TOWER— Some city officials in Tower have been holding committee meetings in apparent violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law, by failing to provide required notice to the public, the media, and by, on at least one occasion, meeting behind locked doors in the council chamber.
Timberjay Publisher Marshall Helmberger brought the concerns to the city council’s attention Monday night. Helmberger provided councilors with a written statement of his concerns as well as several exhibits, including email documentation, portions of the relevant statutes, and guidance from the League of Minnesota Cities during Monday’s council meeting.
Helmberger told the full council that he had initially tried to address his concerns about illegal meetings in an Oct. 2 email to councilors and in comments to Mayor Josh Carlson following the Oct. 10 city council meeting, but had been verbally attacked by city officials for doing so.
The state’s Open Meeting Law pertains to all cities, and most other public bodies in Minnesota, including the city of Tower. The law requires that all meetings of any of the city’s committees, subcommittees, commissions, boards, or departments be open to the public and specifies how public bodies are to notify the public when such meetings will be held.
Helmberger outlined several instances where city officials met in committee without providing proper notice, most recently at the initial meeting of the city’s new EMS/city building committee, which the council created on Aug. 28. On Aug. 29, Helmberger emailed Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith asking to be provided notice of any meetings of the new committee, which is set to discuss and make recommendations on the possible construction or renovation of new or existing city buildings.
Keith responded, indicating that she would “keep you posted.”
Under the Open Meeting Law, any member of the public has the right to make a request to be provided notice of special meetings, which is a provision that news media frequently utilize to stay abreast of important deliberations by public officials.
But at the Oct. 10 council meeting, Councilor Lance Dougherty discussed a meeting of the building committee, which had been held several days earlier. Since the committee has no regularly-scheduled meeting date, every meeting of the committee is considered a special meeting under the Open Meeting Law, and so was subject to the requirement to notify anyone with a written request for notice on record.
The Timberjay was never provided notice of that meeting, as required, which is a violation of the law.
After Helmberger brought the issue to Carlson’s attention following the Oct. 10 meeting, Mayor Josh Carlson did instruct Keith to notify the Timberjay of meetings of the committee in the future. In speaking to the council on Monday, however, Helmberger said his larger concern is focused on the harbor committee, where the violations appear to be more systematic and intentional.
Helmberger provided the council with written notice he had sent to Keith on Aug. 1, 2016, in which he had requested notice of harbor committee meetings. Keith responded saying that the meetings are regularly-scheduled each month. Under the Open Meeting Law, regularly-scheduled meetings do not require that special notice be sent as long as the meeting schedule is posted publicly. The city of Tower does post its regularly-scheduled meetings at the entrance to city hall.
But Helmberger noted to the council that the harbor meetings are routinely held at times other than what is posted to accommodate the schedules of members of the committee. If a regular meeting is rescheduled, it automatically is classified as a special meeting under the law, noted Helmberger, which means the city must provide notice to anyone requesting it. The law also requires that the notice be provided three days prior and that it includes the purpose of the meeting, typically through an agenda.
Helmberger told the council he doesn’t recall ever receiving an agenda for a rescheduled harbor meeting until arriving at city hall, although he said he did receive notice from Keith of a few rescheduled meetings, but not all of them. He specifically cited July 17 and Aug. 25, 2017, meetings of the committee for which he did not receive notice.
Of more serious concern, said Helmberger, is that it has become clear to him and others that the harbor committee has routinely been meeting earlier than the times that Keith has indicated to him.
“I have become aware through direct experience that the committee regularly meets prior to the meeting time that is provided to me and others,” said Helmberger. “On numerous occasions, I have entered the council chambers at the indicated time, when I am told the meeting is set to start, and it is readily apparent that the meeting has started much earlier. On at least one occasion, I was informed of an 11 a.m. start and when I arrived the agenda indicated a 10:30 start and the meeting was half over. As a result of this, I have begun showing up ahead of indicated times, only to find the meeting already underway in some cases. On Sept. 11, I was informed by email that the harbor committee would meet from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 pm. I showed up at approximately 10:40 a.m., to find the doors to the council chambers locked, even though I could hear members of the committee talking inside.”
Helmberger said he returned at 11:30, at which time members of the committee unlocked the door and allowed him and Orlyn Kringstad into the room.
The Open Meeting Law does allow closed meetings under closely-prescribed circumstances, such as for discussion of existing or pending litigation with legal counsel, labor negotiation strategy, personnel evaluations, determination of offers for real estate, or discussion of investigative data or other similar data that would not be considered public. Helmberger said there is no indication that any of these exceptions apply to the harbor committee. In either case, he said, if the committee was actually closing its meetings for one of these specific exceptions, it must state so in its notice of the meeting, which was not done. And those meetings, with the exception of meetings with an attorney, must be recorded.
Helmberger said he does not hold the entire council responsible, since most were probably unaware of the situation. He indicated that it is the job of the clerk to ensure that the city maintains compliance with the Open Meeting Law. “But once this information and documentation is provided to the council, it is up to you all to investigate, correct the situation, and take appropriate disciplinary action. Failure to do so makes this council culpable in these violations,” Helmberger said.
The penalties for intentional violations of the Open Meeting Law can be significant, and can include fines and even forfeiture of office for three or more intentional violations.
Councilors did not immediately react to Helmberger’s statement and submission of evidence. That prompted former councilor Joan Broten to press the council on the next steps. Mayor Josh Carlson indicated that the information would be forwarded to the city’s attorney for evaluation.