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Blethen Berens to provide city attorney services

NEW ULM — The New Ulm City Council approved an amendment to the City Attorney Service agreement allowing Blethen Berens to serve as the city’s legal representation along with attorney Roger Hippert.

Nierengarten & Hippert Law Office has served as City Attorney for New Ulm since 1979. From 1986, until the retirement of Hugh Nierengarten in 2015, three or four attorneys were providing the legal services required to meet the City’s needs, including all of the work involved in City criminal prosecutions, the civil matters involving the City and also the New Ulm Public Utilities.

Roger Hippert and Tom Borgen were able to cover these duties, but as of Jan. 4, Borgen has left the firm and Hippert is not in a position to provide all of the services as a solo practitioner. Hippert went into negotiations for Blethen Berens Law Office to assist with legal services. The addition of the Blethen and Berens Law Office would require changes to the current retainer agreement.

During the Feb. 16, city council, Councilor Les Schultz requested the city table the amendment to allow Brown County to submit a service agreement for criminal prosecution. The council agreed to table the change to legal services until the next meeting.

Before the council could discuss the two options presented, Schultz said he would abstain from the discussion because he is an employee of the county.

Schultz said some people have suggested his position in Brown County’s Probation Department creates a conflict of interest. He said there is no financial gain for him being involved in this decision, but because of concerns he decided to abstain from the conversation and the vote.

City Manager Chris Dalton presented a spreadsheet with the two proposals and current costs. The current contract costs the city on average $184,513.01 a year. The Berens contract would cost $225,350 for the remainder of the year. The County’s proposal would be $181,434.02 for the remainder of the year.

Brown County’s proposal for the remainder of 2021 would cost less. Under this arrangement, the county would take over criminal prosecution with Roger Hippert remaining on as the lone city attorney handling civil cases.

Dalton said having a single city attorney handling all civil work would still put the city behind.

Hippert is planning to retire by the end of 2021. Going into 2022, the county’s criminal prosecution costs increase and the city would need to hire an in-house city attorney to replace Hippert. This was estimated at 290,000. The Blethen Berens contract for 2022 averaged 229,857.51.

Councilor David Christian said moving forward he would like to see the city hire one firm, Blethen Berens, and be done with it.

Councilor Eric Warmka said he believed it was less risky to have the single firm option. “It seems like a better path for the future,” he said.

Councilor Larry Mack said the Blethen Beren options allow Hippert to hand off information to the new firm for a smooth transition, but there were unknowns with the county. He said if a new County Attorney was elected they could decide not to handle the city’s prosecution.

Council President Andrea Boettger said she was confident Blethen Berens had the resources to meet the city’s needs.

Mack made the motion to approve the Blethen Berens contract with a second from Christian. It was passed by the council with Schultz abstaining.

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The city approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the city regarding intersection lighting at Trunk Highway 15, Shag Road and the DNR entrance.

Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) scheduled a project for 2021 that includes the signal replacement at 16th North and HWY 14 (Broadway), miscellaneous ADA improvements and intersection lighting installation at Highway 15 and Shag Road and the DNR entrance. The project agreement between the City and Mn/DOT was approved on October 6, 2020.

The MOU details the agreement with the city for electrical costs associated with lighting. New Ulm will pay these costs, estimated at $420 a year. In exchange, the DNR will cover the necessary mowing around the New Ulm Welcome sign. Also included within the agreement is that the City will maintain the system and bill the DNR for this work. This arrangement is expected to have a balanced impact on the city budget.

Councilor Warmka said it was a dim intersection in need of lighting. Since it was a balance impact he favored approval.

Councilor Mack favored the lighting for safety purposes. He believed it was a step in the right direction.

Warmka made the motion to approve with a second from Schultz. It was unanimously approved.

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The council conducted the final reading of an amendment reducing the number of members on the Energy Awareness Commission from nine to five members.

The Energy Awareness Commission has struggled to maintain a necessary quorum of members to hold meetings. By reducing the number of total members it will easier for the commission to hold regular meetings.

The resolution was unanimously approved.

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