2/27/2014 4:56:00 PM City Council votes to
suspend popular driver
education, no-ticket, option
by DENISE MARTIN
North Branch City Council had just enough members to hold a meeting Monday this week, with Mayor Lindquist and member Blomquist excused. The council was advised by city attorney Jay Squires that because the police department involvement in an “uncertain” driver education program could be setting the city up for possible litigation, the council should suspend participation by the department in the program, at least temporarily. Council voted 3-0 on Theresa Furman’s motion to pull the police officers out of the sheriff’s Driver Awareness Program. The sheriff provides a trained instructor who offers sessions for selected vehicle offenses rather than writing a ticket. The offense stays off the driver’s record upon successful completion. The sheriff charges $75 and retains $25 and the department that generated the enrollee gets $50. The state auditor and a district judge have questioned the use of Driver Awareness Programs because of how some are structured. Viewed by some officials as a “diversion” program, it means prosecutors are using discretion that they don’t legally have, in deciding who is getting a ticket for a traffic offense and who isn’t. Plus, the state misses out on fine revenue, it normally gets when a ticket is issued.
Squires said potentially somebody could file a lawsuit to get back the $75 that’s been paid into the DAP since it started about a year ago. The Chisago County Sheriff, though, has expressed support for and will continue to offer DAP here. He sees the local DAP as being founded on officer discretion, which is a generally accepted principal. And, the Chisago County Attorney, unlike in other counties, has no role in how DAP is administered locally. North Branch officials will re-visit the DAP participation after the state legislative session, which convened this week. The hope is the state laws will be clarified and that these driver awareness options to tickets can be fully sanctioned and described in Minnesota law. North Branch Chief Dan Meyer commented to council that this is a well received program and people appreciate being able to attend a refresher training rather than have a ticket show up on their record. The offenses that qualify must be non-lethal driving violations and there’s a limit on participation for an individual. The old Topline Automotive business in the North Branch ESSBY area is being turned into the new headquarters for Lakes Region EMS. Council voted 3-0 to approve the Conditional Use Permit for the emergency response group. Aarron Reinert told council the EMS providers are “excited” to have the opportunity to work out of a facility that provides more space “to serve the community better.” The old Topline structure is three times the size of what Lakes Region is headquartered in now.
Lakes Region will vacate the facility just a few blocks to the east of this new site. The move takes place ASAP, once some minor work is done inside the new site. Topline Automotive flopped as a business. As a taxpayer subsidized project the company had state JOBZ benefits and other tax incentives to locate in the new city business park. Council agreed Monday to “waive” the JOBZ clawback provisions. Council didn’t want bureaucratic processes to hinder the EMS project. The consensus was that smoothing the way for re-use of this site by Lakes Region was in the city’s best interest. Otherwise the site could be held-up in legal red tape for a long time. The MN Department of Revenue has the ability to go after defunct taxpayer-subsidized projects and to try and collect various taxes the company avoided paying by being granted special status. North Branch alone has $80,000 in property tax on the line. In addition Topline Automotive avoided state income taxes, sales taxes and received a variety of other benefits through JOBZ. Council also voted to advertise to hire a liquor store assistant manager. There was debate whether this position was necessary and after the Liquor Committee analyzed the issue, the recommendation is it’ll cost more to not have an assistant manager available. In public comment Mic Dahlberg suggested council shift public comment back to the start of council meetings. He said if council is truly supportive of transparency in government and welcoming citizen involvement, the public comment portion would not come after all the action items have been handled.