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Willmar City Council committee recommends ending administrative citation ordinance

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council will be asked to repeal an ordinance that allows police officers to issue informal administrative citations rather than traditional criminal citations for violating certain petty misdemeanors.

The request will be made to the council by the Public Works/Safety Committee. The panel voted this week to recommend the ordinance, enacted by the council in 2003, be repealed. The council will consider the recommendation Monday night.

The committee supported a request by Police Chief David Wyffels to repeal the ordinance. Officers stopped enforcing the ordinance in July 2009 after the Legislature passed a law that year "that made the (administrative citation) law so onerous that there's no point in doing it,'' Wyffels said.

The ordinance had been requested by former Police Chief Jim Kulset as a procedure for law enforcement to hold people accountable for minor offenses in an informal, cost-effective and expeditious alternative to traditional criminal citations, according to Wyffels.

The ordinance named 32 offenses ranging from parking to speeding as enforceable under administrative citations. No fine for driving offenses was greater than the $50 base fine established by the court system, but with no court-imposed surcharges. Also, the citation did not appear on a person's driving record.

The city collected the fines. Those who felt they were not guilty did not pay the base fine, but were issued a regular citation for the same offense and a date was set when they could contest the violation in court.

If the court found them guilty, the defendant paid the $50 base fine plus a $75 court surcharge and $15 law library fee.

Wyffels said administrative citations soon became a popular enforcement method in many cities.

In 2009, the Legislature realized that use of administrative citations was causing a loss of revenue to the state and lawmakers extensively limited officers to writing administrative citations for speeding offenses that were under 10 mph over the posted limit; stop sign violations; and violations of lighting or vehicle safety equipment laws.

In addition, the state increased the fine to $60 per offense and required cities to hire a neutral third party to hold a civil hearing for any person wishing to contest the citation.

Wyffels said the restrictions became so burdensome and time-consuming that the use of administrative citations was for all practical purposes non-existent. Wyffels said most cities have stopped using the citations, which allowed the revenue stream to flow back to the state.

"The ordinance had been effective, a good ordinance,'' he said.

He said violators were always given the option of paying the citation or going to court. Wyffels said about 50 percent of the people went to court. Between Aug. 22, 2003, and July 24, 2009, the city issued 3,461 administrative citations and the city collected $169,465. Those who went to court paid $168,625 in fines, he said.

Wyffels said the state threatened to audit cities and reclaim the money but it never happened.

City Administrator Michael Schmit told the committee that Willmar never spent the money it collected because of the threat. "The big issue is it was all about the revenue,'' he said.

Wyffels said he is also looking for other unused and unnecessary ordinances.

"I'm all for that,'' said committee member Ron Christianson who often speaks out against regulations and unfunded mandates.

In other action, the committee:

- Approved a staff recommendation to remove parking on the south side of Gorton Avenue from 10th Street to 14th Street Northwest as part of the city's 2011 street reconstruction program. The city will be spending municipal state aid funds to improve the 32-foot-wide Gorton Avenue. Schmit recommended eliminating parking on the south side because Gorton must be 38 feet wide under state aid requirements to allow parking on both sides.

- Granted permission at the discretion of the city administrator to allow employees in the police, fire and public works departments to assist outside agencies with spring flooding relief efforts. Fire Chief Marv Calvin, who made the request, said each department would deploy resources after determining sufficient staff remained to cover Willmar's needs.

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