for free. While oral agreements are valid, written agreements are better, Smith says, even if the backup services are provided at no cost.
With a written agreement, “you can make sure the person providing service has insurance, and create provisions that indemnify the city if something damaging happens,” he says.
Isle (population 771) and Wahkon (population 213) have had a mutual aid agreement covering utility personnel and equipment since 2013. But Isle City Clerk-Treasurer Jamie Hubbell says city officials haven’t forgotten what happened in 2010 when the then-city clerk became ill and died. With the office empty for a couple of weeks, “controlled chaos” ensued, she says.
“Nobody knew what to do or where to go,” Hubbell says. “We wanted to create a situation where we were more prepared.”
Though Isle now has a deputy city clerk, she doesn’t have treasurer authority to report payroll, sign checks, and report to the Office of the State Auditor, Hubbell says. Wahkon City Clerk-Treasurer Karrie Roeschlein can handle those tasks. Plus, the two cities use the same accounting software, which makes moving between municipalities easier.
“Karrie can come over here and collect bills, collect mail, post payments, check emails if necessary, and keep everything going,” Hubbell says. “Fortunately, we’ve both been healthy and haven’t used [each other’s] clerk services to any extent. But it’s nice to know it’s there if anything happens.”
The cities used the League’s model mutual aid agreement to shape their own, which is reviewed every two years. The new draft agreement, which will go through both city councils in April, covers sewer department operators, sewer pond control, water department emergencies for Isle, and utility billing/clerk services.
It includes sections on liability and pay. If one of the clerks gets hurt while working in the other city, it would fall under the workers’ compensation plan of her home city. If action by the visiting clerk created a financial liability, it would be the responsibility of the city where the clerk was working.
Up to three hours of help during a 30-day period would be provided for free. After that, the cities would bill each other.
Since the first agreement was signed in 2013, Isle has sent help to Wahkon when someone was on vacation, and Wahkon has twice helped with water main breaks in Isle.
Prepared for the unexpected
Though Roeschlein has never missed a meeting in her 25 years as Wahkon’s city clerk-treasurer, she says it’s good to be prepared for the unexpected.
“You just never know what’s going to happen, and then what do you do?” Roeschlein says. “This arrangement could ease the transition and keep the doors open and keep things running.”
Hubbell thinks a formal agreement is a good idea for the state’s other small cities to explore.
“It’s like having a safety net,” she says. “Even if you never use it, it’s nice to know it’s there, especially in offices [staffed by only a city clerk], which is common in rural Minnesota. It gives you peace of mind. If you have a family emergency or something that takes you away from the city, you have someone who knows how to fill in.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.