Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ruling: Council violated Open Meeting Law

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 5/23/19

TOWER— The Tower City Council did not comply with the state’s Open Meeting Law in March and April this year when it closed meetings to discuss a range of allegations against City Clerk-Treasurer …

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Ruling: Council violated Open Meeting Law

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TOWER— The Tower City Council did not comply with the state’s Open Meeting Law in March and April this year when it closed meetings to discuss a range of allegations against City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith.

That’s according to an advisory opinion issued Wednesday by Alice Roberts-Davis, the Minnesota Commissioner of Administration. The department is authorized in Minnesota law to issue opinions on questions of compliance with the state’s Open Meeting Law and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and courts are required to give deference the rulings.

Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger had requested the opinion after City Attorney Andy Peterson continued to advise council members that they could meet in secret to discuss the allegations and a pending investigation of the clerk-treasurer.

Helmberger had protested the closure of the meetings at the time, but council members opted to follow the advice of their legal counsel.

The opinion notes a key provision in the state’s Open Meeting Law which allows a governing body to close a meeting for “preliminary consideration” of allegations against an employee. But once the body determines that “disciplinary action of any kind may be warranted,” the law requires that any further discussion of the matter must take place in an open meeting.

In response to Helmberger’s advisory opinion request, Peterson acknowledged that the city council had decided in a closed session to seek an outside investigator to examine the allegations against the clerk. In doing so, the city council met the threshold in the law, requiring that subsequent meetings be held in public.

“Once it [the council] decided to hire an outside investigator… the Council apparently determined that disciplinary action may be warranted. Accordingly, all subsequent meetings or hearings related to those specific allegations must be open,” notes Roberts-Davis in her opinion.

Further, Roberts-Davis notes that Minn. Stat. 13D.05, Subd. 1(b) allows for the discussion of private personnel data in public once a governing body has concluded that some kind of disciplinary action may be necessary. “Therefore, the council may discuss not public data, including personnel data classified as private under section 13.43, at an open meeting.”

The investigation into the clerk-treasurer has been in limbo in recent weeks as the council has attempted to determine if a union grievance engineered by the clerk-treasurer and her political ally Steve Altenburg, can overrule the city’s charter. That grievance, which was filed by Keith’s union and upheld by Altenburg and former council member Brooke Anderson, sought to eliminate the council’s ability to investigate allegations against the clerk-treasurer, including her systematic and unauthorized alteration of city records. City Attorney Peterson has declined to offer a legal opinion, which has prompted the council to try to locate an outside attorney.

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