St. Paul is considering a change to its charter that would give the city more leeway to impose fines for code violations to keep the cases out of the criminal court process.
Ricardo Cervantes, director of the city's Department of Safety & Inspections, told the St. Paul Charter Commission on Monday that the suggested change would give more teeth to certain city ordinances and avoid a lengthy prosecution process.
It also aims to minimize the possibility of a non-crime code violation — for an unlicensed dog or failure to comply with a zoning site plan, for instance — going on someone's record and affecting future housing, job or education opportunities, he said.
At the commission's public hearing Monday, labor advocates spoke in support of the change, saying it would help with enforcement of St. Paul's ordinances regulating minimum wage and earned sick and safe time.
The change also could affect rules surrounding animal control, zoning, illegal use of fire hydrants and other issues that have proved difficult for staff to obtain compliance, Cervantes said.
But others, including attorney Jack Cann of the Minnesota-based Housing Justice Center, raised concerns that the proposed charter amendment could burden low-income families with fines they can't afford.
If the Charter Commission recommends the change, which could happen as soon as next month, the City Council must unanimously approve the amendment for it to take effect.
If that happens, the council would look to pass an ordinance establishing procedural rules governing administrative fines.
Then they would have to amend sections of city code that deal with specific offenses to define hearing requirements and penalties for violations.
Those decisions could be made by a simple majority council vote, but Cervantes said the city would look to engage the community in conversations to establish rules that are fair and equitable.
Lisa Foster, co-director of the national Fines and Fees Justice Center, said she generally believes in efforts to reclassify certain misdemeanor offenses as civil offenses.
"The devil's in the details, of course," she said.
"We don't want to end up in a world where, because they now have an administrative process, more people get fines and fees imposed or that those fines and fees are higher than what was currently the case."
Deputy City Attorney Rachel Tierney said Monday that the charter amendment would cap St. Paul's fines at twice the maximum fine amount authorized for misdemeanor offenses for violations of city code, which is now $2,000.
Those receiving a citation could appeal to a neutral hearing officer, the City Council and the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Staff estimated the change would cost more than $450,000, mostly to fund four new staff positions.
Although the city expects it would collect less than a quarter of that in fee revenue during the first year the changes are rolled out, Tierney said the amendment "is not a revenue collection measure. It's an incentive to follow the law."
A similar push in St. Paul to allow administrative citations did not gain the unanimous support needed to pass the council in 2019.
Other Minnesota cities, including Minneapolis and Bloomington, already have non-criminal avenues of enforcing code.
The Charter Commission will hold another public hearing on the proposal at its Sept. 13 meeting, at which time the group could vote on whether to recommend the amendment to the City Council.