“Become a boring township,” attorney advises Greenwood Township
THURSDAY, AUGUST 18, 2016 — Responding to urgent concerns, the Greenwood Town Board of Supervisors met with its attorney in a special meeting Thursday afternoon. The entire board was present except for Supervisor Maus who called from Pennsylvania, where he was traveling, and listened to the proceedings via speaker phone. Township Attorney Michael Couri clarified that while it was perfectly acceptable that Maus attend the meeting via telephone, Minnesota law required that he attend via both audio and video transmission in order to fully participate. Since he was only on the telephone he could not make, or support, any motions or vote on any issues before the town board, Couri said. In essence Maus would only be an observer to the meeting, although he could offer his opinions and ask questions.
The town board discussed its insurance options and the ongoing negotiations with St. Louis County in an effort to turn the township’s planning department over to the county, in an open meeting session and then met in a closed session to discuss strategy about an anticipated employee claim. Minnesota statute allows township boards to meet behind closed doors for employee negotiations as well as matters protected by attorney–client privilege. The employee claim, made by Planning Director Julia Maki, is believed to relate to the balance of her three year contract and concerns negotiations to modify the contract because Greenwood is working on turning Planning and Zoning over to St. Louis County, eliminating the township’s need to have a planning director once the transfer to the county is complete.
The township has been working with the county since its decision to eliminate township planning and zoning in June and Chairman Dr. John Bassing provided an update on the progress made in turning planning over to the St. Louis County Planning Department. County planning met on August 11 to review the township’s zoning map and will accept the map as it stands, according to Bassing. The county board of commissioners will meet on September 6 and it is expected that it will also approve the map, Bassing said. The town board discussed setting a date to rescind its zoning ordinance noting that it needed to give notice to the planning director in accordance with the contract. The township attorney recommended that the Greenwood board coordinate its efforts with the county, prior to determining a date to rescind the ordinance. “We are waiting on a letter from Barb Hayden (St. Louis County Planning Director),” Bassing said, explaining that he expected she would outline what the township would need to do to complete the smooth transfer of planning to the county. Bassing also reported that the township needed to complete its comprehensive plan work by year-end to comply with its agreement with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board on its grant requirements and that he expected the county would also accept that plan in its planning department.
Earlier in August Greenwood was informed that the Minnesota Association of Townships Insurance and Bond Trust (MATIT) was canceling its comprehensive liability insurance coverage, effective October 8. “MATIT is a legal insurance company, but a mutual insurance company,” township attorney Couri told the board. It offers insurance to member townships, and spreads out the costs with all other members, he said. “They have the ability to say who they will cover,” Couri said, explaining that Greenwood had become a problem client and was placing an undo burden on other townships. “They are offering you the opportunity to adopt an endorsement, if you will—a change excluding liability insurance,” Couri said.
Some insurance coverage could still be maintained if the township accepted, by resolution, the endorsement to the policy eliminating protection for the township from suits brought by any former or current employee of the town including new applicants for township employment. Additionally coverage on issues pertaining to Minnesota open meeting laws, conflict of interest, libel, slander, defamation, deprivations of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and equal protection and due process of law would be eliminated. MATIT placed a deadline of August 22 for Greenwood to accept the endorsement or loose all of its insurance on October 3.
The board held a considerable and lengthy discussion on its insurance options with Couri, before adopting the resolution accepting the limits to the comprehensive liability policy. Chairman Bassing reported that he had contacted three private insurance carriers to see what other coverage was available to the township and that he expected he would soon have detailed information on what is available to Greenwood.
Supervisor Gene Baland turned the conversation to the idea of a three member town board, versus the current five member board. With the elimination of the planning department, Baland suggested the township would have less work to accomplish, however, would still have its other responsibilities to its constituents. “I don’t see any reason why we will still need the five member board,” Baland said.
“When we have seen infighting,” Couri said, “it is more typical of a five member board.” He did not advise the township to downsize its board until controversy was behind it, however. Couri explained that it would be easier to manage factions in a divided township if both sides had a seat at the table and strongly advised the township to work together, compromising with all points of view. “You want to become a boring township. You don’t want people to want to read what’s in the newspaper,” Couri said.
Baland acknowledged the divided township. “I believe we won’t be able to solve our problems like that, (snaps fingers), there are deep divisions,” he said. “It might help if we give the opportunity to return to a three member board to township residents,” Baland said.
“If we can get private insurance, I think it would be really important that we get you (Couri) to review it, to make sure we get the coverage we should have,” Baland said. “I think you won’t find someone to give you a good deal, but rather ‘this is what we’ll cover and this is what it’ll cost’ and it will be very, very expensive. I don’t think you will find a lot of options. You’ll find one or two and have to take something you might not like,” Couri said. He also cautioned the board on its expectations, explaining that as he understands the situation MATIT will be obligated to cover the existing claims because there is existing coverage, however, future claims might not be covered by either MATIT or any new company. “I’m not sure if the Maki claim will be covered because it has not yet been formally made,” Couri said.
Speaking by telephone, Supervisor Maus said that with planning being moved to the county a new insurance company would not expect many new claims from planning and zoning issues.
Concluding the discussion on insurance, Supervisor Carmen DeLuca moved to pass the resolution and accept the endorsement required by MATIT, on the current insurance policy. Chairman Bassing supported the motion which passed with unanimous vote.
“I would like to look at the option to self-insure,” Bassing said. “You don’t have individual coverage if you self insure,” Couri cautioned. “It’s not something I would recommend,” he said. “My recommendation to you is to get insurance as one of your immediate goals,” Couri said and presented the town board with a written list of several recommendations he was making to the board.
Couri’s recommendations, to the Greenwood Town Board, included:
• “Transfer operations to get back to a normal township, one that rarely gets sued—something like a township that doesn’t make the news
• “Do not take input from the public at large
• “The public is to observe, not comment. If the public has the opportunity to comment they are running the meeting, not the town board
• “Vote in the best interests of the township
• “Choose the fights you want to fight. Sometimes you need to take a stand, other times you need to compromise
• “Most of our clients never see litigation
• “Stop the political infighting. You have to argue issues, not personalities
• “When you are done with an issue and there is controversy— call the other board member. You can talk with another board member, but not two members. Two is a quorum and talk between three members is a violation of the open meeting laws
• “You have to get the board and the public to believe that you have the best interests of the township in mind
• “If people are treated with respect and you listen, they will better understand
• “Compromise is going to be necessary. You’ll still have 3–2 votes, but you need to be able to compromise
• “Don’t rush to decisions. Take time, if litigation is likely, to see if you can diffuse the situation
• “I think you lost your insurance because Eric Hedtke gave you some sort of cautionary notice and he felt it was ignored
• “Create written policies on employee relations
• “Agenda packets with all information should go out to board members before the meeting
• “Follow your attorney’s advice on legal issues. If your attorney is concerned, you should consider this. We are conservative by nature
• “Your current policy is to call the Minnesota Association of Townships (MAT) first, but in your particular situation you might want to limit calls to MAT. Your private attorney can be the gate keeper. When you call MAT time and time again it raises concerns at MAT
• “What do I think MAT wants to see? That you are not in the newspaper arguing with each other, MAT will look at your minutes, they will read the newspapers
• “Consult with employees on decisions before they are made
• “Consult with the township attorney before decisions are made
• “Have your minutes reflect why your actions are in the best interest of the township. If someone brings a lawsuit later you have minutes to back up your reasons for your decisions
• “Follow your own rules consistently
• “Particularly in your case, work with the opposition to find resolution. Compromise and avoid lawsuits
• “Keep yourself out of the newspaper, keep yourself out of controversy, and in a couple of years you might be able to get your MATIT insurance back,” Couri said.
Chairman Bassing said that he believed that the township was working towards these goals and had already implemented some of the changes suggested.
Supervisor Randy Kladivo moved to adjourn the open session of the special town board meeting and to reconvene in closed session to, “consider the breech of contract claim from Julia Maki,” Supervisor DeLuca supported the motion which passed unanimously and the board went into the interoffice to conduct its closed session.