State Data Practices Office Finds Crosslake Council Violated Open Meeting Law
Web posted September 12, 2023
By Paul Boblett, Editor
The State of Minnesota Data Practices Office (DPO) responded to a request from Northland Press Editor Paul Boblett and Pine and Lakes Echo Journal Editor Nancy Vogt for an advisory opinion regarding the Crosslake City Council’s conduct under the Open Meeting Law (OML), Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13D. The Council’s legal counsel, Susan K. Hansen provided comments on its behalf.
The DPO Temporary Commissioner, Stacie Christensen, stated in the opinion that the Crosslake City Council did not provide appropriate notice of its May 24, 2023 special meeting as required by MN Statute 13D.04, subdivision 2.
The request from Boblett and Vogt was sent to the DPO on August 1, 2023.
Boblett stated in the request, “The (news) articles related to what both Nancy and I believe to be an Open Meeting Law violation can be found in the June 20 edition of Northland Press … and the June 14 edition of the Echo Journal….
There is also a video … of the May 24, 2023 Special Meeting to corroborate what happened, which boils down to the Crosslake City Council discussing several items not described in the posted notice … during their May 24, 2023 Special Meeting.”
Based on the request, the Temporary Commissioner agreed to address the following issue: Did the Crosslake City Council provide appropriate notice of its special meeting on May 24, 2023, as required by Minnesota Statutes, section 13D.04, subdivision 2?
The state’s advisory opinion cited case law regarding the OML, and in addition, a historical review of the OML, the Minnesota Supreme Court stated in Prior Lake American v. Mader, 642 N.W.2d 729 (Minn. 2002) that:
The Open Meeting Law serves several purposes:
(1) “to prohibit actions being taken at a secret meeting where it is impossible for the interested public to become fully informed concerning [public bodies’] decisions or to detect improper influences”; (2) “to assure the public’s right to be informed”; and (3) “to afford the public an opportunity to present its views to the [public body].” St. Cloud Newspapers, Inc. v. Dist. 742 Cmty. Schs., 332 N.W.2d 1 (Minn. 1983)(citations omitted).
(2) The Court added in Prior Lake American that “[b]ecause the Open Meeting Law was enacted for public benefit, we construe it in favor of public access.” (See also St. Cloud Newspapers, 332 N.W.2d at 6, stating “The [OML] will be liberally construed in order to protect the public’s right to full access to the decision-making process of public bodies governed by § 471.705.”)
Although the Legislature did not define “meeting” in the OML, the Supreme Court defined meetings subject to the law as “those gatherings of a quorum or more members of the governing body … at which members discuss, decide, or receive information as a group on issues relating to the official business of that governing body.” Moberg v. Independent School District No. 281, 336 N.W.2d 510, 518 (Minn. 1983).
A public body must provide a special meeting notice for any meeting that is not on the regular schedule of meetings on file at its primary offices. Minnesota Statutes, section 13D.04, subdivision 2 requires a public body to post written notice of the date, time, place, and purpose of the special meeting on the principal bulletin board or the door of the usual meeting room at least three days before the meeting. Subdivision 2 also permits individuals to request notice of special meetings "concerning particular subjects.”
The Commissioner has previously opined that for a special meeting notice to be effective, it must provide detail about the meeting’s purpose, which is the intended object or end to be attained in a special meeting. [Another advisory opinion] also clarifies that when a public body holds a special meeting, its “actions are limited to those topics included in the notice of the special meeting.”
The City of Crosslake Labor Attorney, Susan K. Hansen responded to the DPO once Mayor David Nevin was notified of the advisory request, stating, “The May 24, 2023 notice listed the purpose of the meeting as a Council Workshop at which issues and topics would be discussed. The May 24, 2023 special meeting was open to the public and attended by members of the public. … The public was not limited in its access to the discussions at the May 24, 2023 meeting. …
“The notice also included topics which are broad in nature. The complaint from Mr. Boblett and Ms. Vogt takes a rigid view of the way the topics outlined in a meeting notice may be discussed. Here, the City appropriately identified the purpose of the special meeting in its meeting notice as a City Council workshop and then outlined broad topics. That discussion of those topics at the meeting was, of course, broader than the one-word description of the topics as outlined in the meeting notice. That is the way some discussions work--a topic is identified, and the discussion expands with thoughts, opinions, and facts about that topic. The fact that the discussion expands does not mean that the original topic identified is not still the topic of discussion. The Council appropriately identified topics for discussion in its meeting notice and then engaged in broader discussion. That broader discussion, however, still related to the topics identified in the meeting notice. …”
Hansen added that council discussion on the various topics was “anecdotal”, “limited”, or “referenced other topics” on the May 24th agenda.
Hansen closed by stating, “The City submits there has not been a violation of the Open Meeting Law. The posted meeting notice identified the purpose of the special meeting as a City Council workshop and outlined broad topics. The discussion by the Council was within the scope of the requirements of the law. The Council did not ‘transact public business,’ no motions were made, and no public business occurred. The public was present for this discussion and the public’s right to full access to the discussions at the May 24, 2023 City Council meeting was not limited.”
The Advisory Opinion then stated, “The Temporary Commissioner respectfully disagrees.”
Christensen wrote, “Here, all council members met during a special meeting on May 24 to discuss official business, and the special meeting notice stated the purpose of the meeting was for “reviewing grade adjustment to Boller property on CSAH 66, and discussing the following topics: parking, future land purchases, ethics issues, side by side for police department, and fire chief salary.” During the special meeting, the Council’s discussions included these specific topics.
“In its comments, the Council acknowledged that its members discussed additional issues during the May 24 special meeting, including motioned versus tabled items, a planned roundabout, the Loon Center, short term rentals and a short-term rental ordinance, a city sign, and police scheduling. The Council maintained that the discussions of these issues were within the scope of the topics described in the special meeting notice’s purpose or were limited in nature.
“The Temporary Commissioner recognizes that when a public body identifies a broad topic it will address as a purpose of a special meeting, members’ discussions may reasonably expand and reach several subissues related to the topic. However, the meeting recording reveals Council discussion of additional issues that the public body failed to include in the special meeting notice’s purpose, and many of the issues did not directly relate to or mention the appropriately noticed topics.
“The Temporary Commissioner is also not persuaded that the Council did not need to include the additional issues in the special meeting notice’s purpose because discussions about these issues were limited in nature. The OML requires the Council to describe all subjects that it would address in the special meeting notice’s purpose, regardless of the scope of the members’ discussion. The Council’s failure to properly notice these topics resulted in the public not knowing which subjects the Council would address during the special meeting, and the public could not reasonably determine whether to attend the special meeting to be informed about the councilmember’s views on these topics or have access to the Council’s decision-making process.
“The Council’s special meeting notice did not describe several topics that members discussed during the May 24 meeting, and the Council was obligated to wait until its next regular meeting or schedule another special meeting to discuss these additional topics. Therefore, the Council did not provide appropriate notice of its special meeting on May 24, 2023, as required by the OML.
The Temporary Commissioner has a final note on the Council’s argument that it did not “transact public business,” suggesting additional discussion outside the scope of the notice was permitted under the OML. The Minnesota Supreme Court has determined that any gathering of a quorum or more of a public body’s members to “discuss, decide, or receive information as a group on issues relating to the official business of that governing body” is a meeting subject to the OML’s requirements. This definition of a meeting does not require a public body to transact public business or make and vote on motions for the OML requirements to apply.”
Christensen closed by stating, “Based on the facts and information provided, the Temporary Commissioner’s opinion on the issue is as follows:
“The Crosslake City Council did not provide appropriate notice of its special meeting on May 24, 2023, as required by Minnesota Statutes, section 13D.04, subdivision 2.
While the violation did not appear to be intentional and there is no penalty or fine tied to the advisory opinion, the Northland Press and Echo-Journal felt it was important to our readers to understand what happened and to better understand the Open Meeting Law.
The full advisory opinion can be found here: http://mn.gov/admin/data-practices/opinions/library/index.jsp?id=36-591160
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