A proposal that would have allowed administrative citations or civil fines instead of criminal charges for an array of ordinance violations was rejected by the Saint Paul Charter Commission on a 6-7 vote on October 18.

Proponents of the change contend that an administrative citation is a more effective and more equitable way to penalize those who violate city ordinances. Such violations are currently a criminal offense, which leaves the guilty parties with a criminal record that can harm their efforts to get a job or find new housing. Opponents argued that the fines would have a negative impact on low-income residents and could be misused by city officials as a way to generate revenue.

The Charter Commission was deeply divided over the matter. It clashed in recent weeks over numerous amendments. One amendment adopted earlier this month would have allowed city officials to consider the financial circumstances of the parties being penalized. Another called for a neutral third party to hear cases.

Some commissioners said they could not support the administrative citations process until they had more information on how it would be implemented. Others said the city needs to do more to enforce its ordinances before adding another layer of penalties. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions on all of this. I’m just not there,” said commissioner Debbie Montgomery.

“Without the ability to have administrative citations and fines, people won’t be getting paid the minimum wage, they won’t be getting earned sick and safe time, they won’t vaccinate their dogs against rabies,” said commissioner Rick Varco. “That’s the consequence of not passing this.”

Commissioners who supported the citations said the city needs such an enforcement tool. “Without the ability to have administrative citations and fines, people won’t be getting paid the minimum wage, they won’t be getting earned sick and safe time, they won’t vaccinate their dogs against rabies,” said commissioner Rick Varco. “That’s the consequence of not passing this.” According to Varco, other cities that have adopted administrative citations have not had problems.

Had the proposal been approved by the Charter Commission, it would have required a unanimous 7-0 vote by the City Council or the approval of a majority of Saint Paul voters to become law.

 

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The administrative citation process had the support of Mayor Melvin Carter and a majority of the City Council. A timeline released by city officials earlier this year called for the citation process to be in place by early 2022. That would have meant adding city staff, which in turn would have meant amending the 2022 city budget. The mayor and City Council also needed to decide to which types of violations to apply administrative citations and then to create a penalty matrix for each violation.

City officials were considering using administrative citations to enforce construction regulations, animal control violations, zoning code requirements and license violations by liquor, tobacco and automotive-related businesses.

The Saint Paul water utility could have used the fines to sanction unauthorized water shutoffs or activations, unauthorized use of fire hydrants and violations of plumbing permits.

The city’s Office of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity could have used the citations to enforce the city’s earned sick and safe time and minimum wage requirements as well as its prohibition on conversion therapy to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

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— Jane McClure

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