Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from May-Jun 2019 issue

From the Bench: Resident Petition Fails Due to Invalid Signatures

ELECTION LAW

Charter amendment petition
Peter Butler and other residents of the City of St. Paul gathered signatures in support of a petition to amend the city charter to require city elections to occur in even-numbered years. To place the proposed charter amendment on the ballot, state law requires a “petition of voters equal in number to 5% of the total votes cast at the last previous state general election in the city.” To meet the 5% statutory threshold, Butler needed 7,011 valid signatures. Butler submitted a petition with 7,656 signatures to the Ramsey County Elections Office, the city’s appointed agent for reviewing and verifying such petitions. The elections office inspected the petition and determined that it was insufficient because it only contained 5,866 valid signatures, based on data from the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS).

Additional signatures were not submitted during the 10-day period allowed to amend the petition to cure the insufficiency. Instead, Butler filed a petition in district court under Minnesota Statutes, section 204B.44, alleging that the election officials had committed an error, omission, or wrongful act. Butler claimed that the city’s notice of insufficiency failed to comply with state law because it did not set forth any details regarding the petition’s defects and because the city erred in relying on SVRS records.

The district court granted summary judgment in the city’s favor, dismissing Butler’s petition. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed and held that election officials of a home rule charter city do not err in relying on SVRS records to determine whether a petition to amend the charter contains the required number of signatures of registered city voters. The Court of Appeals also held that, when a petition is filed under Minnesota Statutes, section 204B.44, alleging that election officials committed an error, omission, or wrongful act, the petitioner has the burden of proof, which must be met by the presentation of admissible evidence contrary to the relied-on record. Butler v. City of Saint Paul, N.W.2d (Minn. Ct. App. 2019).

PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT LAW

Response-time requirement
The City of Sauk Rapids employed Matthew Heinen as an on-call firefighter. The Fire Department has a policy that requires its members to live within a five-minute response-time zone. In December 2017, the fire chief learned that Heinen intended to move outside the response-time zone. He met with Heinen, who confirmed that he was moving and who proposed that he list his mother’s address to maintain his eligibility as a firefighter. The fire chief informed Heinen that such action would not be permissible. In January 2018, Heinen requested a leave of absence. Heinen later submitted an additional request for a variance to live outside the response-time zone. In February 2018, the city denied both of Heinen’s requests. The city then terminated Heinen’s employment. Heinen appealed his termination, arguing in part that the city’s application of its response-time policy violates state law. The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the city’s decision, concluding that the response-time policy complies with state law, and noting that Heinen did not have any contract rights to his employment because he was an “at-will” employee. Heinen v. City of Sauk Rapids, No. A18-0867 (Minn. Ct. App. Jan. 28, 2019) (unpublished opinion). Note: The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) represented the city.

ARBITRATION LAW

Public policy exception
The City of Richfield sought to vacate (void) an arbitration award that overturned its decision to terminate Police Officer Nathan Kinsey after he was involved in an incident with some young Somali males at a city park. During the incident, Kinsey threatened, shoved, and slapped 19-year-old Kamal Gelle in the head after citing him for careless driving, and then failed to report his use of force, even though the city had repeatedly counseled, disciplined, and trained Kinsey on use of force and report writing. The incident was captured in a video that went “viral.”

The district court upheld the arbitration award, ordering Kinsey’s unconditional reinstatement, subject only to a three-day unpaid suspension. Generally, an arbitration award will be upheld if the award provided was within the arbitrator’s powers. But there is a narrow exception that authorizes a court to vacate an arbitration award if it is contrary to public policy. This exception must involve a public policy that is well-defined and dominant, and that is discovered by reference to laws and legal precedents, not from general consideration of supposed public interests.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the arbitration award reinstating Kinsey violates the clear public policy requiring transparency and proper reporting of the use of police force. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and held that an arbitration award rein¬stating a police officer who was discharged for failure to report his use of force does not violate public policy when the arbitrator found that: (1) the officer did not use excessive force; (2) the city’s reporting policies were unclear; (3) the collective bargaining agreement gave the arbitrator authority to determine “just cause” for discipline; and (4) the arbitrator found that the employee’s conduct “warrants disciplinary action” in the form of an unpaid suspension. City of Richfield v. Law Enforcement Labor Services, Inc., N.W.2d (Minn. 2019). Note: The League of Minnesota Cities filed an amicus curiae brief in the city’s support.

CIVIL FORFEITURE LAW

Excessive fines
In 2015, Tyson Timbs sold heroin to an undercover police officer in Indiana. He pleaded guilty to drug charges and was sentenced to one year of home detention followed by five years of probation. In addition, a state court that presided over a civil forfeiture action ordered Timbs to forfeit his 2012 Land Rover, which he had purchased for approximately $42,000 with the proceeds of his father’s life insurance policy, because he had used the car to transport drugs. Timbs challenged the forfeiture as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on excessive fines.

A state trial court ruled in Timbs’ favor, reasoning that because the automobile was worth four times more than the maximum criminal fine the state could impose, requiring Timbs to forfeit it would be “grossly disproportional to the gravity” of his crime. An intermediate appeals court upheld that decision, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the forfeiture. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Indiana Supreme Court decision and held that the ban on excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies to the states through the 14th Amendment, which bars states from depriving anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Timbs v. Indiana, S. Ct (2019).

LAND USE

Minimum lot size
Ellis and Nancy Olkon live on an approximately 21-acre parcel located in a rural residential zoning district in the City of Medina. The Olkons sued the city after it denied their request for both a variance and approval to subdivide their property. The city denied their request in part because the proposed lots did not meet the requirements in the city’s zoning ordinance for minimum lot size. The city’s zoning ordinance requires that lots in the rural residential zoning district must have five contiguous acres of suitable septic soil. The city adopted this requirement because it furthers its goal of obtaining maximum average density in the rural residential district of one unit per 10 acres. The city’s comprehensive plan also provides for a goal of protecting the city’s rural character and natural development, as it has a large network of wetlands and lakes that affect its developable areas.

On appeal, the Olkons argued in part that the city exceeded its police powers by establishing a minimum lot size based on an arbitrary septic-soil requirement that lacks any substantial relationship to public health, safety, or welfare. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in the city’s favor, holding that its legislative decision to adopt a minimum lot-size requirement in its rural residential zoning district is reasonably related to the public health, safety, or welfare because it helps the city achieve its average density goal, preserves open areas, prevents deterioration of wetlands and lakes, and maintains the city’s rural character. The Court of Appeals also rejected the Olkons’ claim that the ordinance violates their equal-protection rights, reasoning that the landowners failed to meet their burden of proof on this claim. Olkon v. City of Medina, No. A18-0564 (Minn. Ct. App. Dec. 10, 2018) (unpublished opinion). Note: LMCIT represented the city.

Written by Susan Naughton, research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: snaughto@lmc.org or (651) 281-1232.

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