By Cynthia Sowden
When the St. Anthony City Council held its planning meeting at the Marriott Northwest Hotel in Brooklyn Park January 11-12, it violated Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law (OML). So said the Minnesota Department of Administration in an advisory opinion dated April 5.
“By holding the meetings outside of the Council’s jurisdiction, the Council effectively removed themselves from the people that they serve, thus undermining the public policy intent of the OML,” wrote Commissioner Matt Massman.
The ruling followed a letter submitted Feb. 1 to the Department of Administration by St. Anthony resident and attorney Nancy Robinett. In it, Robinett asked the department for an opinion on three questions: Did the members of the City Council comply with the OML? Did they make at least one copy of the members’ materials available to the public at its meeting? Did the council members comply with the OML when they met for dinner in a hotel dining room after the meeting?
Did the members of the City Council comply with the OML?
In her request, Robinett wrote, “I am unaware of any reason why the meetings of the January 11-12 could not and should not have been held within the borders of the city of St. Anthony, in keeping with Minnesota law. Comments have been made by the mayor of St. Anthony that the longstanding practice of holding this annual meeting outside the borders of St. Anthony is approved by him, and is likely to continue.”
Commissioner Mattson responded, “Requiring public bodies to hold meetings within their jurisdictions accomplishes the central purpose of the OML, which is to allow the public to observe the decision-making process of its governing bodies. Here, the Council spent two days talking about the long-term vision for the City and prioritizing goals and action steps. They also heard presentations from consultants and staff on issues related to finance, emergency services, and engineering, amongst other topics.”
The City of St. Anthony came back with a “this is the way we’ve always done it” response. City Manager Mark Casey wrote, “The City of St. Anthony City Council has had a tradition of holding its annual goalsetting session in a location outside City Hall in order to reflect on and organize its goals and strategies in an environment free from distractions and interruptions.”
In making his decision, Mattson cited a 1977 court case, Quast v. Knutson, where the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that a school board had violated the OML when it held a meeting 20 miles outside the school district. “Based on the holding in that case,” said Mattson, “the Commissioner has previously opined that all public bodies must hold their meetings within the territorial confines of their jurisdictions.”
Did they make at least one copy of the members’ materials available to the public at its meeting?
Casey said he had two extra copies of the meeting materials with him at the meeting in case someone wanted them, but no one requested them. Mattson wrote, “A public body cannot fulfill its obligation to make members’ materials available in the meeting room for inspection by the public if the public does not know they are available for inspection.” He chided the Council for not taking a more proactive approach in providing the materials. He also said the public should be provided the same materials the Council received.
Did the council members comply with the OML when they met for dinner in a hotel dining room after the meeting?
At the Jan. 23 City Council meeting, Council Member Hal Gray took issue with a Jan. 12 Star Tribune article about the meeting. “It must have been a slow news day,” he said. “Unfortunately, the focus of the article was on everything but what we accomplished. What things cost, the things we ate for lunch, and the fact that we had cloth napkins – that was a big story.”
Casey, in his response for the city, noted that members sat at different tables in a public dining room and did not discuss official business. Massman ruled that the dinner was a social event.