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MAT Staff May 14, 2020

COVID-19 and Operating the Township (May, 14th 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.

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.

Governor Walz later issued Stay at Home orders requiring all Minnesotans to limit movements outside their homes through May 17th, 2020. The limitation to movement outside the home is subject to exceptions described in the Order. The full Executive Order is found here.

On May 18th, Executive Order 20-56 goes into effect, allowing for a slow reopening of the state. This order does not change much for townships in the way they should meet and conduct business. The order still asks that Minnesota Department of Health guideline are followed; these guidelines can be found here. The information below is still pertinent, as the operating a township during COVID-19 still provides certain challenges.

Executive Orders: Currently the governor has enacted three types of Executive Orders with certain dates in place, these are the stay-at-home orders, the peacetime emergency orders, and the recently enact stay-safe Minnesota order. The peacetime emergency order, currently set to expire June 12th at 11:59 p.m., is an order allowed by Minnesota Statutes § 12.31, subdivision 2 allowing the Governor the authority to enact other executive orders.

The stay-at-home order, set to expire May 17th at 11:59 p.m. These orders limited movement for the public outside of their homes. This included work restrictions for non-critical sectors.

The stay-safe Minnesota order, set to begin on May 17th at 11:59 p.m., and is currently set to expires May 31st at 11:59 p.m. This order is similar to the stay-at-home order, where certain gatherings are restricted. However, many businesses may reopen in some capacity, and the town board may conduct in-person meetings, so long as they are following MDH and CDC guidelines, holding in-person meetings will be discussed in more detail below.

Polling Places: Many municipalities have had difficulties with knowing whether their polling place would be available for the upcoming elections. Minnesota Statute § 204B.16 requires that a polling place be designated by December 31st, the year prior to the election. However, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law allowing for, in 2020 only, polling places to be designated by July 1st, 2020, more information on this issue can be found here.

Local government boards may now begin holding 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. 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.

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 has a Sample Preparedness Plan Template in Word and PDF formats here.

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:

  1. 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;
  2. All township board members participating in the meeting can hear all other participants;
  3. 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;
  4. 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
  5. 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.

Please refer to MAT’s resource Options for Meeting Remotely, found here.  For information on how to set-up and use a teleconferencing provider, please use this link.

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, 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

 

 

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