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City councils need to keep actions, decisions at meetings

From the Editor's Notebook

October 19, 2009
by Chuck Hunt, Register Editor
The Winnebago City Council is getting some more bad publicity this week, in the Register and other area newspapers.

It is not the first time they have been under fire from the local press.

This time it is not only the press which is leading the charge. Their own city administrator, Jennifer Feely, filed a complaint against the council. In it, she lists some pretty serious charges.

Because Police Chief Bob Toland overheard a councilman and city employees allegedly “cutting a deal” to get rid of Feely, she assumes the council has been plotting against her and they had decided to terminate her employment.

She may have figured that it could have been done during her scheduled review on Tuesday night.

Some of the Winnebago residents at the meeting also expressed they had heard of a possible termination of Feely, and were there to support her.

Having a city council go into closed session to “review” a city administrator, and then terminating them during the review, is not unheard of.

It happened in a small Southwestern Minnesota town I am familiar with.

The problem with that scenario is the citizens didn’t ever learn why the city administrator was terminated, and even if he was actually fired or resigned under pressure.

All they know is the city council went into a closed (to the public) session ostensively to do a formal six month review of the city administrator, and when they came out of executive session, he was no longer employed by the city.

Would this scenario have played out in Winnebago on Tuesday night, had not the formal complaint from Feely delayed plans for her review? We may never know.

We totally agree with the statements of past city council members Paul Loomis and Maryann McClain that the council needs to have an attitude of openness and they need to do all city business in front of the public.

It is too often tempting for city councils to try and negotiate deals out of view of the public. It is, of course, a lot easier to negotiate back and forth without the prying eyes of the public and the press.

Is this what happened in Winnebago last week? A further investigation is warranted if not for any other reason than to give some answers to the public as to how their city council is operating.

If no wrong doing was committed, the investigation will hopefully show it. If there were some shenanigans going on, those involved should be made to answer for their actions.

Winnebago’s city council is not the only one to sometimes play fast-and-loose with Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law. It is just too tempting to close a meeting to discuss something, with a feeling that council members can more readily speak their minds without the public listening.

That is just bad policy.

It is also too tempting to discuss – and decide on – an important issue before the actual meeting, and just ‘rubber-stamp’ the decision with a formal vote at the meeting.

When, or if, that happens, it is considered an illegal meeting, even if there was not an actual physical meeting at all.

Lets say one councilman e-mails the others with a question about an issue – a “what if” question, perhaps. And the other council members e-mail back they would have no problem with this certain thing being done.

That, folks, is a council decision made out of view of the public, and obviously not legal.

Again, this may or may not have happened in Winnebago, but it seems the council has at least given the appearances of taking some actions out of the view of the public.

We urge the council to follow the sentiments of the people at Tuesday’s meeting, and keep all of their actions open and above board. And right square in front of the public which they serve.

It is the only way to not get into any of these types of situations later.

Good advice for everyone.
 
 

 

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