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Closed meeting questioned

By Staff | Mar 14, 2009

This time they may have gone too far.

The Winnebago City Council has violated the Open Meeting Law once again.

As a result, the Fairmont Sentinel is threatening to file a lawsuit, according to a story on their front page.

On Tuesday night, the council went into a closed-session to discuss ‘personnel issues.’

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, says that was not a legitimate reason for closing the meeting to the public.

“You can’t close a meeting for any silly nilly reason or when you want to air out disagreements on someone’s performance,” he says.

Anfinson says newspapers seldom take legal action and such cases usually end up in court after several attempts to fix the problem have failed.

“They are rare because they are expensive. Unless you are trying to correct a long, repetitive pattern, the question is going to be whether it’s worth it,” he says.

Taking legal action is the only way Winnebago councilmembers can be reprimanded for illegally closing the meeting.

Anfinson says if a district court finds councilmembers violated the law, they would each be fined $300. In addition, the court could order the city to reimburse the newspaper for any legal expenses incurred.

This isn’t the first time the council has overstepped boundaries of the Open Meeting Law. On at least two other occasions, the Register has brought violations to their attention.

“You would hope their attorney would be a little more up on the law,” says Anfinson.

City Attorney Douglas Johanson was not present at Tuesday’s meeting. He generally attends when a legal matter is expected to be discussed by the council.

A governmental entity may close a meeting for personnel issues if:

• an employee performance evaluation is being conducted, unless the employee wants the meeting to remain open;

• discussions are held with their attorney regarding criminal or civil allegations against an employee.