After a particularly heated election year, the Waseca City Council discussed whether the city needs restrictions on political signs after campaigns and the election are over.

In addition to discussing political signs June 1, the council also approved a pay increase for City Manager Lee Mattson that’s retroactive to the beginning of 2021 and discussed the construction of a third water tower in Waseca. The City Council’s June 1 work session and meeting marked the first time the council has sat together at the dais without masks since the pandemic began.

Since the 2020 presidential election, the city has received numerous calls from neighbors about political signs — not necessarily during the election, but months afterward. In particular, the city councilors’ discussion was sparked by a house on the east side of town that was seen plastered with upwards of 20 political signs as recently as last month. Neighbors didn’t take issue with the content of the signs, Mattson said, but with their overwhelming presence months after the contentious election was over. The signs and flags express support for former President Donald Trump, according to Mike Anderson, assistant to the city manager.

Councilor John Mansfield rejected the premise of the complaint.

“It’s what the signs say. They disagree with it,” he said.

Currently, state law stipulates that yard signs cannot be restricted 46 days before to 10 days after an election. Outside of that protected period, though, local governments have jurisdiction over the size and number of signs allowed on private property.

Regarding political signs, Waseca’s current ordinance states that “non-commercial signs of any size may be posted from Aug. 1 in a state general election year until 10 days following the state general election.”

The vagueness of this wording, Anderson explained, makes the ordinance almost impossible to enforce when residents post signs more than 10 days following an election. Additionally, Mattson told the Waseca County News that current law regarding political signs hasn’t been updated yet with case law, with recent court cases in Minnesota determining that political sign ordinances are not “content-neutral” — limiting only signs that are political in nature ostensibly discriminates based on content — which presents additional obstacles to enforcement.

Mattson opened the City Council’s discussion by saying that Waseca should probably consider updating its sign ordinance. The problem with not regulating signs is, “Do you want billboards?” Mattson said.

“It’s freedom of speech as far as I’m concerned. We have no right as a community to take them down or to tell him to take them down,” Mayor Roy Srp said.

Mattson responded that the city has a right to do so. He clarified that while the city code does not currently allow for this, the city has a right to create that city code if the council wants to.

Srp pointed out that no one who has complained about the property has attempted to talk with the homeowner about the signs and flags.

Councilor Jeremy Conrath was uneasy with the idea of codifying restrictions on political signs.

“I’m not a big fan of the signs, but one of the first thoughts going through my head was, ‘Who is going to be the poor city staff to end up going to all of these different homeowners,’ because every single one of these is going to be a disaster,” Jeremy Conrath said.

Rather than attempting to legally restrict signs, he said he would rather just appeal to the public to be good neighbors. He added that he worried enforcing an ordinance of this kind, given the politically charged climate, could spark defiance that could turn violent.

“I seriously worry about safety,” he said.

Councilor Allan Rose agreed that it could cause a backlash they might not be able to handle.

“If we’re going to clean up Waseca, we’ve got bigger things to do than worry about some signs. If this is only one person, this isn’t a big deal,” Rose said.

Srp added that the volume of signs seems to have diminished in the last few months. Mansfield agreed.

“The thing about free speech is it’s a pain in the butt because you have to tolerate somebody else’s opinion,” Mansfield said. “If we tolerate it, it will go away in time.”

City manager pay increase discussion

The Waseca City Council approved an increase in pay retroactive to Jan. 1 for Mattson, who turned down a step increase and a cost of living adjustment (COLA) in December although he had a satisfactory performance review and was scheduled to receive them.

“We all were very concerned about large cuts to state aid. I told the council, ‘I don’t want to end up laying off people on a year where I’ve taken my COLA and step,” Mattson said June 1.

At the June 1 meeting, the City Council had the options of granting Mattson the COLA but not the step increase, granting the step increase but not the COLA or granting both. The Council also had to decide whether it would make the compensation retroactive to when he was originally scheduled to receive the increase, but chose not to.

“I think it was respectable and honorable for him to have foregone his raise, but the state funds have come through,” Mattson said.

The council unanimously approved to grant the city manager’s step increase and COLA, and to pay him retroactively for the months he chose not to receive it. The pay increase raises Mattson’s salary from $123,311 to $131,542.41, a 6.7% increase.

Water tower discussion

The City Council discussed the possibility of constructing a third water tower in Waseca, but no decisions have been made.

The Council is still in the “educational phase” of a discussion regarding the construction of a third water tower in Waseca, according to Carl Sonnenberg, the utilities and public works director for the city.

During the Council work session, Mattson presented to the council what he called the “reader’s digest” version of the history of Waseca’s water system master plan, as well as some work that he and Sonnenberg had done regarding the water tower, the construction of which Sonnenberg said presents three main questions: the timing, the location and how to pay for it.

In terms of timing, while another water tower is not urgently needed, recent developments — most notably ConAgra building out its vegetable plant near County Road 2 and its interest in expanding it — have put increased pressure on Waseca’s water system, and shortened the time Waseca has before needing another water tower to meet flow needs.

The location presents other challenges, including the need for landowners to sell private property to the city for development, which has not been occurring. And in terms of the financing, the water tower is estimated to cost between $3.5 and $4 million, about which Mattson said, “If we have to pay for it, I don’t know that we can.”

The council will have to decide if it wants to pursue purchasing land for the tower, pursue state and federal funding, or defer those decisions for the time being. The Council has not established a date by which it intends to make those decisions.

Reach Reporter Julian Hast at 507-333-3133. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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