The fight for local control goes local

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Some lawmakers in St. Paul are turning a deaf ear to an important fact: local control is a key tool for Minnesota cities, townships and counties seeking to create a positive future for their communities. That’s why local officials are cranking up the volume a bit by signing letters, taking out ads and drafting resolutions. Whatever the medium, the message from outstate Minnesota is clearer than ever: local control should stay strong in this state.

Last week 32 county commissioners signed onto a letter opposing Senate File 270 and House File 389. The letter summarizes the issue nicely: “The fact is that the current law is working and should be left alone. Well funded corporate special interests are pushing this proposal, which does not benefit counties and local communities in any way.” The letter was signed by commissioners from literally all corners of Minnesota, including Beltrami, Winona, St. Louis and Nobles counties.

Senate File 270  is authored by Sen. Ray Vandeveer (R- Forest Lake) and Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove).  House File 389  is authored by Reps. Michael Beard (R-Shakopee), Duane Quam (R-Byron), Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and Tim Sanders (R-Blaine). The bills weaken the power of local governments to enact interim ordinances, also called moratoriums. Such moratoriums allow local governments to quickly put a temporary freeze on major development.

This power is essential when the community is caught off-guard by unanticipated and potentially harmful proposals, especially those from corporate interests and outside investors, such as frac sand mines, big box stores like Wal-Mart or a large-scale factory farm. (For an example of how one Minnesota community is using an interim ordinance to determine what kind of major developments fit best with the area, see the latest Land Stewardship Letter.)

Township officials have been among the most vocal in opposing proposals to weaken local control. Many legislators are dismissive of township government, but the nearly 10,000 township officers who serve in this state without compensation are at the heart of Minnesota’s tradition of strong grassroots democracy. Township officials have testified in both the House and Senate in opposition to SF 270 and HF 389. Farmer Alan Perish of Hartford Township in Todd County puts it well: “As a township officer for 25 years, I know local control makes for a better Minnesota. Local governments must have the right to say no to corporate interests when they want to push harmful developments into our communities. Minnesotans value this.”

City officials have also been active in opposing these bills. At a recent hearing on the Senate bill, proponents insisted that it does not weaken local control. Thinking that a local government official might be in a better position to answer the question, Sen. Mary Jo McGuire (DFL-Falcon Heights) asked Jordan Mayor Pete Ewals for his opinion. His reply: “I definitely feel that this is taking away from local control.” Earlier this month, the Redwood County community of Sacred Heart passed a resolution proposed by city councilman Chad Kingstrom that opposes this legislation. Wright County has passed a similar resolution opposing the bills. In both cases, the local units of government are asking that the Legislature not pass SF 270 and HF 389; if they do pass, then Gov. Mark Dayton should veto them, say the resolutions.

And average citizens in the hundreds have spoken up in opposition.  They want to be able to work through their local governments when unexpected and potentially harmful developments are proposed. Murdock farmer Jim Falk had it right in his letter to the editor in Agri-News when he said, “In Minnesota, we respect the rights of local citizens where they live, work, play, and raise their families to help make decisions important to the wellbeing of their communities. Our current law protects the rights of local citizens, but corporate special interests want to change the law.”

A series of newspaper advertisements running throughout the state make a similar point. The ads, which feature Scott County farmers Dave and Florence Minar, as well as Perish, state that these bills are “not what Minnesotans value. Minnesotans overwhelmingly support local governments having the right to protect the local community and stop unwanted developments when necessary.”

Consider what has happened in southeast Minnesota where five counties, the city of Winona and several townships have passed moratoriums in response to outside corporate interests wanting to mine sand to be used in hydraulic fracturing. This type of mining is much more intensive and destructive than the  aggregate mining that is now common in the area. Frac sand mining puts water quality and air quality at risk, stresses roads and bridges with greatly increased truck traffic and can destroy irreplaceable farmland. It’s the kind of land use that cries out for a “time-out” while local officials study the possible impacts.

Ironically, the legislators pushing this anti-local control proposal want to impose mandates on local governments that lawmakers can’t meet themselves. For example, they want to require that cities and townships give 10-days notice and hold a public hearing before they enact a moratorium, yet at the Minnesota Legislature these bills have come up for hearings with only a few days notice. Backers of the proposal also want to require a two-thirds majority for passage of a moratorium, yet this legislation has not passed a single committee with this type of super majority.

We know Minnesota is a better place to live because we can work through our township, city and county governments to shape our communities. Local control is about ensuring that development benefits the community instead of coming at the expense of that community. Most businesses want to operate in a way that’s good for the local land and people, but a few don’t. In those cases, the moratorium power has been critical.

This legislation is currently waiting for votes on the floors of both the Senate and the House. Call your legislators now and let them know that local control is working and Senate File 270 and House File 389 should not pass.