Ramsey County Public Health is considering adding fines to its continuum of penalties for restaurant, hotel and other business license violations — a change from the current system, which makes all transgressions punishable as a crime.
The proposed change is one of multiple efforts the county and several of its cities are making to decriminalize ordinance violations. It would allow the county to issue an administration citation for a public health violation instead of a misdemeanor, with fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 per violation. The county could still choose to issue a misdemeanor citation or take more aggressive action, including revoking a license.
"We need a more moderate tool that is appropriate for the types of violations we in Public Health are dealing with," said Caleb Johnson, Ramsey County environmental health supervisor. "We believe it would be an excellent motivator toward compliance and getting people to follow the rules."
The county licenses nearly 2,900 businesses including about 850 suburban restaurants and grocery stores, 185 public swimming pools and 27 hotels, as well as manufactured home parks and solid waste haulers. It also licenses 1,700 businesses or facilities that generate hazardous waste, which range from dentists' offices to large manufacturing plants.
Licenses include a variety of rules governing signage, hand washing, food preparation, cleanliness, record keeping and proper waste disposal, among other things.
The County Board took up the proposed ordinance for the first time Tuesday, and will hold a public hearing Nov. 9.
Relying solely on misdemeanor citations is often "a severe option" that forces the violator through the criminal justice system, according to a county staff report.
Another issue, according to the report, is that the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension revised the citation process around 2018, making it an electronic system and restricting access, including the ability to issue citations, to licensed law enforcement officers.
"This means that county departments that administer various ordinances cannot have staff issue citations but must request local law enforcement to do so. This is an impractical method of enforcement," the report said.
Johnson said the department now needs to seek assistance from the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office but so far has not asked deputies to issue a citation. Before 2018, Public Health issued fewer than 10 misdemeanor citations a year, Johnson said.
If the board agreed to add administrative fines, parties would have due process including requesting an appeal before a hearing officer.
"There was overwhelming support among stakeholders when we reached out about the amendment," Johnson said.
The move away from criminal penalties in Public Health aligns with similar efforts across the county — leaders are considering a similar administrative penalty for parks rules violators. Municipalities including Maplewood, Roseville, Shoreview and White Bear Lake already use administrative citations to punish ordinance violations.
Neighboring Hennepin County, which licenses 4,775 restaurants as well as other facilities, can also issue misdemeanor citations but rarely does. County officials are working toward implementing more administrative penalties, said a county spokesperson.
A similar effort in St. Paul, which handles most of its own licensing, foundered this week.
The St. Paul Charter Commission on Monday decided not to move forward with a proposal that would have allowed the city to impose similar fines. Mayor Melvin Carter and a majority of the City Council have indicated they would back the effort, which they said could give certain ordinances more teeth and reduce the unintended consequences of criminal citations.
By a 7-6 vote, the Charter Commission squashed the proposal, which would have also required the council's unanimous approval. Some members had concerns about how fines for specific misconduct would be determined, while others said the costs of rolling out such a policy might not be worth the results.
"While this amendment won't move forward at this time, we'll continue working to identify tools that support our residents, workers and businesses amid our ongoing efforts to rebuild," Peter Leggett, a spokesman for Carter, said in a statement.
Katie Galioto contributed to this report.