Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Open meeting law, one fight among many over the years

There are many laws to keep government accountable and scrutinized in Minnesota, the two primary ones: Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and Open Meeting Law.  I have been just as "active" with the Open Meeting Law as with Data Practices over the decades

Over the past week or so I have been going through my old memos that I have sent to policymakers.  I ran across one that dealt with the Open Meeting Law.  It was from 1988 and it dealt with issue that St Paul City Council was going to close a meeting from the public.  I felt it was a violation of the Open Meeting Law.

The topic was a proposal to regulate adult entertainment.  Throughout the 80's, Councilman Bill Wilson was in the forefront of that issue, the old Faust Theatre was in his neighborhood.  He wanted the Council to discuss what the legal ramifications might be if his ordinance passed in a closed setting.  I opposed the action of what the City Council was going to do so I sent this memo, June 9, 1988.

"President James Scheibel
Vice-President William Wilson
St Paul City Council

On Tuesday, June 7th, 1988, the City Council has decided to hold a "closed meeting" on Tuesday, June 14th in the City Attorney's office....  Mr Byrnes (Asst City Attorney) stated that the reason why is to discuss litigation strategy and what ordinance and form Mr. Wilson's ordinance (88-501) should take in order to avoid litigation from several private interests.

I disagree that the City Council can close its meeting based upon Mr. Byrnes rationale to discuss what form legislation should be in order to avoid litigation.

The Minnesota Supreme Court noted in 1976, Mpls Star/Tribune vs. HRA, to close meetings based on attorney/client privilege is to be done cautiously and seldom in situations other than in relation to threatened or pending litigation.  Mr. Byrnes when asked the question by Mr. Long (City Councilman) as to closing a meeting and if it conflicts with the Open Meeting Law, he stated no.  Mr. Byrnes also stated that even though there is no pending litigation by the private parties it is "reasonable to anticipate litigation" so therefore this is the rationale to close a city council meeting.......

I believe closing the city council meeting on June 14th, 1988 at 830AM, is an abuse of the attorney/client privilege based on rationale that I have previously outlined, and secondly, it is abuse against the democratic and open process which our government and country stands for.

Since there is no pending litigation, and there is no detailed factual basis I think to ascertain a threat to a lawsuit, and since a meeting of a public body cannot be closed (my opinion) based on rationale to discuss what "form" an ordinance should take in order to avoid litigation, I urge you to provide the leadership to question if there should be a closed meeting.......and to keep the Council from violating the Open Meeting Law."

Issues like I described above still continue today, reasons why "we" must be vigilant to hold our elected officials accountable.  Northwest Publications (Pioneer Press) filed for a motion in District Court the day before the meeting to keep the city council meeting open.  The case went before the Court of Appeals.. They affirmed the meeting had to be open to the public.

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