Allegations of Open Meeting Law violations have swirled around the Lake Vermilion area in recent weeks, in letters to the editor and commentary in other local media. As a longstanding advocate for openness in government, I’m always watchful for actual violations of both the OML and the state’s public records law, known as the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
I’ve called out violations when I could clearly document them and refrained from doing so even when I suspected violations but lacked sufficient evidence. The last thing you want to do is cry “Wolf” based merely on speculation or appearances.
A good example of crying wolf was a recent allegation by Tony Sikora, an op-ed writer for the Tower News, which was subsequently repeated in a letter to the editor by Vermilion Lake Township resident Carol Pratt. After a Tower council meeting last month, one of the councilors forgot her jacket at the city hall after the meeting during which the city clerk-treasurer was suspended. The mayor had remained at city hall after the meeting to facilitate the changing of the locks at city hall and another council member had returned about an hour after the meeting with take-out food for the mayor, who obviously wasn’t going to get dinner at home that night. While the second council member was still there, the council member who forgot her jacket showed up to retrieve it. Someone apparently saw the forgetful council member coming out of city hall and assumed she had been there for an hour and a half and that three council members had been meeting in secret. That’s how Mr. Sikora reported the situation, without ever seeking to confirm his facts with those involved. Had he done so, he would have learned that both the councilors involved had gone to dinner at Good Ol’Days after the meeting (and sat at different tables out of earshot). I can attest to those facts since my wife Jodi and I also ate at Good Ol’ Days that night and saw both of them there, as did plenty of other people.
Keep in mind, the OML does not prohibit a quorum of council or board members from being in the same room together. It merely prohibits them from talking official business if they do find themselves together.
When one of the councilors involved challenged Mr. Sikora’s “facts,” he doubled down on his accusation because the council member had reported commenting, “That was a hard meeting,” while picking up her jacket, suggesting such an innocuous statement qualified as official business. No rational person is going to view such a statement, made in passing, as an official action or a violation of the Open Meeting Law. The only appropriate response to Mr. Sikora’s false accusation is a retraction from the Tower News.
Other recent accusations reflect a misunderstanding of the intent of the Open Meeting Law. In her recent letter to the editor, Ms. Pratt accused Vermilion Lake Town Board Chair Phil Anderson of violating the Open Meeting Law, suggesting he had spoken about a township matter with a second supervisor at a recent regular board meeting while waiting for the third town supervisor to take her seat. This apparently took place moments before Anderson officially called the meeting to order. Pratt was obviously present at the meeting, which was properly noticed and open to the public.
I would acknowledge that discussing township business just ahead of calling a meeting to order is probably not a best practice, but it’s a mighty long stretch to call it anything other than the most trivial of violations of the OML. It’s certainly not the kind of thing we would ever bother to report. As most of our readers are well aware, there are plenty of real issues out there upon which the public’s attention is more appropriately focused. Most readers recognize nit-picking when they see it.
Even more problematic was Pratt’s allegation of an OML violation as a result of an imagined conversation involving two members of the Vermilion Lake town board at a Thursday coffee klatch at the Little Church.
In fact, according to Anderson, he had a conversation with two township residents who had routinely done grass mowing for the township to see if they’d be interested again this year. He later mentioned at a town board meeting that he had talked to the two guys at coffee, and Pratt apparently concluded that the conversation must have included a second town board member who also frequently attends the Thursday coffee.
Pratt clearly had no evidence of such a conversation and Anderson denies that the other board member was part of the discussion. Unless Pratt has evidence to the contrary, her accusation is baseless.
The recent accusations show, if anything, that members of the public are often unclear about the actual requirements of the Open Meeting Law. The intent of the OML is threefold— to ensure that the public is provided proper notice of governmental meetings, to provide the public an opportunity to assess the deliberations of public officials by requiring those meetings be held in public, and to provide, in most cases, an opportunity for members of the public to express their views on local matters.
As a longtime local government reporter, I take the OML seriously, which is why we here at the Timberjay are careful to document serious violations when they do occur.
To my mind, serious violations including failure to provide the public with proper notice of meetings or closing meetings that should appropriately be open to the public. We’re not going to waste our time or our readers’ time over trivial, highly-technical violations, or mere speculation. We have plenty of serious things to report.