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Rental housing talk continues

AIRMONT — On Monday afternoon the Fairmont City Council held a work session to discuss the proposed rental housing ordinance change. The work session was during the public hearing at the Sept. 27 council meeting, when several landlords showed up to voice concerns about the changes.

Several items discussed on Monday included who does inspections, who can make complaints and disorderly conduct.

City Attorney Mark Rahrick was present at Monday’s meeting and said there really aren’t that many changes to the current ordinance.

“The intent is to modify and address a few specific items,” said Rahrick.

Gene Hackett, a landlord, said he was not notified by the city about the proposed ordinance change, but heard about it from another landlord. Hackett said he had issues with some changes in the proposed ordinance, but was more frustrated with the lack of communication.

“I only came up here for one reason and that was to say, shame on you. Why would you do this to a small business owner without informing the small business owner that you were doing it?” Hackett asked.

Mayor Deb Foster said the practice in the past has been that a work session would be held before the ordinance change would come to the council.

“Some of these requests on here were from a work session we had as a council. Some council members wanted some of these things to come to staff to work on,” Foster said.

Foster said that the ways things were done wasn’t illegal, but she acknowledged that it was handled differently than it was in the past.

City Administrator Cathy Reynolds said that council asked staff, based on a complaint received at the May 24 council meeting, to update the ordinance and bring it back by September. She said the public hearing that was done at the Sept. 27 council meeting was previously announced in a public notice, which is the proper procedure.

She asked that the work session continue to address the contents of the ordinance.

“I expected your ethical standards to be higher than legalities,” Hackett said.

Danny Klous, another landlord, said that several years ago he and other landlords had spent 8 to 10 hours in work sessions with city staff to come up with the current ordinance.

“I don’t think a one-hour work session is fair, nor enough time to work through all of the issues,” Klous said.

Klous asked why the ordinance was being changed and said he and other landlords did a data request with the city to see formal complaints filed with the city over the past four years and was surprised to see two complaints in four years.

“Don’t punish all of us landlords for one or two bad apples in the batch,” Klous said.

Council member Randy Lubenow said he has concerns with the ‘disorderly conduct prohibited’ addition to the ordinance, which says the license holder shall be responsible to prevent instances of disorderly conduct by tenants, members of tenant’s household and guests.

Lubenow asked city attorney Mark Rahrick, who was present, about the legal requirements if someone is renting a property and police are called for a noise complaint or other.

“Your current ordinance defines disorderly behavior and references many different Minnesota statues that might result in the finding of disorderly behavior,” Rahrick said.

He said the current ordinance provides a list of violations under Minnesota State statue that defines disorderly conduct that the proposed ordinance adds a few more behaviors that could be defined as disorderly.

“It provides a method to require landlords to step in if there are repeated violations on the property,” Rahrick said.

He clarified that it does not become the landlord’s responsibility that there’s been a violation and said that continued violations are a basis for suspending the rental license.

Lubenow asked about the complaint procedure and why it doesn’t read that the tenant should go to the landlord first.

“I suspect the reason it’s drafted so that a complaint can be made directly to the city without first going to the landlord is to protect the tenant from retribution. I don’t know if that would ever occur,” Rahrick said.

“It only makes sense to me that you’d go to a landlord first,” said council member Wayne Hasek.

Reynolds said the current ordinance allows for the tenant to make a complaint in written format and language in the proposed one allows for a complaint being received. Reynolds said she’s received some input asking that family can make a complaint on behalf of a tenant.

Moving to other matters, Klous brought up issues with the change that inspections need to be done by a city assigned inspector.

Foster said they’ve talked about hiring someone part-time just for rental housing inspections. Klous said he didn’t think one person would have time to inspect 1,500 rental properties.

“I think a question for the council is who do you want paying for the inspections. If we’re letting the landlord choose their own inspector and they’re paying them, does that inspector feel some obligation to make the landlord happy,” said Rahrick.

He said if the inspector is being paid by the city, in part through the fee paid for by the landlord, it might be considered more neutral.

Klous said if landlords are doing that, it’s unethical. Lubenow pointed out that they can’t know who is ethical and unethical and when a line is crossed.

Lubenow suggested getting a list of five people to do inspections and ask whether an inspection will be a conflict of interest for them.

“If your rentals are all up to snuff and there’s no issues, it shouldn’t matter who the inspector is. It should just matter that they’re being done,” Lubenow said.

Following the work session, the council started the regular meeting where the rental housing ordinance was on the agenda.

“I have noted a couple of changes that we can make. Disorderly conduct provisions and also the complaint process and who may file a complaint with the city. Those were two of the topics we discussed,” Reynolds said.

She asked the council how it would like to proceed.

“My suggestion is to set this aside, make the changes and review them again,” Peters said.

Foster said another change includes the city inspector and who would have that responsibility.

Foster asked Rahrick if he believes the changes can be made in the next two weeks and brought back for the next regular scheduled council meeting.

Rahrick asked what specific changes the council would like him to work on. Reynolds said in regards to inspection, the current language reads that inspections can be done by city staff or a contractor. She asked if it should be amended to something else.

Council member Britney Kawecki said taking applications for inspectors and having them approved by the city should be considered in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

Peters said they need to change the language to say individual landlords can pick from a list of inspectors provided by the city.

The council will consider the rental housing ordinance changes at the next council meeting on Oct. 25.

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