Council seeking summary

FAIRMONT — The Fairmont City Council postponed a vote Monday to update the city’s record retention and data practices policy after three council members wanted a summary of any major changes from existing policy.

The policy governs procedures to handle information requests from private citizens.

Flaherty & Hood, the city’s interim legal counsel, requested the policy update after handling several information requests for the city. The law firm suggested that rather than evaluate Fairmont’s existing policy and procedures, the city should adopt a model of data practices and records retention program that is familiar to the attorneys and used in other communities where they provide legal services.

“They believe that by doing so they can save us money by not going through all our policies and procedures and adopt something that they know is up to date and consistent with state statutes,” said Mike Humpal, city administrator.

Ruth Cyphers suggested the vote be postponed or tabled.

“There’s so much information in there. I haven’t had a chance to go through and make sure everything is how we need it,” she said. “I was hoping that they (attorneys) were going to be here tonight to discuss with them.”

“They’re not here because the council voted not to have them at every meeting. Did you contact them to let them know you had questions?” Mayor Debbie Foster said.

“No, I did not,” said Cyphers, adding that she did contact Patty Monsen, city clerk, for a copy of the existing policy. “I haven’t had time to go through it so I don’t feel comfortable with this right now. I need to know what the changes are, and it’s so different (from current policy), it’s hard to compare. It’s hard to tell what’s changed.”

Tom Hawkins said he understood the attorneys not wanting to spend a lot of time reviewing the old policy, but thought that “in a 30-minute billing, they could give us just a synopsis of what the highlights are.”

“The one thing I’m concerned about, at this point, unless somebody convinces me otherwise, that I wouldn’t approve of is the hourly charge when somebody makes a data request,” he said.

Monsen explained how the city charges for data requests.

“We charge 25 cents a copy,” she said. “If it’s over 100 pages, with the new policy, then we’d be able to charge actual costs of research time and preparing the documents.”

She noted these costs are set by state statute, not city policy.

Monsen believes the format of the policy would change, not the basic content because Fairmont’s current practice was adopted in 2017 from a League of Minnesota Cities model. Charging for staff time to compile and prepare the requested documents is “very common” in other communities, and that cost only kicks in if the request involves more than 100 pages.

“They (Flaherty & Hood) just thought it would be way more cost-effective for our city to adopt a policy they’re familiar with,” Monsen said.

“I’d like to just see what the changes are,” said council member Randy Lubenow “If we’ve got it from 2017 from the League of Minnesota Cities, and now they’re asking us to change it again, what are the changes? Why are they requesting that?”

“If you want them to do that, then they’re going to have to go through ours line by line so it won’t save the city any money, but if that’s what you wish, they can do that for you,” Monsen said.

Humpal said he would pass on the council’s request for a summary of any major policy changes to the law firm and ask for a time and cost estimate of preparing it.

“Has this came about in any way for what KSTP requested?” Lubenow said, referring to a data request to the city by the Twin Cities television station.

“No,” Humpal said.

“Has Flaherty & Hood did anything on that data request yet that you know of?” Lubenow asked.

“We’ve sent them (attorneys) several documents. What they have to do is go through those page by page and redact any information that’s private data. We’ve submitted everything to KSTP that we could that was requested,” Humpal said.

Lubenow asked if there has been an increase in data requests in the last three to six months, which would encompass the time the council was divided on severing its ties with Elizabeth Bloomquist, the city’s former in-house attorney, and the efforts of some council members to bring in a new city administrator.

After Monsen answered yes, Foster wondered how much those data requests were going to cost the city’s taxpayers in legal fees.

“It’s probably going to be a lot,” she said.

“I think the taxpayers deserve the right to know,” Lubenow said.

“Absolutely,” Foster said.

“I think it’s important that city staff take the time to have that information vetted by our legal counsel before we send it out so we don’t have a misstep in our procedures and see some sort of liability,” Humpal said.

A vote on the policy change was postponed until the council’s Aug. 26 meeting.

Later in the meeting, Lubenow asked where the city is headed as far as a permanent attorney for the city’s civil issues.

“I don’t know if having an attorney from St. Paul makes the most sense for Fairmont,” he said, referring to the location of Flaherty & Hood’s offices. “Are we looking at putting that out for bids again to see if anyone local wants it? Are we looking to talk to the county to see if they would take the civil part of our cases? What’s our plan?”

Humpal said he did not think the County Attorney was interested in handling the civil cases, and that the plan is to hire an interim attorney for civil cases for six months.

“We did put out letters of interest for the interim, and no one locally wanted to do that,” said Humpal, adding that the city could again send out letters if that is what the council wants to do.

Foster said the intent also was to compare costs of an in-house attorney with contracted legal services.

“There’s a number of things were actually spending right now that are not typical. Data requests are one of them,” Hawkins said. “When we do requests for proposals for permanent (services), I think that will get local people to consider it. It’s time for us to start setting up the process.”

In other business, the council:

o Set a public hearing for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 26 on a 10-year tax abatement for CHS to assist in the $100 million investment the company plans to make in the local soybean plant. The company would continue to pay its current taxes, which are more than $763,000 for 2019, but the city would forgo collecting taxes on the expansion for 10 years. The county and school district also will consider the tax abatement for their jurisdictions.

o Learned that work resurfacing Fourth Street should begin Aug. 26. Neighborhood meetings will be held next week.

o Authorized the mayor and city clerk to sign a grant agreement with the Minnesota DNR for a $175,000 grant to construct a spring biological nitrate removal system to protect drinking water. The system will be installed west of Cedar Creek Park in the Dutch Creek watershed. Funding for the project comes from Minnesota lottery sales.

o Authorized the mayor and city clerk to sign the grant agreement for construction of a new T-hangar at the Fairmont Municipal Airport. The $883,000 grant will cover about 90 percent of the anticipated construction cost of the seven-unit hangar. The airport has had a waiting list for hangar space for several years.

o Witnessed the swearing in of Luis Figueroa, a 2016 graduate of Fairmont High School, as the newest officer in the Fairmont Police Department.

o Approved an off-sale liquor license and tobacco license for Applegreen Midwest LLC, which will take over operation of Freedom Valu Center on Aug. 21.

o Approved a conditional use permit for a 40-foot pylon sign for Taco Bell at 2235 N. State St.

o Approved an event permit for the Fairmont Soccer Association’s Soccer Fest on Saturday. The all-day event will feature high school boys and girls soccer scrimmages.