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New office holders & law (01/09/2013)
By Emily Buss

Local bodies of government are back in session, and, as a result of the November elections, many new faces have entered the political arena. While many board and council members are educated on state government transparency laws, those laws are still often violated. The Minnesota Open Meeting Law—government transparency law—is designed to provide local citizens with access to the necessary information to understand decisions made by their elected officials. When the law is followed properly, open lines of communication are formed. However, violation of this law provides one of the few ways public officials could be removed from office.

According to Minnesota statute, any person who intentionally violates government transparency laws is subject to personal liability in the form of a civil penalty. Three intentional violations can result in removal from office. However, after determining if a violation is intentional, the courts may take into account a council member’s time and experience in office when determining the amount of civil penalty. Typically, a single violation can cost as much as $300 in penalties.

The basics

Enacted in 1957, the Minnesota Open Meeting Law articulates three key purposes: assures the public’s right to be informed, affords the public an opportunity to present its views to the public body, and prohibits actions from being taken at secret meetings where it is impossible for members of the public to be properly informed.

In an effort to establish a clear precedent for the new year, the Winona Post offers an informational guide to the key facts of the government transparency laws below.

Minnesota statute requires that all municipal government meetings—including city councils, school boards, and county boards, their executive sessions and municipal committee meetings—must be open to the public, with only a few exceptions. While the statute does not define “meeting,” the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that a meeting is a gathering where the majority, or quorum, of the governing body is present and intend to discuss or receive official business.

Government transparency laws also apply to informational sessions or seminars at which matters currently facing the governing body might come before them. The law does not apply to chance or social gatherings. However, members of a governing body are forbidden from discussing or receiving information related to their body under the guise of a social gathering.

The law requires that during a public meeting, a minimum of one copy of relevant materials must be publicly available or distributed to all members of the public in attendance. However, the Government Data Practices Act states this does not apply to materials that are classified as other than public.

When members of a governing body are not in session, they are forbidden from discussing any relevant information with a quorum of a decision-making body. The courts have held that any form of communication regarding the governmental body among a quorum of members could be in violation of the law.

Exceptions to the law that allow a closed meeting include labor negotiations, non-public data discussions, misconduct allegations, performance evaluations, purchase or sale of public property, security reports, or if the closed meeting is permitted by the attorney-client privilege.

As a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling in 2002 cited, government transparency laws “are deeply rooted in the fundamental proposition that a well-informed populace is essential to the vitality of our democratic form of government.”

Other important information

• The public must be informed of a meeting at least three days prior to all public and closed meetings.

• A minimum of one copy of any materials distributed to members of the government body must be publicly available or distributed to members of the public.

• A meeting can be closed to discuss non-public data such as information that would identify victims, or reporters of criminal conduct, domestic abuse, or maltreatment of minors or vulnerable adults.

• A summary of a performance evaluation of a government employee conducted during a closed meeting must be presented at the next open meeting. 

 

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