Jun 6, 2024 - News

St. Paul wants new powers to fine bad landlords, wage thieves, and others

A man in a bright yellow shirt stands at a horseshoe-shaped dais and addresses a city council

A St. Paul City Council meeting in April. Photo: Kyle Stokes/Axios

St. Paul city leaders want new powers to hand out fines for more city code violations.

Why it matters: Proponents argue the change would give the city more leverage against violators like bad landlords or wage thieves — and give regulators ways to resolve lesser cases other than criminal charges.

Catch up quick: The idea isn't new. In recent years, city officials have failed twice to add "administrative citations" to St. Paul's charter.

  • Critics worried that departments might abuse these powers to rack up revenue through fines to low-income residents over petty offenses.
  • Jane Prince, a former council member who opposed the idea, wrote that a 2021 proposal left "the impression" that the city was seeking to impose steep fines "for common and minor code violations," like peeling paint.

What they're saying: "Penalizing people is not the goal. The goal is to get compliance," Angie Wiese, the city's safety and inspections director, told reporters at city hall this week.

  • "The goal is to get people their back wages," she added. "The goal is to get the house painted. The goal is to not have vacant buildings."

State of play: Mayor Melvin Carter's administration gave a briefing to council members this week, signaling an interest in restarting the months-long process.

  • Ultimately, a 7-0 council vote or a citywide ballot measure is required to enact the change.

Flashback: In 2021, Council President Mitra Jalali said Prince's opposition left the council one vote short. Prince is no longer in office.

Zoom in: Jalali bemoaned St. Paul's "'zero to 60' compliance toolkit" — which has forced regulators to choose between responses that were too soft or too heavy-handed, she argued.

Some examples:

  • Property maintenance: The city was forced to file criminal charges against a rental property manager over unmade repairs the out-of-state owner should've paid for, Wiese said. A threat of a fine against the owner might've actually spurred action.
  • Dog bite cases: City prosecutors can currently only file misdemeanor charges. Though the city tries to ensure the offense doesn't wind up on the pet owner's permanent record, even the temporary existence of a charge has led to job loss and eviction.
  • Minimum wage, and wage theft: City officials can currently negotiate settlements or take violators to court, but say the power to impose stiffer penalties might prevent disputes that only delay employees' back pay. One case has been in court since 2019.

What's next: There's no timeline for now, but Jalali and council supporters will eventually start the formal process by requesting input from the St. Paul Charter Commission.

  • The group of residents, appointed by the district court, advises the council on charter changes.
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