Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Questions? Research says, 'Bring it on.'

Have you ever called the League with a municipal-related question? If so, chances are you talked with one of the staffers in the Research and Information Service, or simply "Research."

This photo of  research staff from 1980 is staged, but we like it anyway.
No question too small; no situation too parochial; the spirit of the League's Research service remains largely unchanged from the early days when our sister organization, the Municipal Reference Bureau, was answering the many varied questions of city staff and officials.

But instead of fielding concerns about oiling streets and licensing coin-operated phonographs, Research staff today find the most popular questions are often related to complex city operations and best practices related to managing finances, public data, police departments, and more. And of course, there are the perpetual problems such as barking dogs and unkempt property that will continue to perplex councils and staff for at least 100 years more!

What else has changed? Well, volume, for one. In 1913 there were 51 inquiries to the Municipal Reference Bureau. These days, research receives about 4,000 inquiries a year. The mode of contact has also changed. While the first questions were hand-written and received by mail, city officials and staff now submit questions through an online form, via email, or by picking up the phone.

Have a question of your own? Bring it on—the League's Research staff is here for you!

The top 5 types of questions Research tackles every day:*

1.    How does the open meeting law work? For example, can some or all of the councilmembers attend meetings electronically or from a remote location? What notice is required for a special meeting?

2.    What are the rules for financial operations?  Can tax dollars be donated to an art fair to be held in the city, or used for a city celebration? How does the city raise money since cities may not borrow money from a bank? How does state tax law affect cities?

3.    Can you answer a contract question? Joint powers, solid waste removal, law enforcement—you name it, how does our city do it right?

4.    How do we comply with the Data Practices Law? Which data requests should the city comply with? What is the classification of particular types of data? This law is so all-encompassing, cities have many questions about it!

5.    What are the "dos" and "don’ts" of managing citizen engagement? These questions revolve around interactions between elected officials, staff and the public. Questions often touch on protocol when dealing with an upset citizen, as well as how to handle public hearings.

(Other frequent questions deal with operating city utilities and billing, conflict of interest and compatibility of office questions, providing and paying for law enforcement, all those pesky nuisance complaints, and questions related to volunteer fire departments.)

Learn more about the history of League research staff in the July-Aug. issue of Minnesota Cities magazine, and check out last week's blog post for more information about the Municipal Reference Bureau!

*A big thanks to League staffers Elaine Clark in technology services and Jeanette Behr, our research manager, for their efforts compiling and summarizing this data!

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