Following the Open Meeting Law
The Minnesota Open Meeting Law (Minn. Statutes Chap. 13D) is quite an important law and not just for newspapers.
Granted, newspapers probably make the biggest fuss about it, but it is actually meant for all of you, the general public. The law was created back in 1957 and has been adjusted a few times since then, mainly by court cases which interpreted the specific meaning.
In its basic form, the law states that all meetings of public bodies are to be open to the public. That includes everything from county boards, school boards and city councils, to all of their standing subcommittees, as well.
Then the law lists some reasons why a public body can close a meeting. But these are few in number and pretty specific. A public body cannot close a meeting just because they want to discuss something they don’t think should be “aired out in the public view.” They have to invoke one of the very specific reasons listed in the Open Meeting Law (OML).
The basic premise behind the creation of the OML was the strong belief that the work of any public body needs to be conducted with the public able to watch it happen, no matter how messy, sensitive or ugly that might be.
One might think this column concerning the OML has something to do with issues a city council to our west is having recently, but it doesn’t. There have been plenty of concerns here in Faribault County, as well. In fact, many governmental bodies tend to at least flirt with violating the OML, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Most of the time it has to do with discussing city, county or school board business outside of a regular meeting.
In small towns it is very easy to do. Elected officials often go to the same church, attend the same sporting events, have coffee at the same cafe. And, if it is just two members of a board, it is fine. But any more than that causes a concern. Even if they say they are just discussing the weather or last night’s high school game, who knows if city, county or school business enters the conversation.
It just plain looks bad.
The same goes for continuing to discuss the elected authority’s business after the meeting has been adjourned. Instead of leaving, board members stay and “visit.” Now, it could be innocent conversation, but if there are three or more, it should not happen.
Years ago, one council was blatantly violating not only the intent of the Open Meeting Law, but the core of the law itself. After the meeting was over, many of the members adjourned to the local “watering hole” and further discussed the city’s business. They did not see anything wrong with that, even when they were called on the carpet for it.
One group of council members from a town in Faribault County was even accused by its own city clerk/administrator of getting together outside of a regular meeting and they admitted it, saying it was because they wanted to discuss matters outside of the public view. To an advocate of the Open Meeting Law, that was shocking to hear.
Then there are the other cases of trying to skirt at least the intention of the OML. Often times it works like this. Councilman Jones wants to get his idea for a new project passed. So he visits with one of his fellow council members either in person, by phone or by email. He explains his plan and asks for their support and they say OK. Then he does the same thing with another councilman, then another and another.
At the meeting, he makes a motion to go ahead with the plan, it is seconded and passed with little to no discussion. To a member of the public at the meeting, it is pretty obvious the item has been discussed outside of the meeting. It is called having a “serial” secret meeting, because although three or more elected officials did not actually get together, they still discussed an issue and made a decision outside of a regular meeting. And these days, especially with texting and emailing, it is mighty easy to do.
Violating the OML is sometimes a slippery slope. It can start with innocent discussion outside of a meeting, then develop into a routine of going over items, usually by email, outside of the view of the public.
The fine for violating the law, intentional or not, is set at $300 per member. Fines cannot be paid by the public body, but by the individuals themselves.
The main point here is to urge all public officials to be sure they are totally cognizant of the OML and to strive to adhere to its rules and to the intent of the law. Many city administrators, school superintendents and attorneys are aware of the OML and do try and instruct their elected officials on what it means, and what they should and should not do.
But, it takes an ongoing effort and we urge vigilance by all our elected officials.