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City committee takes no action on policy over street closures

WILLMAR -- There will be more debate on a proposed revision to the street closure policy when the City Council meets on Monday night.

The revised policy would give council members discretion -- not allowed under the present policy -- to close a thoroughfare or collector street for a city-wide function or for a private function.

The present council-approved policy states that only low volume residential streets, dead-end streets or cul-de-sacs may be closed. It also states that no thoroughfares or collector streets may be closed unless the closure is for a city-wide function.

Members of the council's Public Works/Safety Committee this week debated but reached no consensus on the policy revision and agreed to send the issue to the council without recommendation.

Voting to support the revision were Ron Christianson and Rick Fagerlie. Voting against were committee Chairman Doug Reese and member Bruce DeBlieck.

City staff recommended the revision after the council in August voted 4-3 to close two blocks of Kandiyohi Avenue Southwest for a St. Mary's Church summer event during which participants crossed Kandiyohi between the church and Miller Park. The street was barricaded to stop vehicle traffic.

Before the city had a policy, the council used its discretion to decide on six to eight street closures a year. In 2008, the council closed Kandiyohi Avenue for a similar St. Mary's event. Afterward, the council adopted a policy that eliminated council discretion and established guidelines.

St. Mary's again requested closure for its summer event and city staff denied the request. The church appealed the decision to the council and the council in August approved the request.

Closure supporters said closing streets is a matter of common sense. Opponents say council violation of its own policy increases the city's liability.

This week, city staff recommended the revision, drafted by City Attorney Rich Ronning, which would give the council discretion to decide on closures and would provide statutory immunity from injury or negligence lawsuits that might arise from a closure.

"We need to cover ourselves for the immunity for those activities by giving the discretion back to you, which is allowed by your immunity statute,'' said City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday.

He said the revision coincides with League of Minnesota Cities recommendations. Under the general principles of negligence, if the council violates its own written policy, it is liable for the results, he said. However, state law provides for immunity for the discretionary policy or planning level decisions by city officials.

"Thus, if the City Council decides to deviate from a current written policy to allow for the closure of a city street, they must fully articulate the specific factors and reasons they are relying on to make that policy or planning decision in order to be protected by statutory immunity,'' Halliday read.

"The courts specifically look at whether there are political or social or economic or safety factors that the governing body considered in making its decision. Immunity is narrowly applied by the courts and it's the burden of the city to establish that immunity,'' he read.

During discussion, Reese said he favored the present policy and wanted to take the emotion out of decision-making.

"Now we're going to put it back into it. Are we doing it in the best interest of the city or in the best interest of the organization that's applying? I think we have to be looking out for the citizens. We have a huge judiciary responsibility to the people in the city not to expose the city in any way,'' he said.

Christianson, a St. Mary's Church member, said the council can't eliminate common sense. "Common sense is you close the street off. You've got 500 people coming and going for three hours. To me that's common sense. With this wording, it clears you,'' he said.

DeBlieck said the council would have to provide specific reasons. He said common sense is not a reason.

City Administrator Michael Schmit said the council would have to articulate its reasons.

Fagerlie said there are no guarantees; St. Mary's got it this year but might not next year.

"Basically we're back to where we were before, but we covered our hind end,'' he said.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150