Update 9:35 a.m. Oct. 30, 2009: I had a little bit of trouble with AreaVoices or my browser crashing on me last night so I accidentally left the part out about how I don’t think John Q. Public can ask for an opinion from the city attorney, but he can ask the state attorney general if it involves open meetings laws. I’ve never done this and keep forgetting that I can. But now it’ll be top of mind.
The City Beat doesn’t have a story of any substance today because they’re all scheduled for Saturday’s paper. So, in lieu of talking about those stories, I’ll just pass along something that was discussed Wednesday at the Alerus Center commission meeting.
It has to do with open meetings. City Attorney Howard Swanson was in to brief the commission on open meeting and open record laws and, even though I was busy filing my story on my laptop, I couldn’t help but hear a lot of expressions of surprise.
Now, it always annoyed me when a government body breaks off into an informal committee that doesn’t have enough members to constitute a quorum of the larger body. This body would then be able to evade open meeting laws, which typically apply only when there’s a quorum. That is, if four members of a seven-member body get together to discuss business, they have a quorum and have to announce their meetings in advance. But if three members get together to discuss business, they don’t have a quorum.
It’s a dirty way to get around open meeting laws, but I’ve always thought I was helpless to do anything about it. My experience with this has been with the East Grand Forks Economic Development and Housing Authority and Minnesota state law regarding open meetings and open records aren’t very understanding. North Dakota and, I have to say, its Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is much more progressive.
Howard basically rapped the Alerus Center commission’s knuckles for forming an executive committee and holding what are essentially secret meetings. They’re secret because they aren’t announced to the public. I once asked commission Chairman Curt Kreun what was up with these meetings and why I wasn’t invited. He said I could come if I wanted, but it would be boring. I got involved in the nickname insanity and forgot about it until now.
My understanding is that they are, in fact, boring, by which I mean there are plenty of fairly routine matters. But occassionally some important decisions get made and I’m looking into them now.
Now that I think about it, I remember a meeting where two commissioners, Curt and Randy Newman, met privately with some folks from VenuWorks right after a commission meeting while reporters waited outside. I was pretty pissed, but I didn’t think it was worth calling our attorney. Turns out I should’ve just called City Council member Terry Bjerke.
Howard’s briefing came after Terry requested an opinion on these meetings. He probably got tired of telling the commission it sucked and finally decided to go kick some tail. I don’t always personally agree with Terry, in part because his principled stance won’t let him form coalitions, which are the basis for political effectiveness. But, in this case, the go-it-alone strategy worked out pretty well.
The city attorney’s opinion relies mostly on the attorney general’s opinions so, I’ll just point you to two of the important ones.
The first is 2007-O-13, which is an opinion for the Grand Forks School Board. KNOX’s Dakota Huseby had requested this one. She had requested the board send over minutes of all meetings of the board or any of its subcommittees. Some time after that request, the board asked President Mike St. Onge and VP DeAnna Carlson-Zink to meet and come up with a recommendation for an interime superintendent. There were no public notices filed. The AG says that’s a no-no because when a board delegates responsibility or authority to a group of people, those people are effectively a committee, which means it’s subject to open meetings laws:
A "governing body" also includes "any group of persons, regardless of membership, acting collectively pursuant to authority delegated to that group by the governing body." Under this definition, a committee delegated authority to perform any function, including fact gathering, reporting, or recommending action, as well as taking action, on behalf of a governing body is subject to the state’s open meetings law.
The second is 2009-O-5, which is an opinion for the Mandan City Commission. A commissioner and the mayor had met with city staff to talk about city business. There was no quorum, but the commissioner and the mayor held the business development portfolio. The AG says that’s a meeting, too:
All meetings of a public entity must be open to the public unless otherwise specifically provided by law. The definition of "meeting" covers all stages of the decision-making process, including information gathering. A "meeting" is defined as a "formal or informal gathering . . . of [a] quorum of the members of the governing body of a public entity regarding public business. "Governing body" includes any group of persons, regardless of membership, acting collectively pursuant to authority delegated to that group by the governing body. A meeting of less than a quorum of a governing body may still be subject to the open meetings law if the smaller group has been delegated authority by the governing body. "Public business" means all matters that relate or may foreseeably relate in any way to . . . "[t]he performance of the public entity’s governmental functions, including any matter over which the public entity has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power." "Public business" includes all stages of the decision-making process from information gathering to final action. Public notice must be given in advance of all meetings of a public entity.