The Saint Paul Charter Commission had hoped to take a final vote on September 27 and send a proposed charter amendment on administrative citations to the City Council for action. However, because a clause was missing in the language voted on September 13 following three hours of debate, the matter was laid over again for final Charter Commission action on October 18 at City Hall.

The ordinance would allow the city to impose administrative citations and fines for an array of ordinance violations instead of criminal charges. If City Council members unanimously approve the measure, it would become part of the charter. If they cannot agree, the proposal could be placed on an election ballot in 2022 or later.

Council approval would also start a process of working with city departments to decide when administrative citations should be implemented for various violations. The penalties could be used for everything from animal control complaints to situations where employers try to skirt the city’s minimum wage or earned sick and safe time requirements.

Proponents of administrative citations contend that fining violators is a way of ensuring compliance with city regulations without going through a sometimes lengthy criminal court process. Criminal charges also can affect a person’s search for housing or employment.

Opponents question whether administrative citations would create more problems than they would solve, and would unfairly discriminate against people in low-income neighborhoods. 

The Charter Commission is split on the matter, although supporters outnumber opponents or those who want more time to study the issue. In 2019 the commission voted 6-5 to send administrative citations to the City Council, but the issue was set aside after some council members wavered in their support.

Mayor Melvin Carter asked for a change in the current proposal to address some of the red flags raised. The Charter Commission on September 13 adopted his proposal that any administrative citations and fines be made with an eye toward equity and the violator’s ability to pay.

Mayor Melvin Carter asked for a change in the current proposal to address some of the red flags raised. The Charter Commission on September 13 adopted his proposal that any administrative citations and fines be made with an eye toward equity and the violator’s ability to pay.

Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) director Richard Cervantes said those issues certainly could be considered before an administrative citation and fine are levied. Cervantes said the DSI monitors complaints closely to see if someone is unfairly targeted. That is a concern raised by several groups. The Summit-University Planning Council has cited instances where people of color and immigrants were targeted by neighbors for what are considered minor property code issues.

More than a dozen people attended the September 13 Charter Commission hearing. Half a dozen people signed up to testify, most of them raising technical issues in opposition to the proposal. 

Highland Park resident Patricia Hartman said she does not see a compelling need for the charter change, saying the city has more important issues to address. Others said they believe a court process would be more fair than going through a city-run legislative hearing process.

Jack Cann of the Housing Justice Center said that while the Carter amendment is a step in the right direction toward equity, there is still the potential for people to face expensive fines as well as the cost of hearings in an administrative citations process. “Someone could seek a reduction in a penalty and wind up paying more,” he said.

Some commissioners also were not mollified by the explanation that the City Attorney’s Office made an error by having the City Council request Charter Commission action on administrative citations in a resolution, not an ordinance form.

Commissioner Bruce Clark said the matter should go back to the City Council for more work before the Charter Commission votes it up or down. However, votes to send it back to the council and to request an ordinance instead of a resolution failed to win support from a majority of commissioners.

The commission also voted down an amendment that would have had administrative citation hearings go to a neutral, non-city employee for consideration instead of a legislative hearing office.

— Jane McClure

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