By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN There weren’t enough chairs to go around in the Cokato council chambers Monday evening as the public gathered to learn what would become of the proposed special vehicle ordinance presented to the city council last month.
“Special vehicles” refers to golf carts, utility task vehicles (UTVs), all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and mini-trucks.
Lawn mowers were not included in the proposed ordinance.
Consideration for this ordinance came about after council members and city staff received calls from residents concerned about certain behaviors exhibited by some special vehicle operators such as speeding in and out of town.
The League of Minnesota Cities does not regulate special vehicle behavior.
“In fact, state law does not by itself expressly allow or prohibit the operation of special vehicles on city streets,” stated assistant Cokato city attorney David Anderson in a memorandum to the council.
He continued, “While various statutory provisions generally regulate the operation of special vehicles on trunk highways, county state-aid highways, and county highways, the ability to operate special vehicles on city streets is seemingly left to the discretion of individual cities as the local authority.”
Since Cokato does not have an ordinance in place to determine what is and is not acceptable within city limits, law enforcement has a difficult and to some extent impossible time correcting misbehavior when asked to assist in questionable special vehicle behavior.
That, combined with safety concerns expressed by some of Cokato’s residents, led to the consideration of a special vehicle ordinance, taken from the League of Minnesota Cities organization.
According to the League of Minnesota Cities’ website, “The League creates model policies, contracts, resolutions, ordinances and other forms to help cities with governance and city operations. Models should be customized as appropriate for each city’s circumstances in consultation with the city’s attorney.”
City attorney presents options
In considering the aforementioned information, city attorney Anderson informed the council of the three options available to them.
1) The council could adopt an ordinance authorizing special vehicles to use city streets. This would involve formally designating applicable city streets, issuing permits viable for a maximum of three years, reviewing proof of insurance for permitted special vehicles, and possibly requesting a physician’s note, certifying that the applicant is capable of safely operating the vehicle.
“Adopting this type of an ordinance is an effective way for the city to control the operation of special vehicles on city streets, make said operation expressly legal, and further ensure that said operation is done safely,” Anderson stated.
2) The council could adopt an ordinance prohibiting the use of special vehicles on city streets. This would give Cokato city residents a clear understanding that operating special vehicles within city limits is illegal, and would also provide the Wright County Sheriff’s Office with clear direction in how to mandate special vehicle violations.
3) The council could do nothing, and allow state law to control special vehicle expectations. This option places Minnesota Statute 84.928 as the primary reference for ATV requirements involving speeds, breaks, and number of passengers with all special vehicles remaining subject to state and local traffic laws.
“While adopting some type of ordinance would clarify said ambiguities, it is certainly not required,” said Anderson. “Ultimately, the city council may exercise its policy-making authority and do what it determines to be in the best interests of its residents.”
City Administrator Annita Smythe added that any action taken by the council would not apply to County Road 3, US Highway 12, and County Road 53.
The council takes a vote
In preparation for the public hearing, Council Member Paul Boger said he had been looking out for special vehicles that might cause concern over the last month (which he said he didn’t personally witness), spoke with the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, and reviewed attorney Anderson’s memorandum.
While considering the three options, Boger said he came to a conclusion:
“So, the one option is pass an ordinance, which would require a lot of paperwork and a lot of work for city staff. The other option is to totally prohibit it. Well, I can’t imagine any of us [council members] being in favor of that. The other option is to do nothing and let the system go as it is which means basically nothing would change.”
As a result, Boger said he felt uncomfortable taking action on the ordinance at the present time.
Council Member Carl Harju also commented that the council only becomes involved in a situation if conversations with disagreeable individuals are not resolving the conflict.
“People who drive or use these vehicles have to understand that the reason this comes up is because there have been complaints,” he said. “That’s not our first step, to say ‘hey, let’s pass an ordinance.’”
Harju later added that, “If everyone is playing nice, cooperating with neighbors and being responsible, I don’t think this issue would come up again.”
Council Member Jarod Sebring agreed, saying those who own special vehicles (himself included) know what is proper and improper behavior.
“And if you don’t know,” he said, “be approachable.”
“Unfortunately, just like anything, it’s a very small amount of people who are doing [this misbehavior],” Mayor Gordy Erickson commented.
He also stated that if an ordinance is passed, there isn’t enough law enforcement in town to mandate it.
In the end, the council decided to table, or not do anything (option 3) with the ordinance.
The vote was unanimous.
Instead, they asked that Cokato residents “police themselves” and their neighbors in what is safe and considerate special vehicle behavior.
“On the other hand, when this kind of issue of public safety comes up, we have to review it,” said Boger.