COVID-19 and Operating the Township (9/14)
AUGUST 12 Update
This article addresses how townships may hold board meetings, operate during the emergency, protections for employees subject to quarantine, and additional information on COVID-19. The directives described in this article arise from Executive Orders issued by the Governor to address the COVID-19 pandemic, which amounts to a peacetime emergency under Minnesota Statutes Chapter 12. That Chapter provides the governor with powers to address such emergencies for as long as emergencies last, the governor chooses to rescind an Order, or until the legislature ends the peacetime emergency powers. The Legislature is called into Special Session each month to consider the question of the continuing or ending the peacetime emergency.
- Statewide Emergency Currently Expires: Oct. 12, 2020, at 11:59 pm. The full order can be found here.
- Statewide Mask Mandate is currently in effect.
- Telephone Meetings Available: Yes, towns may continue to use telephone meetings.
- Emergency Preparedness Plan: Yes, towns currently must have a preparedness plan in place to open offices or interaction with the public.
- Township Facility Rentals: Yes, it is possible to rent or allow public use of town facilities or amenities subject to guidance issued by the MN Dept. of Health.
- Polling Place Locations: No change in polling places is allowed except for emergencies described in statute.
- Mail Balloting: Too late to adopt mail balloting or return to in-person election for the November General Election.
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.
Operational Guidelines for Re-Opening: On June 10th, Executive Order 20-74 went into effect, continuing the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 while reopening of the state and its businesses. This order governs the re-opening of townships and businesses, how meetings may be held, the availability of township amenities, and other town operations. These guidelines can be found here.
Mask Up, Minnesota: On July 22nd, 2020, Gov. Walz enacted Executive Order 20-81, found here, which requires masks to be worn indoors, unless covered by a specific exemption. A full discussion on the application of Mask Up, Minnesota can be found here, however, in general, township officials must wear masks, when indoors, unless (1) they are speaking/presenting during an open meeting, or (2) in an office or cubicle that provides social distance between people.
CARES Act/CRF Funds: On June 25th, 2020, Governor Walz announced a plan to distribute $853 million in federal funding to Minnesota communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding was authorized by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Towns under 5,000 residents will receive $25 per resident, according to data as recent as 2018. Towns with over 200 residents will receive their funds directly from the State and should place those funds into a serperate account to prevent mingling them with other town funds. Towns with under 200 residents are eligible to receive CARES Act funds, but the county holds the funds and the town must work with the county to be reimbursed for costs covered under the CARES Act.
For a fuller discussion, along with answers to frequently asked question, please review this resource.
Preparedness Plans: As of June 29th, all businesses, including townships, must adopt a preparedness plan before reopening to in-person work or in-person interaction with the public. Preparedness plans provide the procedures and rules that officers, employees, and the public are required to follow when carrying out township business. The purpose of these plans is to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 so further stay-at-home orders are not needed. MAT has drafted township specific preparedness plans, which can be found here (for towns without employees) and here (for towns with employees). If a township does not have anyone working in person, including the clerk, treasurer, or in-person meetings by the town board, a preparedness plan does not need to be passed.
Polling Places: Many municipalities have had difficulties with knowing whether their polling place would be available for the upcoming elections, and the legislature made an exception to designate the polling place by July 1st. However, it is now too late for towns to designate a polling place.
Township Facilities: A township may begin opening it’s facilities, including but not limited to; boat launches, parks, playgrounds, campsites, and town facilities utilized for rental. Each of these facilities must adhere to guidelines set forth by the most current executive order, MDH, and DEED.
For parks, playgrounds, and launches, the township must follow guidelines as set forth in the most current executive order. Currently, those guidelines would include, frequent cleaning, focusing on high traffic areas and implements frequently touched, like door knobs, and provide assistance in encouraging social distancing.
For facilities open for rental, like the town hall or campgrounds, each are given guidance by DEED. For renting out the town hall, other than for religious services, weddings, or funerals, DEED guidance requires that gatherings remain under 10 people. Meaning that, town halls may rent out, up to 50% capacity for religious services, weddings, or funeral. For all other indoor rental purposes, it is unlikely a township could open the venue, unless the specific purpose it is being rented out for is covered by the DEED guidelines.
As for campgrounds, the township may open campgrounds so long as a COVID-19 preparedness plan has been adopted and is being adhered to.
Local government boards may hold in-person meetings with social distancing if they choose to do so. Townships may hold regular board meetings in-person within the framework provided in MDH’s guidelines. Those guidelines require social distancing of at least 6 feet between people, and masking when not speaking. The township may need to reduce the room capacity limit to ensure minimum distance can be maintained. Townships may not prohibit the public from attending a township board meeting, unless the person refuses to wear a mask.
However, township board are not required to meet in-person. 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. They may choose to continue meeting by telephone meetings as described in the Teleconferencing section below.
Township Clerks, Treasurers, and Administrative Staff may be able to Return to Work: Most office workers to return to work under certain circumstances. Office workers may return to work if: (1) the work duties cannot be performed from home; (2) the office area has adequate space for individuals to work while maintaining social distance from any other person; (3) the township adopts a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan. The Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) describes more details about Preparedness Plans here, and township specific samples can be found here (for towns without employees) and here (for towns with employees).
Essential Services During Stay at Home: Local government employees and contractors providing services in “Critical Sectors” may continue their work outside their homes, in the same capacity as previously able to, 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.
Teleconferencing: Because of the Statewide public health emergency and the status of COVID-19 as a pandemic illness, townships may want to use remote meeting options. They may use teleconferencing statute found in the Open Meeting Law to avoid in-person meetings.
Notice of meetings by teleconference should be posted usual. The board must 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 teleconference.
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.
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 ES 3000A 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, parks, and other outdoor equipment may be opened for groups of 10 or fewer individuals in close proximity to use. Other Indoor facilities such as, senior and youth centers, performance centers, fitness centers, or other recreational facilities may be opened to the public only if allowed under Executive Order 20-74 and the amount of people is limited to 10 or fewer individuals or the rules that apply to that type of use. 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