By Jeanette Behr
Research was there in the beginning. When the League began in 1913, inquiries and information were all important. Why is that? Just as today, people asked questions because they wanted to govern appropriately. And today the League’s Research and Information Service works with that cornerstone purpose, to promote excellence in local government.
As a 1938 article stated, “First and foremost is the inquiry and information service. This involves the answering of questions submitted by municipal officials on a multitude of subjects. Many of these are simple questions, which can be quickly answered. Others are more involved, and require considerable research.” That’s how a 1938 article describes the services offered by the Municipal Reference Bureau, the precursor to the department now called the Research and Information Service, or simply Research.
Above: Research staff in 1980. Seated: Stan Peskar, Bill Makela, Tom Grundhoefer. Standing: Joel Jamnik, Dan Foth, Pete Tritz.
Similar, yet different
What were some of those early questions? Though the exact questions submitted in 1913 are no longer available, we know that 51 submissions came in, including requests for ordinances regulating “pool rooms and moving pictures.” Somewhat later, the documented questions received are similar to the 4,000 or more inquiries per year that Research gets today:
1941: We have fur dealers in our village that buy skunk furs, many of them, bringing in the skunk carcasses and then skinning them right in their homes, making a very disagreeable and pestiferous odor for the whole neighborhood. Will you kindly advise us just what procedure our Council may pursue in taking steps to curb this nuisance? (City Clerk, Ashby.)
1945: Is it legal for a woman or a girl to work behind a bar in a liquor store, according to law, or is it not? (Councilmember, Lakeville.)
1954: Is it legal to hold elections in a small crowded restaurant, with no curtains or places of privacy to vote and with not only the voters of the precinct coming and going, but the out-of-town customers as well ordering their pop and hamburgers? (Citizen, Strathcona.)
And you could probably guess that a major difference between 1913 and today is the way we receive questions. Most of the 1,500 questions submitted in the early 1900s are handwritten notes on fragile yellowing paper. In 2012, Research received 650 questions through the League website or by email. And over 2,800 of your questions came in on the phone.
Resulting legal changes
As before, many of your questions still require “considerable research.” More than a few of them have led to these changes in law:
Above: Jeanette Behr, current LMC attorney and research manager, looks up information on the League website while answering a member’s question.
Lest we overpromise, there are questions that stump even Research staff brains. When asked to compare police depart¬ments operating under various forms of city government, a now-retired Research staff member sent nine articles and wrote: “The rationale for inclusion of all these items is extremely obscure and I can’t really provide you with any totally logical reason for their inclusion. My hope is that, with divine guidance, you will be able to glean enough information out of this to allow you to make some general conclusions.”
As much as possible, Research tries to anticipate questions and answer them before you ask them. In the beginning, League officials reported that “cities frequently desire to have reports, publications, model ordinances, and sample forms loaned to them for their study.” This is still true today, so Research provides 32 core memos, many including model ordinances and sample forms.
And the 27 chapters of the Handbook for Minnesota Cities also provide a great deal of current information on city operations. The first handbook was published in 1949.
For 100 years and counting, Research greatly values your questions and requests for information. Keep calling, writing, and emailing us. As always, it’s our goal to provide you with in-depth research to ensure you have the tools to provide excellent local government, no matter what your role or era.
Jeanette Behr is research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities.
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