“The City Attorney said so,” is often the response that we, the public, get from City Hall when we are confounded by some process, procedure, or final action that otherwise makes no credible sense. When we seek to understand a council vote or mayoral decision shrouded in mystery, “It’s-the-opinion-of-the-City-Attorney” is a great strategy to stop conversation and cease controversy.
Eventually, one realizes these are not legal imperatives but political decisions providing politicians with political cover. No need to take our word on this when it’s clearly laid out on the city’s website: “The mission of the Saint Paul City Attorney’s Office is to deliver outstanding legal services to the city by providing sound legal advice and superior legal representation to city officials to help them achieve their goals.”
Saint Paul’s City Attorney is not elected, but appointed by the Mayor. He or she serves at the pleasure of the Mayor, supervising a large group of attorneys in the City Attorney’s Office (CAO).
The recent media coverage about the city’s mishandling of the Right of Way (ROW) maintenance program is a good example.
In 2011, the City Attorney refused to settle a ROW appeal by two Lowertown churches who believed that their ROW assessments were disproportionately higher than most downtown buildings. The churches sought to settle the appeal for a fraction of the final awarded total.
Given the City’s intransigence, the only recourse for the churches was to file a lawsuit. Rather than weigh the potential cost of a long and drawn out lawsuit which the City was not guaranteed to win, the Mayor and City Attorney chose to fight the case over six years, and through five different court rooms, culminating at the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruling didn’t just impact the churches; it deemed Saint Paul’s ROW maintenance program to be illegal.
This process was hard enough on the plaintiffs who were fortunate to be represented by pro-bono counsel. However, the case was devastating for the City of Saint Paul. Using taxpayer resources, the City Attorney took the case against the churches through appeal after appeal. A case that could have settled in 2011 for $30,000 resulted in a $32 million budget gap and drastic cut in services to taxpayers, in 2017 alone.
Such examples are all too common. In 2015, Saint Paul taxpayers were forced to pay for an $800,000 settlement with the private restaurant at Como Lakeside Pavilion. Here again, the Mayor and City Attorney allowed a contract dispute to turn into a six-figure lawsuit, at the taxpayers’ expense.
Recently, when asked for the annual report showing funds collected and expenditures made, mandated under the City’s Parkland Dedication Ordinance, the City once again hid behind the City Attorney. Even though a 2015 report had been generated listing collected fees, the City Attorney now advised that this report didn’t need to be issued until after expenditures have been made. How can anyone evaluate the ordinance if information will only be released after decisions have been made? This so-called legal opinion is not in keeping with an ordinance calling for an annual report to ensure transparency and accountability.
The collection of Parkland Dedication funds is triggered by development projects, including the soccer stadium and the redevelopment of the Ford site. State law requires these funds be collected when permits are issued. Why would the city make the legal determination that this information need not be shared with the public?
These appear to be political strategies proposed by the Mayor and carried out by the City Attorney. These are just a few examples. The point here is that something is deeply wrong with this process. When pushed for an explanation, city officials will admit the CAO represents the Mayor and City Council; not the public.
Saint Paul STRONG recommends that we look for solutions that address this issue of political manipulation wrapped in legal justifications. Perhaps one solution is that Saint Paul create the position of an elected City Attorney who would represent and advise the public. Our Ramsey County Attorney is an elected official, one whom the voters are able to evaluate and vote into and out of office.
What we have now may be good for elected officials and city staff but too often has encouraged poor policy decisions. Saint Paul deserves better. Finding a way to hold our elected officials more accountable to the law is a good way to increase public trust and confidence.