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Staying off the OML slippery slope

By Chuck Hunt - Editor | Jan 17, 2021

I was mildly surprised the other morning when the subject of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) popped up at the Blue Earth Economic Development Authority (EDA) meeting.

It was a pleasant surprise.

As a newspaper editor for more than four decades, the Open Meeting Law is something near and dear to my heart. But, as a private citizen, it should be important to you, too.

In its basic form, the OML means governmental bodies conducting the public’s business should be doing it out in the open in front of the public. So all public meetings, from city councils and school boards to county boards and state governments, are all to be open for the public to attend. That includes all of their subcommittees as well.

Minnesota’s OML has only a few specific reasons why a meeting can be closed to the public with the governmental body going Into what they call a “closed session.”

Luckily these days many city administrators, school administrators, city attorneys, mayors and others are well versed in the Open Meeting Law. And they do their best to follow it.

That has not always been the case.

In the good ol’ days the good ol’ boys on city councils and school boards were a lot more prone to conducting the public’s business without the public there.

I was fresh out of college and full of journalistic ideology when I started covering my first of thousands of city council, school board and county board meetings. I quickly learned that elected officials being aware of the OML and actually following its intent were two different things.

Oh sure, they allowed the public to attend their meetings. And they made their official votes on issues at the meeting. However, it was often obvious that they had discussed the city or school meeting topics in depth before the meeting and the meeting itself was just a place to rubber stamp the decision.

One city council I covered once upon a time was pretty blatant about it. After the official meeting adjourned, nearly all of the council members and mayor adjourned to the local watering hole where they continued to discuss all of the topics of the meeting and other city issues, as well. They joked about it being the “special” council meeting, and they invited me to come along and I guess they figured if the press was there it was not a violation of the OML.

I made a stink about it and they at least did not sit together in the bar any longer.

Trying to obey the OML is difficult at times and some actions thought to be innocent can be a slippery slope to a violation of the OML, especially in a small town. Council, school board and county board members often know each other well. They grew up in the same town, they go to the same church, attend school events and have coffee at the local coffee shop – in other words they are together a lot outside of the meetings.

And they can do that. They can even discuss city or school district business with another member of the board or council. But, if there are three or more of them together, they better stick to discussing the weather or the local football team’s big win or each other’s health.

Unfortunately, some elected officials are so eager for some issue to be settled they will discuss it with another member of the board, then another and another. Even though three or more did not get together, physically at the same time, it still is an OML violation. It’s called a round-robin style meeting and it is illegal according to court interpretations of the law.

Email has made those round-robin violations of the OML even easier to slip into. An administrator sends out some info on a topic to board members prior to a meeting, for instance. One of the board members hits “reply all” and states his or her feelings on the topic and wham! There is a violation.

Luckily, there is so much more awareness of the OML locally that many times the elected officials themselves bring up the subject even before the local press can point it out.

I thank them for their diligence on this subject, of following the Open Meeting Law and urge them to continue to be ever-vigilant on keeping all the public’s business out in the open, whether any members of the public or the press are present at the meeting or not.

It is good to stay off slippery slopes.