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State auditor needs power to enforce state law (10/09/2013)
From: David Harms

Lake City, Minn.

Merl Norman

(Former Co. Commissioner)

Zumbro Falls, Minn.

As two local citizens of Wabasha County, one a commissioner, one a former commissioner, we generally agree that the state transfers authority to the counties to carry out and perform certain functions, while reserving other powers solely for the state. However, when the state transfers authority to the counties to carry out and perform certain functions, the state has a continuing obligation to ensure that those county functions are legally carried out.

A controversial Wabasha County Driver Safety Program, similar to those in about a dozen other Minnesota Counties, highlights the problem when the state transfers authority to counties, but doesn’t ensure that the counties operate legally.

The State of Minnesota delegates local law enforcement functions to Wabasha County including issuing the citations for violations of the state traffic laws. Generally, the revenue from a citizen paying that type of citation goes to the state. But, the Wabasha County Sheriff, for the purpose of capturing this revenue for the county, runs a Safe Driving Class as an alternative to a state citation.

In response, the State Auditor’s office, as part of an annual audit, for nine consecutive years, has communicated to the county that the Safe Driving Class violates state law and must be stopped. The county sheriff maintains the fees he charges belong to his department and the State is not entitled to the revenue.

The stalemate between the auditor and the county has gone unresolved for nine years. Apparently, the state auditor is right that the state has no state agency to compel counties to follow state law. But, maybe it should?

At the August 20 Wabasha County Board Meeting, two commissioners on the County Board proposed a resolution to the County Board to cease the Safe Driving Class. Unfortunately, the other three commissioners, who are aligned on the other side of the Safe Driving Class issue, removed the item from the agenda without a discussion.

In response, on August 21, there was a lawsuit filed against the county seeking to stop the illegal “Safe Driving Class.” The complaint that was filed was not funded with tax dollars. Each of the plaintiffs and others are funding this legal action with their own money. In addition, the legal complaint is not seeking any damages. The only remedy that is being sought is a court ruling so that the matter is resolved appropriately. The court will determine the legal issues in the months to come.

Nonetheless, the questions remain, why haven’t there been any county or state corrective actions taken to bring this issue into compliance with the law? Certainly there has been plenty of opportunity for the county to ensure compliance with state law. Just the same, the state fails year after year to enforce the corrective actions noted in the State Auditor’s annual audit of Wabasha County. So is it acceptable for both the county and the state to sanction law enforcement officials to continue breaking the law as the law is currently written?

The commissioners have a responsibility to demonstrate leadership. Giving consent to an illegal program, while serving as board members, would make them accomplices to an unlawful behavior.

This is precisely why the steps were taken to have the court rule on this matter, and thus force necessary corrective actions.

Finally, we appreciate the sheriff’s argument that he would like to have the money generated from the class stay in Wabasha County. But the proper sequence for doing that would be to work through the state legislature to change the laws prior to running an Illegal Driver Safety Class.

Additional revenue does not justify breaking the law.



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