If you think getting a government body to address your concerns as a lone citizen is challenging, try being a lone Winona County Board member. Currently, individual board members cannot raise an issue for formal board discussion. Two board members have to agree outside of a meeting to request that an item be added to the board agenda. After months of calls for change, the board voted unanimously on Tuesday to ease the process of getting discussion items on the board agenda. Board members hope it will make the body more responsive to citizens and help board members avoid transparency violations.
Staff normally prepares the agenda, and any requests for agenda items must be made to the county administrator by two commissioners in writing, current county policy states. In practice, if a commissioner wants to raise an issue before the board, the commissioner must seek the support of a second commissioner outside of a meeting. If that second commissioner does not support the request, things become problematic. If the first commissioner raises the issue with a third, a quorum of the County Board will have discussed the issue outside a public meeting. Such "rolling meetings" are violations of Minnesota's Open Meeting Law. "That system is broken," Commissioner Steve Jacob said at a December meeting, calling for the board to discuss the issue.
"I guess you'll need two commissioners, then," Commissioner Greg Olson said, noting that Jacob was requesting an agenda item as a lone commissioner. Commissioner Marcia Ward supported Jacob's request.
"I've always felt that if a commissioner feels passionate enough about a certain issue that [he or she] shouldn't have to have the permission of other commissioners to bring it forward," Commissioner Wayne Valentine agreed at last month's meeting.
County Administrator Duane Hebert placed the item on the board's agenda for Tuesday's meeting, and the board unanimously voted to change the policy. Jacob first raised the issue last October.
Commissioner Jim Pomeroy agreed with Jacob's concern that one could "very easily violate the Open Meeting Law" under the current policy. Under the new policy, board members can bring up a potential agenda item at the end of a meeting and seek a second commissioner's support to add the item to a future meeting's agenda.
This way, citizens can raise issues during the public comment period at the beginning of board meetings and the board can decide whether to add it to the next meeting's agenda at the end of that same meeting, Jacob said. Ward said that the change should improve citizen access to government and pointed out that staff will have more notice to prepare technical information regarding commissioner-requested agenda items.
In past discussions, Pomeroy expressed concern that people on all sides of an issue be notified of board discussions that might affect them, referring to a commissioner-requested agenda item regarding Amish buggies that came before the board this summer without Amish representation. However, he supported Jacob's proposal for agenda item requests to be aired at meetings. "This makes more sense to me," he said. "One, you don't violate the Open Meeting Law, and two, there's a notice before the fact."