Local Control & the Capitol’s Dangerous Double Standard

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Nice irony: when a key committee passed House File 389 last Wednesday, it was by a 9 to 5 vote, which is less than the two-thirds majority the bill imposes on local governments that want to enact a temporary freeze on major development—the kind of development that can change a community forever. Apparently, some legislators think democracy at the Capitol should run by different standards than it should in our townships and counties. The bill has no other committee stops and is headed to the House Floor. Its Senate companion, Senate File 270, is scheduled to be heard Feb. 29 in the Local Government and Elections Committee. For details on how you can let lawmakers know this proposal should go no further, click here.

When you talk to your Senator and Representatives, you might want to point out another irony: before being passed by the House Local Government and Elections Committee, HF 389 was amended to include new language that’s being touted as a “compromise” despite the fact that this proposal is still bad news for local control. The new language still dramatically weakens local control and local communities gain nothing from the bill. That’s not a compromise in anyone’s dictionary.

For example, under the new proposal after a project applies for a permit the local unit of government has a very narrow window of time in which to enact an interim ordinance. How narrow? Well, after the permit application is accepted, a 30-day clock starts at the next public meeting. This is any public meeting and not a specific hearing on the project.

Let’s say a permit for a frac sand mine is accepted on a Thursday, and the county commissioners meet the following Tuesday. This issue will very likely not even be on the agenda at that Tuesday meeting, but that meeting triggers the 30-day clock just because it’s, well, a meeting. Obviously, by the time the first public hearing happens and neighbors know about the project, the 30-day deadline could be expired.

And then there’s the two-thirds (super majority) requirement to enact an interim ordinance for putting a temporary freeze on major development. For counties this would mean 4 of 5 commissioners, or 80 percent,  must vote for the ordinance. Currently, an interim ordinance can be enacted by a simple majority — that’s how democratic rights should work. There is no reason to make adopting an interim ordinance so difficult by requiring a two-thirds vote. That’s not the way it works a the Capitol, and it shouldn’t be the way it works in rural Minnesota.

The proposal also slows the process for enacting an interim ordinance by mandating public notice and a hearing before such an ordinance can be enacted. In many cases, a local unit of government — particularly a township — does not get complete information on a proposed development until shortly before approval. In those cases, there can be legitimate concerns that the local government needs to address quickly. The bottom line is that the very nature of an interim ordinance is to address unanticipated situations, and so there are times when it must be enacted quickly as an emergency measure.

Apparently some lawmakers believe it’s only okay to speed up the process when a major developer wants a project shoved through. Hmm, yet another double standard.

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