Township Government 101

A Township Government Primer

WHAT ARE TOWNSHIPS AND WHY

WERE THEY ESTABLISHED?

Townships are the original form of local

government in Minnesota, established as part of the

Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which created the

State of Minnesota. The township form of

government, a carryover from Europe, served as a

familiar building block to develop the State by

dividing land areas into 36 square mile units known

as congressional townships. Today, the term

township generally refers to organized but

unincorporated communities governed by a local

board of supervisors and created to provide services

to their residents. There are 1,790 townships across

the State.

HOW HAS THE ROLE OF TOWNSHIP

GOVERNMENT EVOLVED?

While congressional township boundaries still exist,

current townships are actually the result of Article 12,

Section 3 of the State Constitution and Minn. Stat

Ch. 379 which governs the creation of new

townships. The physical size of most townships no

longer resembles the original 36 square mile

divisions. Instead, boundaries reflect mergers,

annexations into cities, and the organization of new

townships in smaller but more densely populated

areas of rural counties. Townships have historically

been viewed as rural areas with agriculture as their

primary industry. In reality, however, townships exist

in every area of the state, including the metropolitan

area. In recognition of changing times, the state

legislature created an option for townships with

populations of more than 1,000 or which are located

close to a city of the first class, to adopt what are

referred to as “urban powers.” These urban towns

function in much the same way as a small city. The

role of all townships, however, is continually evolving.

Thus while many townships remain rural agricultural

centers, others host a variety of residential, light

commercial, and industrial development.

HOW ARE TOWNSHIPS GOVERNED?

Like every local unit of government, township

powers are derived from state statutes. The primary

statutes directly governing townships are Minn. Stat.

Chapters 365 – 368.

A town board of supervisors, elected to staggered

three-year terms on an annual basis, make up the

governing body for most townships. The annual

elections are held on the second Tuesday of March

each year in coordination with the township’s annual

meeting. The annual meeting is what really sets

townships apart from other forms of local

government. At this meeting, the residents of the

township have a direct opportunity to have a voice in

how the township will be run. They do this by voting

on a variety of matters on which the town board must

receive elector approval, and most importantly, by

directly voting on and approving the township’s tax

levy for the next year. This means that, with very

limited exception, the town board can only spend that

which has been authorized by the voters.

Some townships have opted to hold their elections

in November, in which case the board members are

elected to four-year terms, and elections are held in

either the even or odd year depending on the choice

of the township at the time of the switch from March

elections. These townships, however, must still

conduct the annual meeting in March.

The board of supervisors are joined by a township

clerk and a township treasurer, although a few

townships have adopted the Option D form of

township government which allows the two offices to

be combined. Most townships elect these positions,

with the clerk being elected in the even years and the

treasurer being elected in the odd years. The offices

can be made appointed positions under the Option B

form of township government.

WHO MAKES UP THE BOARD OF

SUPERVISORS?

The board of supervisors in most townships consist

of three members elected by the residents. A few

townships have adopted the optional five member

board, known as Option A. Supervisors must be

residents of the township.

ARE THE SUPERVISORS THE ONLY

DECISION MAKERS IN TOWNSHIP

GOVERNMENT?

While supervisors are the only ones with an official

vote on most final decisions, as indicated above, the

residents play an important role in the decision

making process through the annual meeting.

Townships must also comply with State mandates,

and on some issues the township can be ordered to

do things by the county or, in the case of planning

and zoning, must be consistent with or more

restrictive than county regulations.

HOW ARE TOWNSHIPS MANAGED?

While the Option C form of township government

authorizes the hiring of a town administrator, few

townships have adopted this option. Most townships

have a less formal management style. Day-to-day

paperwork is usually handled by the town clerk. The

board of supervisors appoint one of their own to

serve as the chairperson, although other than

running the board meetings and being the person

required to sign official documents and checks, the

chairperson has no extra powers. In most townships

the supervisors will divide up certain tasks, such as

overseeing work by contractors, etc., that would be

done by staff in other units of government. But only

the board as a whole can make decisions binding on

the entity.

DO TOWNSHIPS HAVE COMPLETE

AUTONOMY IN BUDGETARY

DECISIONS?

While exempt from statutory levy limits, townships

have a self-imposed limit by virtue of the residents’

authority to approve the township levy, which in turn

controls most budget decisions. Statutory reporting

requirements, debt limits, and, changes in state-aid,

etc., further restrict the fiscal autonomy of townships.

DO ALL TOWNSHIPS PROVIDE THE

SAME SERVICES?

The types of services offered by townships vary

greatly from community to community. Townships

control approximately 47 percent of the roads in

Minnesota, which means all townships have to

provide or contract out for road maintenance

services. Many townships provide volunteer fire

department services or participate in joint powers

departments with other townships and small cities.

Several townships provide park and recreational

services, and many others coordinate such services

with other entities. An increasingly popular service

being offered by townships are optional wastewater

treatment services. A number of townships also

maintain cemeteries. Joint powers arrangement and

service contracts are also popular for a variety of

services intended to benefit township residents and

protect the public’s health, safety and welfare.

WHERE DO TOWNSHIPS GET THEIR

REVENUE?

According to a report by the Minnesota State

Auditor’s office on fiscal year 2000, local property

taxes are the largest source of township revenues

followed in order by state grants, county and local

grants, special assessments, “other sources”,

interest on savings, service charges, license and

permit fees, and federal grants. Most forms of direct

state aid to townships have since been eliminated.

HOW DO TOWNSHIPS SPEND THEIR

REVENUE?

The same State Auditor’s report shows that road

and bridge expenditures are by the far the largest

expense for townships, followed in order by general

government expenses, fire protection services, debt

payments, “other expenditures”, water and

wastewater services, and public safety.

WHAT RIGHTS TO INFORMATION DO

THE PUBLIC HAVE TO TOWNSHIP

GOVERNMENT PROCEEDINGS?

While all townships except urban townships

located in the seven county metropolitan area are

exempt from the Minnesota Government Data

Practices Act (a decision made by the legislature in

recognition of the fact that most townships do not

have the type of staffing required by the Act),

members of the public can still obtain information in a

number of ways. First, townships voluntarily provide

access to public data upon reasonable requests.

Second, all townships are subject to the

Minnesota Open Meeting Law, which means that all

meetings of the town board and any official township

committees must be accessible to members of the

public and be preceded by proper notice. In addition,

the Open Meeting Law requires that minutes be kept

of the proceedings of the governing body and the

minutes book must be available for review by

members of the public.

Any ordinance adopted by the town board must be

published in the designated official newspaper of

general circulation within the township, so notice of

all such regulations will always be provided.

Finally, the annual meeting affords residents the

opportunity to guide much of the activities that will

occur within the township through votes to authorize

certain actions, and ultimately by authorizing the tax

levy to be set, which in turns controls the total

amount of expenditures that can be made by the

board of supervisors.