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Winnebago Council still needs openness lessons

By Staff | Jun 29, 2009

The Winnebago City Council has had some open meeting problems in the past. Several area newspapers – including the Faribault County Register – have taken them to task for playing fast and loose with Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law.

And although they held their most recent meeting in the full view of the public and the press, we feel we must once again question one of their actions.

At the meeting where two city council candidates were interviewed, and one selected, the council members present took a secret ballot to make their choice.

The three council members who voted for a person they wanted to fill the vacant seat on the council, used paper ballots to mark their choice.

That in itself is not wrong, according to Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. However, Anfinson went on to explain that after the ballots were counted, the results had to be announced.

In Winnebago, only the name of the winning candidate was announced.

Anfinson says that how each councilman voted also needed to be made public.

“If the council takes a ‘straw vote’ (non-binding vote) or uses paper ballots, that is fine,” Anfinson says. “But they need to attach their name to the ballot, and to their vote, and that needs to be on the record.”

In other words, no secret voting. The public has the right to know how their city councilmen vote on the issues. All of the issues.

Granted, with only three councilmen involved in the vote, we know the vote was either 2-1 or 3-0. Anfinson says that doesn’t matter, it still should be on the record.

He cited a case the Mankato Free Press brought against the North Mankato City Council when they chose a new city administrator by secret ballot.

“City councils may not like it, but they are under total public scrutiny,” Anfinson said. “And everything they do is on the record.”

We discussed this issue after the meeting, and agreed it is a minor point in the scheme of things. The council was not trying to hide anything or cover up any irregularities.

However, we also feel it sets a bad precedence, and hope future voting by city councilmembers is all done in the open.

In Winnebago and elsewhere.