City council discusses asking zoning member to quit
By: Monica Isley, Lake County News Chronicle
A member of the city's planning and zoning commission will be asked to resign for writing a letter as other than a private citizen to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
During Monday's Two Harbors City Council agenda meeting, city attorney Steve Overom said Todd Ronning identified himself as a member of planning and zoning when he wrote an email to the MPCA's Jim Dexter, questioning information received about compliance with environmental permits issued to Blue Waters for the Burlington Bay Homes development.
Overom advised the council that Ronning's action was inappropriate, since he had not been directed by planning and zoning to act on its behalf. He should have identified himself only as a private citizen.
"You should probably write and tell Dexter that," Overom said. "This isn't good for the city's relationship with the MPCA." He was referring to the state agency's push for additional upgrades in the city's water and sewer system, even though the city is not violating any regulations.
Overom said Dexter replied to the email, saying the MPCA was on top of things in regards to the Burlington development.
"This makes the city look not very user friendly toward development," Overom said.
Mayor Robin Glaser said she wanted a letter of apology to be sent to Dexter on her letterhead, and another sent to Ronning "asking for--no, demanding--his resignation."
Under city code, the council must officially approve the demand for resignation of anyone appointed to a city commission. That action was not taken on Monday, but could occur after the requested letter is reviewed.
The council approved the first reading of a proposed amendment to the city's rental licensing ordinance, removing some of the responsibility and cost to the city of riding herd on rental stock.
The original ordinance, approved several years ago but not enforced, required landlords to obtain licenses after having each rental unit inspected by the building inspector. The process became unwieldy even before it was begun, since there are over 500 rental units within the city, and the building inspector is here only one day per week.
The proposed amendment would issue a general license to anyone with rental units. Inspections would occur only if a tenant complains about unlivable conditions. If the building inspector finds the complaint valid, the landlord would have 90 days to correct the problem. Failure to do so would then require a specific rental license which will likely have a stiff price tag.
Although a number wasn't approved Monday, the council talked about $100 as a possibility. Without that, the unit we be considered unrentable.
"So, essentially, good landlords are rewarded, and bad landlords are penalized. That's perfect," council president Randy Bolen Jr. said.
According to Overom, building inspector Jim Rich reviewed the proposal but advised leaving the ordinance as is for another year, since it has caused the number of tenant complaints to drop significantly just by its existence.
"I understand what he's saying, but as a council, we have to uphold the laws on our books--and I don't know how we can do that without this (amendment)," Glaser said.
Overom noted that there is a no-eviction clause in the amendment--which mirrors that of state statutes--so that landlords can't retaliate against renters who complain.
Glaser did have two questions that weren't totally answered: If a violating landlord refuses to fix his property, what happens to the tenant who was living there? And how do tenants learn about their rights?
"Do we need to have the ordinance posted in an apartment or complex?" she asked.
It was suggested that a notice could be provided for tenants when they sign up for utilities, but it was also noted that not all tenants may pay utilities.
Overom said there are advocacy groups who could be informed about the provisions in the city's ordinance, to be passed on to people who go to them for help.
Changes to the proposed amendment must be made before the approval of the second reading, which would normally occur at the next meeting, Feb. 11.
Liquor license changes
The council scheduled a public hearing for Feb. 25, 7 p.m., in regards to two changes involving those who have liquor licenses.
Local clubs, such as the VFW and the American Legion, have requested that number of Sundays on which they can serve liquor be increased from 8 to 12 per year. This would normally just take council approval.
However, the council decided to add to the hearing that request along with a second, related one: to allow those with liquor licenses to begin serving at 8 a.m. on Sunday instead of the current 11 a.m. This provision was suggested in order to forestall potential complaints from private establishments over the increased number of Sundays given to the clubs.
Currently, private establishments pay $2,900 a year for their liquor licenses, while the clubs pay considerably less. Clubs' costs vary with the number of members.
Dollar wish list
The council approved a letter that will be sent to Rep. David Dill and Sen. Tom Bakk, prioritizing the Two Harbors' wish list for legislative bonding assistance. Even as the letter was approved, the council acknowledged that at least the first two on the list aren't likely to get approval.
"But we have to go for the gusto," Bolen said.
The first option is financial help for the $3.8-$4 million cost of putting up a new water tower. City administrator Lee Klein warned that "the reality is, probably the Duluth DECC and couple big-ticket items on the Range will get funded, and that's it."
The second on the list is a request for another one-half percent sales tax that can be used for water system improvements. The city already has a one-half percent sales tax which can be used for only three things: sanitary sewer separation, wastewater treatment, and harbor of refuge development.
At the very least, the city would like permission for a language change so that the existing sales tax revenue can be accessed for water system improvements.
Klein said that in the letter to Dill and Bakk, reference was made to the MPCA "and its pressure to do water and sewer improvements even though we're not violating."
It was noted that the state does not easily grant cities the right to additional sales tax.
"The MPCA wants $15 million in pipe replacement, and we have $4 million for water tower replacement. They don't want to help on a state level, but when you try to help yourself at the local level, they don't like that either."
Council members noted that although there might be some resistance to a higher sales tax, it's actually fairer to the taxpayers.
"When the money is collected through sales tax, other people who shop in town, not just residents, are also helping to pay," Klein said.
The letter will also support the Department of Natural Resources' efforts to remove language in the state's grant for the harbor of refuge/marina so it's not contingent on matching federal funds. That will allow state funds to be accessed immediately.