Three courts have now weighed in on whether Anoka County followed state statute when reappointing a manager to the Rice Creek Watershed District (RCWD) Board of Managers.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has now issued an opinion that reverses the decision of the Court of Appeals and remands the case to the District Court for proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion.
The conflict between the city of Circle Pines and Anoka County stems back to 2019 when the county published notice of a vacancy on the board because Columbus resident Patricia Preiner’s term was expiring in January 2020. (Preiner has served on the board of managers since 2008.) In October 2019, the city of Circle Pines submitted a list of three nominees to the county to fill the vacancy. (The cities of Blaine, Lino Lakes, Centerville, Lexington, Spring Lake Park and Fridley also supported the city of Circle Pines’ list of nominees.) The city of Columbus notified the county that it supported Preiner for reappointment. In June 2020, the county reappointed Preiner.
Circle Pines asked the District Court to hold that the county violated the statutory process when it reappointed Preiner, while the county requested that the court uphold its reappointment decision.
The District Court ruled in favor of the county Oct. 28, 2020, and upheld Preiner’s reappointment. The court agreed with the county that the statute (Minnesota Statutes section 103D.551) unambiguously allows the county the discretion to appoint a manager from any city that fails to submit a list of nominees. The Court of Appeals affirmed that decision June 21, 2021.
On July 20, 2022 the Minnesota Supreme Court issued its opinion, which reads in part, “Interpreting the statute to require counties to choose from city nominees unless they do not meet the fair representation requirement in subdivision 3(c)—and to always consider fair representation when making appointments—honors the purposes of the statute. This interpretation encourages cities to participate in the process of nominations because their nominees must be considered. It also makes the counties pay attention to cities by requiring prioritization of their nominees. Prioritizing city involvement makes sense for metropolitan areas where development in cities requires consistent coordination with watershed districts. Additionally, this interpretation prioritizes geographic balance because it requires counties to consider fair representation when making appointments, fulfilling the subdivision 3(c) mandate in every case. Allowing counties to appoint from outside city nominees only when the fair representation requirement is not met by the city nominees also gives counties the appropriate discretion to balance city input with geographic balance.”
Furthermore, “In contrast, adopting the county’s reading of the statute would greatly diminish the incentive for cities to participate in nominating managers because there would be no guarantee that the county would consider city nominations unless all cities in a district participated.”
The Supreme Court found the conclusions made by the District Court and the Court of Appeals were “made in error” because they were based on an “incorrect interpretation” of section 103D, subdivision 3.
“The Supreme Court decision was good for residents of Circle Pines and hopefully for communities across the state. Cities and watershed districts need to work better together, as they both spend taxpayer dollars trying to improve water quality,” explained Circle Pines Mayor Dave Bartholomay.
“We believed that state law provided for cities to help choose watershed district board members, and we were glad that the Supreme Court agreed with us. This will make for better watershed boards that represent both cities and rural areas to clean up our waters.”
Circle Pines City Administrator Patrick Antonen added, “We are very pleased with the decision. We are happy to have a seat at the table to hopefully have some representation on this board. We hope moving forward that the Anoka County Board will listen to the cities when it comes to the appointment process ... We are hoping with rulings like this the board will consider geographic representation in their appointment process to this watershed board.”
Circle Pines City Council Member Matt Percy said, “It is not just a Circle Pines issue; many cities are affected by this. So this is a win for not just our city, but for towns all over the state.”
The case will now be remanded to allow the District Court to reconsider its application of the law to the facts in light of the statutory interpretation of the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the city of Circle Pines (and other cities within the RCWD) are already gearing up to submit another list of nominees for consideration by the county board. Preiner’s seat expires in January 2023.
Managing Editor Shannon Granholm can be reached at 651-407-1227 or email@example.com.