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Verndale attorney: power derived through teamwork

Recognizing individual powerlessness and the importance of teamwork is the best way council members can navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of city governance, according to Verndale City Attorney Dan Carlisle of Pemberton, Sorlie, Rufer and Kershner, PLLP.

"The theme is you really need to act as a unit," he told the council during an in-service presentation.

This philosophy isn't just a team-building, "rah-rah" pep talk, Carlisle said.

"This is a legal speech," he said. "You really as individuals have no authority. You're meaningless beings wandering around city hall."

Individual council members have the power to make a motion, second a motion and that's about it, Carlisle said. It is only as collective unit that the council has the power to enact ordinances, levy taxes, build, make contracts and other authorities described in Minnesota Statute 412.

Carlisle complimented the city on its handling of the business meeting he attended May 4.

"It's good to hear that you've got a lot of the fundamentals, a lot of the basics down," he said.

At one point he thought the council was going to stub its toe by letting a committee make a decision, but that didn't happen, Carlisle said. Committees can only make recommendations. The council, after motions are duly made and seconded, must make decisions.

Acting as a team is the only way a city can conduct business, he said.

Not all of the municipalities he represents realize this, Carlisle said. Already in 2009 he's seen problems with newly elected city officials who have serious misconceptions about what they can do when they are on the council.

"They think the world's going to change," he said. "They think they can walk into any department and intimidate an employee, bark orders to an employee."

That isn't so, Carlisle said.

An individual council member can be delegated the authority to investigate an issue and do any number of things, he said. But that council member must report back to the council with their recommendations so the group can make a decision.

Carlisle described some of the common misconceptions people have about the powers of city officials. Many people think that a mayor has veto power.

"That just couldn't be further from the truth," he said.

Mayors have no super approval authority and no veto authority, Carlisle said.

Mayors are generally lumped into the category of being powerless as individuals, he said, although there are certain unique authorities they do have. For example, the mayor has the statutory authority to control the meeting, to recognize speakers from the audience and to rule on questions of procedure.

Mayor Ardith Carr said "if we build I get to the cut the ribbon" as an example of her role as mayor according to what she learned at a League of Minnesota Cities meeting.

Not only is acting together important because it helps to ensure city government is run the way it is supposed to be run, Carlisle said, but it provides protection from a number of legal ramifications.

Minnesota statute affords city officials a certain amount of discretionary immunity when they are acting in their official capacity, Carlisle said. An example of how this would come into play is if the council, after due process, votes to put in a curb on a road for a legitimate reason and a high school student misses the curb coming home from prom and kills himself. The city council members would be protected from being sued for voting for the curb because they are protected by discretionary immunity, he said.

If, however, the council conducts itself in a "loosey-goosey" manner and one member knows he or she can buffalo the rest of the council that is another issue, he said. If a council member simply instructed the maintenance department to create a curb the council member is subject to suit.

"You would not have the protections of discretionary immunity cloaking you," Carlisle said.

If the council acts as a team it will be safe, he said.