North Branch suspends Driver Awareness Program

The North Branch City Council Monday night unanimously took action to suspend its Driver Awareness Program, an initiative that it had been implementing through the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office started the Chisago County Driver Awareness Program in May 2013, a citation diversion effort that also received approval in North Branch. It is designed for drivers cited with certain non-serious speed, moving and equipment violations who may attend a traffic safety course rather than face prosecution and conviction for the traffic offense.

Upon successful completion of this two-hour traffic safety course, the driver’s traffic citation is voided and no citation is filed with the court.

North Branch Police Chief Dan Meyer was recommending suspension of the program due to a recent ruling in Wabasha County court that deemed that county’s version of the program illegal.

He suggested ceasing the city’s involvement in the program until the State Legislature could address the issue, even though Chisago County has decided to keep going with the Driver Awareness program.

Council Member Trent Jensen had some reservations about suspending the program.

He wanted to know what the penalties could be if the city didn’t suspend it and someone decided to challenge the legal authority of the program in court.

City Attorney Jay Squires offered his opinion on possible penalties.

“It’s pretty clear in my mind that the worse case scenario, other than having to spend money to defend the case, is that whatever revenue was obtained from that program would be paid back,” he said.

He added that a judge could then order the city to give tickets to the drivers who participated in the program.

“Presuming they voluntarily participated in the first instance, it doesn’t make sense to me,” Squires said.

Jensen offered his support for the suspension, but said he’d like to revisit the issue in a couple of months to see if the Legislature has made a decision on it.

The council decided to look at the program again during its first regular meeting in June.


In other news

• The council, with Mayor Ron Lindquist and Council Member Kathy Blomquist absent, unanimously authorized advertisement for the hire of an assistant liquor store manager.

• The council unanimously approved a conditional use permit that will allow Lakes Region EMS to move its operations into the former Topline Automotive building at 40245 Fletcher Ave. The building is more than triple the size of Lakes Region’s current headquarters. The council also waived a provision of the building’s previous JOBZ designation that might have slowed the process of the permit by requiring the owner of the building, currently a bank, to pay about $80,000 in tax benefits.

“It’s pretty hard not to stand in front of you and just have a huge smile on my face,” Aaron Reinert, executive director of Lakes Region EMS said.  “This is really an exciting opportunity for us to be able to use this property and continue to grow our organization not only in this community, but especially our leadership staff and education. We’re really excited about being there for a long time.”

• Resident Emil Dahlberg criticized the council for moving public comment from the beginning of meetings to the end.

“I’ve talked to people, and they’re uncomfortable attending city council meetings,” he said. “In order to include public’s opinion, I’d like you to rethink (when public comment is allowed). I would like to see public comment moved prior to action items.”

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