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Echo Press Editorial: A warning about open meeting law

Here’s a warning for school boards, county boards and city councils that have committees:

If a committee includes some members from the full board or council and if another member from the full board shows up, it could be a violation of Minnesota’s open meeting law.

Alexandria City Attorney Tom Jacobson cautioned the council about that possibility at its April 14 meeting.

This is an issue that other elected boards and the public should take a keen interest in. Decisions by elected officials about use of tax dollars and other public matters must be made in an environment that is open to everyone, publicized in advance and follows proper procedures.

Here’s what could happen: A council member who isn’t part of a committee comes to a meeting that already includes two of the five city council members. With a third council member there, the committee would have a quorum of council members who could debate public issues, weigh the pros and cons of pending decisions and decide how they will be voting on the issue before it comes before the full council – all at a meeting that the public was led to believe would be a committee meeting only.

That’s a big no-no.

Jacobson reasoned that the “mere presence” of a council member at a committee meeting that would trigger a quorum would be legally safe. A problem arises if the council member actively engages in the discussion or otherwise contributes to the meeting. For that reason, Jacobson said that the safest approach is for council members to not attend committee meetings when their presence would constitute a quorum.

“Taking that approach would eliminate any possibility that their presence could be construed as creating a quorum and, therefore a special meeting, in violation of the open meetings law,” Jacobson wrote in a memo to the council.

Council member Owen Miller asked Jacobson to look into how the open meeting law applies to committee meetings. He said that a council member (Miller didn’t say who it was) recently attended a committee meeting and disrupted the discussions, forcing the committee to end its meeting early and reschedule it for next month. Miller said that the disruption unneccessarily caused a delay and cost taxpayers money; Jacobson spent about three hours researching and drafting the memo and the city is billed for legal work.

One good thing may come from the incident, however. Local government officials should now know to refrain from attending committee meetings that would violate the public’s right to know what they’re up to.