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What is the Open Meeting Law?

January 29, 2017
Chuck Hunt - Register Editor (chunt@faribaultcountyregister.com) , Faribault County Register

I was happy to see several local governmental officials react positively to some concerns we recently expressed about properly following the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.

The Open Meeting Law was created so that elected officials conduct their business out in the open, at a public meeting and not behind closed doors.

While some folks think this is just of concern to the media, it is not. It is the public's right to know to know what their elected representatives are doing.

The law is for the right of the public to attend meetings. And, of course, that translates to the press also being able to attend all meetings.

Our job is not just to attend them, but to inform our readers what their public bodies are up to, so that citizens do not have to go to every single meeting unless they want to.

The Open Meeting Law does, of course, also spell out under what specific circumstances a meeting can be closed to the public. Those include discussions of pending litigation, property purchase or sale, and investigation of complaints of employee misconduct.

But, before a meeting can be closed, the specific nature of the reason it is being closed must be stated. And after the closed session, a summary of any discussion or action is to be given.

And, of course, no other city, county or school business is to be discussed at a closed session except for the matter specifically designated as the reason for the closed meeting.

We recently pointed out that one area governmental body was closing meetings without a real specific reason, other than saying it was to discuss something with their attorney. So, it was refreshing when they agreed that was not right and they are now listing the specific reason, complete with background information on the subject.

Another concern we have had for a long time is when city council or school board or county board members discuss issues outside of the public meeting.

It is, of course, not against the Open Meeting Law to do so, if it is just two or three of them doing the discussing. But, when it involves more, it can become an issue.

Especially if they not only discuss the issue, but come to an agreement about what to do about it.

This has always been a concern in small towns, where the board members see each other all the time, at ball games, church, community events and the coffee shop.

One city council I once knew long ago, all left the council meeting together to go to the local watering hole where they continued to discuss the topics from the meeting they had just left.

But these days it is even more of a concern with group email comments on current issues.

Here is what could happen. The city administrator sends out background information about an upcoming topic in a group email to all of the council members.

One of them hits "reply all" and gives his or her opinion about the issue. Someone else replies to that comment, and so on and so forth.

Eventually the discussion comes to a conclusion about just what they should do about the situation.

At the next council meeting, the topic comes up, someone makes a motion, followed by a second, and the vote is taken without much, if any, discussion at the meeting.

Far-fetched? I?have seen it happen. In fact, one former city administrator in Faribault County accused the council of doing something similar, and violating the Open Meeting Law.

Luckily our current local officials, city and county attorneys and others seem to be more cognizant of what the Open Meeting Law says, what it means, and they work hard at avoiding any potential violation of the law.

In fact, Tim Clawson, of the Faribault County Development Corporation, wants to hold a public officials seminar on both the Open Meeting Law and on potential conflicts of interests and what to do about them.

Clawson's FCDC organization is hired by several Faribault County cities as well as the County Board to handle much of the economic development in the county.

FCDC works with both the Blue Earth Economic Development Authority (EDA) and the Faribault County EDA.

Clawson has to walk a bit of a tightrope with those two organizations when it comes to the Open Meeting Law, due to the sometimes sensitive nature of the potential deals being made to bring new business in the county.

That is because the Open Meeting Law not only covers city councils, county and school board meetings, but also any commission, sub-committee or other group under the city, county or school board's authority.

It is very important that everyone knows what can, and cannot be done according to the law. And, we are happy to see that is exactly what is going to be done.

 
 

 

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