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April 17, 2021

4/2/2021 12:44:00 PM
North Branch mayor lifts COVID-19 remote meeting rules

Big news: COVID-19,  is no longer a public health concern.  That comes straight from North Branch Mayor Jim Swenson, who last week lifted his special declaration relaxing restrictions around remote meeting participation by elected officials.

In Minnesota, any mayor, as chief presiding officer of city council and of all city committee and board meetings, has the authority to make special rules in times of a pandemic.  Swenson announced at the council session March 23 that he immediately revokes his September 2020  pandemic attendance declaration.  This does not require a city council vote.

He went on to say that conditions no longer exist creating public meeting attendance to be imprudent or unsafe.  (However,  state law does allow continued attendance remotely, by a council member or citizen committee member who has a medical doctor statement that attending an open public meeting is hazardous to their health.)
Mayor Swenson announced that everybody needs to come back to meetings in person.  He said  a number of people have complained to him that the declaration allowing expanded remote participation “has got to end.”

 Under MN -Chapter 13D the members of governmental bodies in normal circumstances, must participate from a “site accessible to the public” and the location has to be posted and open to the public. Technology connecting into a meeting from a private home or private office no longer suffices in North Branch.

It leaves kind of a catch-22 because the special remote participation has been utilized under the Governor’s Emergency Order umbrella  for the express reason that public interaction is how the coronavirus spreads.  

Meanwhile, concurrent with  Mayor Swenson’s belief the coronavirus threat no longer exists,  the state legislative session is active with most elected members contributing to committee work from their homes.  

State staff are working mostly from home.

No other city or township in Chisago County has revoked the similar special declaration to exceed the regular annual remote meeting number (3) or has returned to requiring internet attendance connection be from a public site.  

Prior to the mayor’s announcement at the end of the agenda, the North Branch city council business included:

~Responding to a deluge of social media activity concerning the “rural stormwater fee” arriving as a stand alone bill.  This fee, charged on a per-parcel basis, went out separately for the first time to North Branch property owners who do not have accounts with Water & Light.  

The city recently learned its practice of placing the fee in the property tax,  is not legal.  Those citizens who do not get services from the North Branch utility, have historically paid this stormwater fee within their property tax.

The new direct billing method didn’t sit well with the populace, or as Council member Amanda Darwin termed it, there was an “uprising’ with  calls, e mails and postings on social media.  

City Finance Director Joseph Starks asked for a few minutes on the council agenda to explain the new collection approach.  

He said 2,000 or so water and light customers pay one-twelfth of this fee on their monthly utility bill.  The utility breaks it off and sends it to the city hall, along with the city franchise fee which is also collected on water and light billing.

Apparently numbers of people who aren’t utility customers didn’t know that the fee (which varies depending on how many parcels you own) was part of their property tax.  
Starks said people need to understand that everybody pays the fee— and it is kept separate and is used for all things stormwater related.

Shawn Williams, Public Works, added the fee account is used to pay for ditch care, storm pond inlets and outlets, replacing and clearing culverts and catch basins; even the gas and maintenance for the leaf vacuum, are paid out of these revenues.

Mayor Swenson stated “there was no increase” and people are simply seeing this direct-billed for the first time, but it’s always been there, he stressed.

City Administrator Renae Fry quickly corrected this saying the fee indeed was increased by $4 this year.

~ Council voted 5-0 to cooperate on the Veterans Memorial project, proposed for near the high school stadium, by stepping in and acting as the receptacle for donations. The school district is not allowed by law to take in this type of monetary donation, nor are districts allowed to do regular maintenence or cover site costs.  

Council member Darwin asked if the location was reconsidered in light of school-related limitations, but the city’s memorial committee liaison Nate Sondrol, said the site is ideal and this is really just a technicality. The “...discussion kept going back to the school site,” he said of opting not to find a second location.  There’s existing parking, lighting and sports events attract hundreds to the site, he noted. Now, area veterans can continue to solicit donations and deposit them with the city.  

~ The preliminary plat for the new residential development proposed south of Sunrise Elementary School was approved 5-0.  

~ A CUP for a poolhouse with bathroom was approved for a nine-acre parcel at 39655 Elk Court.  The conditional use permit was needed because accessory structures usually aren’t allowed to have plumbing.

~ Ehlers public financing consultant Rebecca Kurtz gave an update on options for financing programs for housing,  and policy will continue to be drafted.  Council and the EDA meet jointly April 8 and more discussion will be had on this and on projects that are in the pipeline.

~ A subcommittee is being formed to create policy/criteria  on dispersing the new round of America Recovery Act (COVID-19 relief) dollars.  Mayor Swenson and Council member Darwin were put on the subcommittee.

~ Action on Cherokee Place was approved,  simply designating an “outlot” with a property I.D.  to allow for a senior apartment building project being called Heritage Court.  The action did not alter the boundary of the area.

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