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Let the voters decide: The best of Minnesota’s 2018 ballot questions

From looser liquor laws to roadside rehab, Minnesota voters — in some places, anyway — have big decisions to make.

Across the state, cities, townships and school districts have approved questions voters will be asked to weigh in on at the polls.
Across the state, cities, townships and school districts have approved questions voters will be asked to weigh in on at the polls.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

If you live in California, or Washington, or South Dakota, or Oregon or one of the many other states with citizen-led ballot initiatives, your ballot’s liable to be longer than a CVS Pharmacy receipt. In those states, the people can petition to put questions of policy directly to the voters.

We don’t have that kind of DIY democracy in Minnesota. Here, your ballot’s probably one page, front and back (don’t forget to turn it over, by the way). In Minnesota, citizens can’t put questions on the ballot, but governments can.

The only questions that go on ballots statewide are constitutional amendments, and there aren’t any of those this year. But across the state, cities, townships and school districts have approved questions voters will be asked to weigh in on at the polls.

Many of them are pretty perfunctory: deciding whether to raise money to pay for recreational amenities and or proposing levies for school districts. Others are, well, more peculiar. Here’s a rundown of the ones MinnPost found most interesting or were on subjects that were popular across the state.

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Liberalizing liquor laws

One of the most common threads in Minnesota ballot measures is Sunday alcohol sales. After many, many post-Prohibition years of dry Sundays, in 2017 Minnesota made it legal for liquor stores to be open on Sundays — if local government allowed it. Nearly a dozen local governments have ballot questions this year seeking to approve on or off-sale Sunday sales. They are the cities of Clara, Clarks Grove, Graceville, Leonard, Madison Township, Menahga, Moose Lake, Beaver Creek, Sebeka, Blakeley Township and Warren.

Minneapolis voters will decide on a measure involving alcohol, too. The charter amendment would lift a century-old prohibition that prohibits some neighborhood restaurants from selling hard liquor, if 55 percent (or more) of voters say “yes.”

Voters in Menahga, Minnesota, near Park Rapids, will be asked two alcohol-related questions at the polls next week.

One would allow restaurants and hotels to serve alcohol, a question that came about after Wild Walleye, a local cafe, came to the city to ask for a license to serve alcohol, and the council couldn’t grant it.

Under current law, only Menahga’s municipal liquor store and clubs, like a VFW or a legion, can sell alcohol, said Mayor Pat Foss.

“We’ve pushed it because we feel like, in the future,” Foss said, with the option of selling alcohol, “there’s a possibility of us getting another cafe or restaurant.”

Without the ability to serve alcohol, Foss said, a prospective new restaurant might prefer to open in another community.

The other Menahga ballot question would allow establishments to serve alcohol on Sundays.

Government and elections

Another big trend: ballot questions to change the structure of government. More than 20 municipalities are seeking the public’s opinion on the jobs of city clerk, treasurer or both, for example. A handful of those measures would establish one hybrid “clerk-treasurer,” if approved by voters. (That change is fairly common and affects state auditing in small jurisdictions.) Other measures would switch the town clerk or treasurer positions from being elected to appointed.

And then there are two really specific questions about government in Tracy, Lyon County. The town of about 2,000 people in the southwest corner of the state will decide if their elected leaders must take a one year “hiatus” after serving 14 consecutive years — but the change would not disqualify those long-term politicians from running again after the break. City administrator Kris Ambuehl said supporters essentially view the change as a type of term limit to deter the same officials from rotating through elected positions over a long period of time.

Currently, long tenures in public service are not unheard of in Tracy. The former mayor, Stephen Ferrazzano, served on the city council for 17 years total, 11 of them as mayor, according to the Marshall Independent. Also, a current city council member, Tony Peterson, who was first elected in 2007, is running for mayor this year — after serving in the top leadership position between 2012 and 2016, the newspaper reports.

The other measure in Tracy would add two seats to the town’s city council.

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Elections are a hot topic this year, too. The city of New Brighton will ask voters if they want to stop the city from moving its local elections from odd to even years, a measure council members approved in December, citing reduced costs and the potential to increase turnout.

But probably the most substantial proposal in the eyes of election-reform advocates: “Do we (Prairie Lake Township) want to go to mail in ballots?” A majority “yes” vote would add the town of about 50 people in St. Louis County to a growing list of municipalities in Minnesota that have already added the mailing option, in addition to in-person polling on Election Day. Prairie Lake is the only town statewide considering the change with a ballot question this election.

Clearing things up

But the clear winner for peculiarity among Minnesota’s list: Bruce Township’s question of whether certain property owners should take responsibility for keeping the roadsides clear near their homes.

The Todd-County town, about 50 miles northwest of St. Cloud, is asking its roughly 600 residents if people who own land adjacent to unincorporated areas should be required to “remove rocks larger than five inches in diameter” and “cut, destroy or remove all weeds, grass and other plants” of a certain size near public roads. The language is identical to state statute, but every township has the option of adopting it as a rule.

Beverly Eggerth, the township’s clerk, said the ballot question’s history spans back to the late ’90s — and reflects the area’s changing population. Decades ago, most landowners wanted to do the work themselves because they lived in the area and it was part of their land-maintenance routines. But now, more and more people own property in the area but have homes somewhere else. They are saying: “We can’t come and do this [work],” she said.

If voters choose “no” on the question, the township will raise property taxes to cover the cost of buying equipment and doing the land maintenance itself, Eggerth said. It’s unclear how big, exactly, that increase would be, she said.

“We’ve had some discussion on this for years; it ain’t just something that just came out of the blue,” Eggerth said.

To find out whether any of these questions — or others — are on your ballot, enter your address to get a sample version here.