Farm Horizons, April 2014

Townships are oldest form of government in Minnesota

By Aaron Schultz

Townships are the oldest form of government in Minnesota, dating back to 1787 when Minnesota was established as part of the Northwest Ordinance.

The township form of government, a carryover from Europe, served as a familiar building block to develop the state by dividing land areas into 36-square-mile units known as congressional townships.

Today, the term township generally refers to organized but unincorporated communities governed by a local board of supervisors and created to provide services to their residents.

Currently, there are 1,790 townships across the state of Minnesota.

Townships have evolved over the years, and current townships are the result of Article 12, Section 3 of the State Constitution, along with Minn. Stat Ch. 379, which governs the creation of new townships.

The physical size of most townships no longer resembles the original 36-square-mile divisions. Instead, boundaries reflect mergers, annexations into cities, and the organization of new townships in smaller, but more densely populated areas of rural counties.

Townships have historically been viewed as rural areas with agriculture as their primary industry, but that is far from how every township is in Minnesota. They exist in every area of the state, including the metro area.

Ultimately, the role of townships is continually evolving. Many townships remain rural agricultural centers, but others have a variety of residential, light commercial, and industrial development.

Like all other units of small, local government, how to govern townships is laid out in township powers, which are derived from state statues.

A town board of supervisors, elected to staggered three-year terms on an annual basis, make up the governing body for most townships.

Typically, the annual elections take place the second Tuesday of March each year in coordination with the township’s annual meeting.

The annual meeting is what really sets townships apart from other forms of local government. At this meeting, the residents of the township have a direct opportunity to have a voice in how the township will be run.

Residents have a very direct role in how townships are governed, and they do this by voting on a variety of matters on which the town board must receive elector approval, and most importantly, by directly voting on and approving the township’s tax levy for the next year.

Basically, this means that, with very limited exception, the town board can only spend that which has been authorized by the voters.

There are some townships which have held their elections in November, in which case the board members are elected to four-year terms, and elections take place the even or odd year depending on the township. Even if townships have their elections in November, they still must conduct an annual meeting in March.

Besides the board of supervisors, a township also has a township clerk and a township treasurer. Most townships have elections for these positions, but some townships have these as appointed positions. Other townships have combined these two positions.

The board of supervisors, in most townships, consist of three members elected by the residents. A few townships have adopted the optional five-member board. Supervisors must be residents of the township.

Supervisors are the only ones with an official vote on most final decisions, but the residents play an important role in the decision-making process through the annual meeting.

Townships must comply with state mandates, and on some issues, townships can be ordered to do things by the county.

Most townships have a less formal management style, and day-to-day paperwork is usually handled by the town clerk.

Typically, the board of supervisors appoint one of their own to serve as a chairperson, although other than running the board meeting and being the person required to sign official documents and checks, the chairperson has no extra powers.

In most townships, the supervisors will divide up certain tasks, such as overseeing work by contractors, etc., that would be done by staff in other units of governments, but only the board as a whole can make decisions binding the entity.

The types of services offered by townships vary greatly, but overall, townships control roughly 47 percent of the roads in Minnesota. That means all townships have to provide or contract out for road maintenance services.

Overall, townships can offer anything from park and recreational services, provide volunteer fire department services, and maintain cemeteries.

Townships are the oldest form of government in Minnesota and continue to play a crucial role across the state still today.

Four questions for Winsted Township supervisor Tony Hausladen

Tony Hausladen is a township supervisor for Winsted Township. Tony was kind enough to answer a few questions concerning townships, and how they are run. His responses are below.

1) What made you interested in getting involved in being a township supervisor?

“My original interest in government was piqued back in high school during an event called County Government Day. It exposed me to the different components of local government we have at the county level.

“ Since I live in the township, it was a logical starting point to entertain that interest and get involved and not just complain about the problems, but try and do something about them.”

2) What are the biggest challenges in being a township supervisor?

“The biggest challenge we face is what I would call fiscal responsibility to our residents. It would be easy to raise taxes and solve the problems to make them go away temporarily.

“We need to force ourselves to develop creative solutions to our problems and think outside the box since all of our cost inputs are increasing.

“An example of this is we have recently started putting dust control down on some of our newly-graveled high traffic roads that were being graveled every two to three years. We are hoping we can now extend our graveling out to every four to five years and reduce our new gravel consumption, which is our largest cost to the township today.”

3) What are a township supervisor’s main responsibilities?

“The primary responsibilities of our township is to manage and maintain the township road infrastructure, work with local entities to provide fire protection for residents, conduct local, state, and federal elections as required, and maintain monthly meetings to conduct the township business and financial obligations.

“There are many secondary responsibilities which include assignment of a local property assessor, yearly weed inspection, complaint management from residents, posting of notices, road inspections, and, many times, interacting with county and city officials on concerning items to ensure the township’s interests are maintained.

“Some townships also do planning and zoning, and have additional properties and employees to manage, which can require additional time and added complexity to the duties.

“We have, at times, had to go out and close roads at night due to high water, and remove trees from roadways after a storm to provide passage for residents and emergency vehicles.”

4) For someone not familiar with what a township supervisor does, how would you summarize it for them?

“In summary, the function of a township supervisor is to be part of a board that conducts a monthly meeting to carry out the business of its property owners and residents in their interests, such as conducting elections, levying of taxes, and public road maintenance.

“It may also include additional responsibilities, such as planning and zoning, employee management, and maintenance of public entities, such as town halls, parks, and cemeteries.”

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