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
HOW HAS THE ROLE OF TOWNSHIP
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
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
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
DO TOWNSHIPS HAVE COMPLETE
AUTONOMY IN BUDGETARY
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
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
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
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
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.