Townships can expect to be impacted by the COVID-19 virus and the efforts now underway to slow the spread of the illness. This article addresses how townships may hold board meetings during the public health emergency, planning for operations during the emergency, protections for employees subject to quarantine, and additional information on COVID-19.
On March 13, 2020, Governor Tim Walz declared a public health emergency related to the COVID-19 infectious disease and directed the Minnesota Department of Health to issue guidance on how to prevent and manage the spread of COVID-19. The latest information from MDH can be found here: https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/index.html . Recommendations from MDH are changing frequently, so please check this site often.
Board Meetings During the Stay at Home Order: On March 25, Governor Walz issued a Stay at Home order requiring all Minnesotans to limit movements outside their homes between Friday, March 27 and April 10, subject to exceptions described in the Order. The full Executive Order is found here. This Order includes Township Boards, and they should not hold any in-person meeting during the term of the Order. Townships may either postpone meetings to a later date if possible, or use the telephone or video meeting options available to them. The use of remote meeting options are described below.
Essential Services During Stay at Home: Local government employees and contractors providing services in “Critical Sectors” may continue their work outside their homes, if they are included in the list of Critical Sectors and their work cannot be performed from home.
Critical Sector employees include: (1) law enforcement, public safety, and first responders; (2) water and wastewater workers; (3) transportation workers who support or enable transportation functions, road construction workers, engineers, including maintenance vehicle operators; (4) public works employees described in the Federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) guidance here; (5) necessary building management employees; (6) security workers; (7) elections workers, including town clerks and election judges; and (8) data and computer systems management employees. Other Critical Sector employees are described in the Governor’s Executive Order and the CISA guidelines.
Local government boards are not among the groups listed in the Governor’s Executive Order as Critical Sectors. This does not mean that townships are not essential – it means that they are not among the groups that are allowed to leave their homes to complete their work. This is because township boards may use telephone meetings to perform their duties. We understand this is not convenient – it is not intended to serve the convenience of local governments. Instead, the Stay at Home order is intended save lives. Please respect this Order during the short time it lasts.
Board Meetings After the Stay at Home Order: Townships may hold regular board meetings either: (1) in-person within the framework provided in MDH’s guidelines, above; or (2) by telephone or video conference. The best-practice is to continue telephone or video meetings during the entire length of the public health emergency in order to prevent any unnecessary public gatherings.
Notice of meetings by video-conference or teleconference should be posted usual. Townships using either method should ensure they take excellent minutes of their proceedings and may consider audio recording these meetings. If possible, the township must allow members of the public to join the video or teleconference.
Reduce Room Capacity Limits: Townships may implement room capacity limits to comply with the social distancing recommendation that people maintain 6 feet of distance from others. Just as a room capacity for fire protection may be observed and imposed, a reduced room capacity may be imposed to maintain the recommended social distance.
Public Hearings: Townships should work with their township attorney if any public hearing is required. Because the Board must hear from the public at a public hearing, the Board may need to make special arrangements to accommodate all comments.
Video Conferencing: Townships may use video conferencing for any meeting under the circumstances described in Minn. Stat. § 13D.02. The circumstances include:
- All members of the township board participating in the meeting can see and hear each other and all discussion and testimony from others participating in the meeting;
- The public attending at the regular meeting location can see and hear all members of the body;
- At least one member of the board is present at the regular meeting location;
- Each location at which a member is present is accessible by the public.
Often, the most difficult aspect of videoconferencing is getting the technology to work well and to project the video and audio to the public, if there is an audience at the meeting. Townships that do not typically have an audience attend their meetings may find this method effective to hold meetings without physical interaction among board members.
While there are many reputable videoconferencing services, MAT staff has successfully used or heard positive things about the following services:
- Zoom: https://zoom.us/ . Offers at least one free videoconferencing plan with some limits on the number of participants and meeting length. Other low-cost plans are available with fewer restrictions.
- 8×8: https://www.8×8.com/products/video-conferencing . Offers free and low-cost video and teleconferencing options.
- Google Hangouts: https://gsuite.google.com/products/meet/ . Offers free video chat for up to 150 people.
Teleconferencing: Minn. Stat. 13D.021 allows a town board to hold a meeting by teleconference if there is a public health pandemic or emergency declared under Minnesota Statutes chapter 12, and the township meets the requirements of the statute. Minn. Stat. §13D.021 allows telephone meetings if:
- The township chairperson decides an in-person meeting or interactive television meeting is not practical or prudent because of a health pandemic or an emergency declared under Minnesota Statutes chapter 12;
- All township board members participating in the meeting can hear all other participants;
- All members of the public at the regular meeting location can hear all discussion and testimony and votes of the town board’s members, unless attendance at the meeting is not feasible because of health pandemic or emergency declaration;
- At least one member of the town board is physically present at the regular meeting location, unless unfeasible because of health pandemic or emergency; and
- All votes are conducted by roll call so each member’s vote can be identified and recorded.
COVID-19 has been labeled a pandemic illness by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Governor has declared a public health emergency under Minnesota Statutes Chapter 12. As such, township boards may choose to use teleconferencing for their meetings during the public health emergency.
To use a telephone meeting, the board may follow these steps:
- The Chairperson decides the board will use a telephone meeting because of health pandemic. This decision is not made at a town board meeting. During the COVID emergency, the chair will decide that no one will be present at the regular meeting location during the meeting.
- The board must procure a teleconferencing number to use. There are many reputable teleconferencing providers. For example, MAT has used Go To Meeting, found here. To use this kind of service, one officer or employee signs up for an account, chooses a conferencing package, and enters payment information. Pricing is affordable and this is a valid town expense. The account will provide a toll-free call in number and a code to enter the conference. Callers may use any telephone to call in or connect via the internet.
- The board arranges the date and time of the telephone meeting and it is posted on the townships posting place to comply with the Open Meeting Law and any other means publicizing the meeting. The posting and notices should be included in the meeting notices and distributed to the board members.
- Any written materials that the board needs for the meeting are distributed by mail or electronic means. If possible, the board should arrange some method of making the public meeting packet available to the public for the meeting.
- At the proper time, the board calls into the meeting. Many conference call applications allow the meeting host, usually meaning the account holder, to manage the call from a webpage. The host can mute or unmute callers to help maintain order. The host may also record the call via the webpage control. For most townships, only the board members are likely to call into the meeting, and there may be no need to manage unsolicited comments or background noise during the call.
- During the first meeting, the board passes the Resolution recognizing the townships use of telephone meetings. A sample resolution enacting teleconference meetings during this can be found at https://mntownships.org/information-library/ or as document number ES2000 in the information library.
- The board carries out its meeting, with all votes conducted by roll call. The minutes probably will be longer and more robust for a phone meeting.
- The board may allow or prohibit public input or comment during the meeting, at its discretion. It may be very difficult to manage public comment if there are many people on the call.
For additional information on teleconference and videoconference providers, how to set-up and use each the providers program, please see: https://mntownships.org/news/options-for-conducting-a-town-meeting-remotely/ or Document Number ES3000.
MAT has also provided three options to townships looking to conduct teleconferenced meetings.
- Option A: This is where townships would learn how to, and conduct the meeting on their own. Some more information on how to set-up a teleconference service can be found in document number: ES3000A.
- Option B: MAT will create a teleconference line and train officers on how to use the teleconferencing service.
- Option C: MAT will create and assist in hosting the teleconference for the township.
For more information of each of these options, please see: https://mntownships.org/news/additional-teleconference-meeting-options-for-townships/, or email OptionB@MnTownships.org or OptionC@MnTownships.org regarding the specific option listed in the email. If the township would like to conduct set-up and host the teleconference themselves, under Option A, please see: https://mntownships.org/news/options-for-conducting-a-town-meeting-remotely/, as well as document numbers: ES 3000 and ES3000A in MAT’s information library.
Employees & Quarantine: Township employees showing signs of illness should stay home to avoid passing COVID-19 to anyone else. The township may not discharge, discipline, threaten, or penalize any employee, or discriminated in the work conditions of the employee because the employee has been in quarantine or has been responsible for the care of a person in quarantine. Minn. Stat. § 144.4196.
Townships may require employees to use any available sick or paid time off during their time of illness or quarantine. The township is not required to pay employees who are unavailable to work and have exhausted their paid leave. However, the town board may choose to offer additional paid leave or other accommodation to those employees. MDH has encouraged employers to be generous, understanding, and flexible in allowing employees to remain home for illness and to care for those who are ill.
Delegate Duties and Authorities: To accommodate fewer meetings and possibly absent supervisors, town boards should: (1) identify the essential operations that must continue each month; (2) delegate authorities and boundaries to individual supervisors, officers, or employees to manage those operations between meetings; (3) to the extent possible, provide individual spending authority to managers up to a certain limit for expenses that cannot wait for a board meeting; (4) establish procedures and permissions for officers and employees to work remotely; (5) consider any extended leave policies and reasonable accommodations that may be needed as employees become ill, are quarantined, or must care for other individuals; and (6) prepare for backup services to be provided by other employees, officers, neighboring townships or governments, or secondary contractors.
Signatures on Checks: Townships may arrange for checks to be signed or send by only one officer if certain processes and protections are followed. Minn. Stat. 367.18 says that claims audited and approved by the town board, and countersigned by the clerk, become a check on the township’s account once signed by the treasurer. Based on this statute, townships usually require the signatures of the chairperson, clerk, and treasurer for a check to be valid. This statute describes one method by which a township check or payment can be issued but it is not the only method of paying claims.
One option is to use electronic funds transfers (EFT), which is allowed by Minn. Stat. 471.38. An EFT does not have three signatures on the check, and instead relies on the town board approving a claim, the chairperson, clerk, and treasurer signing or indicating their approval on the claim form or in the township board minutes. Additional guidance on the use of EFT can be found here: https://www.auditor.state.mn.us/default.aspx?page=20090724.031 .
A second option is for townships to arrange for their checks to be signed by only one officer if: (1) the township board has audited and approved the claim; (2) the clerk has indicated his or her approval that the board took the action indicated; (3) the treasurer indicates there is money available in the township’s account to pay the claims; (4) the board has delegated the authority to issue the check; and (5) each of these elements are document in the township board minutes.
Last, townships should remember that payroll can be processed without a board meeting based on the authority described in Minn. Stat. 471.38, subd. 2, if the employees’ rates of pay have been set in advance.
Closure of Some Township Amenities: Pursuant the Governor’s Executive Orders in place right now, township recreational facilities, senior and youth centers, performance centers, fitness centers, or other recreational facilities are to be closed to the public. The Township Hall or administrative offices may be open to the public to maintain services provided by the township, but MDH’s guidelines should be observed as township’s continue to serve the community.
More Information: Some useful links and information can be found at the following websites:
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
CDC’s Facts About COVID-19: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/share-facts.html
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 Guidance: https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/index.html