Open Meeting Law: What it means, what it doesn’t mean, what it might mean

There’s been another local fracas recently referencing Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law. I thought I’d take a crack at offering some relevant links, all in one place, to help make sense of it all.

The text of the law itself is found in Minn. Stat. §13D.01.  However, as often happens, what people think the law says may not be the way the OML has been interpreted by the Minnesota courts, and court interpretations form precedent that is used in applying the law to other cases. People should be cautioned against making declarative statements about whether the OML was violated in a particular situation based only on their own reading of the law.

According to GilesRobinson.com, the Open Meeting Law requires that meetings of governmental bodies generally be open to the public. In Prior Lake American v. Mader, 2002, 642 N.W.2d 729, the Minnesota Supreme Court articulated three purposes of the law:

  • To prohibit actions being taken at a secret meeting where it is impossible for the interested public to become fully informed about a public board’s decisions or to detect improper influences
  • To assure the public’s right to be informed
  • To afford the public an opportunity to present its views to the public body

No definition of “meeting” is provided in the Open Meeting Law, but the Court has found that “… ‘meetings’ subject to the requirements of the Open Meeting Law are those gatherings of a quorum or more members of the governing body, or a quorum of a committee, subcommittee, board, department, or commission thereof, 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).

There are certain situations which are exempt from the requirements of the Open Meeting Law; these include security issues, government property sales or purchases, labor negotiations, employee evaluation, disciplinary hearings, and a few others.

The Research Department of the MN House of Representatives has produced an excellent information brief on the Open Meeting Law. If you only read one document on this issue, this should be the one.  I will quote extensively from this document, but please keep in mind that this information brief is not the law; it’s a summary with explanatory notes, and references to case law.

In addition to citing the MN Supreme Court’s definition of a meeting referenced above, the brief also says,

“The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that the open meeting law applies to all gatherings of members of a governing body, regardless of whether or not action is taken or contemplated. . .

“Thus, a gathering of members of a public body for an informational seminar on matters currently facing the body or that might come before the body must be conducted openly. . . .

“The open meeting law does not apply to chance or social gatherings of members of a public body.  However, a quorum of a public body may not, as a group, discuss or receive information on official business in any setting under the guise of a private social gathering. . . .

“Serial meetings in groups of less than a quorum may also be found to be a violation, depending on the facts of the case.” (“Meetings of less than quorum of governing body of city may violate open meeting law if held to avoid public discussion altogether, to forge majority in advance of public hearings, or to hide improper influences.” Sovereign v. Dunn, App.1993, 498 N.W.2d 62)

The State of Minnesota’s Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) provides educational resources, summarizes legal opinions, and provides advisory decisions relating to the Open Meeting Law. If you want to read its past findings and opinions, you can do that on this page.  IPAD’s PowerPoint presentation on OML points out that “An issue not expressly dealt with in the OML, and yet to be definitely decided by the courts, is that of ‘serial meetings.’

Individuals who disagree with the manner in which members of a governing body perform their duties under the OML can request the Commissioner of Administration to give a written opinion on a governing body’s compliance with the law (fee: $200). See how here. Advisory opinions are not binding, but a court must give deference to the opinion in a proceeding that involves the data in dispute.

I don’t know if this sheds any additional light on last week’s issue. Even if the City Administrator and individual council members could be construed as having held “serial meetings” (which have not been defined either by the law or by the courts), I don’t know how clear it would be to legally prove that the intent of the parties was “to avoid public discussion altogether, to forge majority in advance of public hearings, or to hide improper influences” per the Sovereign v. Dunn case.

I hope that we all, citizens, elected and appointed officials, and city staff, can learn from this experience and focus on better communication and better government practices. Everything is out in the open now, only a week after the episode in question; no decisions on the issue have been made, so I hope it’s a case of “no harm, no foul”, and that the Council will examine the process that was followed in this situation and make any necessary corrections.

I’ve gone out on a limb in summarizing my non-professional understanding of the Open Meeting Law. We have enough lawyers reading here, so if I’ve made any egregious errors, I hope someone points them out before I start sawing.

3 thoughts on “Open Meeting Law: What it means, what it doesn’t mean, what it might mean”

  1. Tracy, thanks for an excellent summary of the Open Meeting Law. Your opening — that we not assume the worst — and your closing — that we learn together how to communicate better as a community — are spot on. In the middle is the law, which can never fully protect us from ourselves.

    We elect council members to represent the interests of the community. They appoint citizen volunteers to boards and commissions to share the work and broaden the expertise on a wide range of issues. And they delegate to staff the responsibility to do the work of running the city. Sometimes this delegation is explicit: the council issues directives to staff to accomplish x, y, and z. Sometimes this delegation is implicit: we rely on staff to bring forward issues that are required by law, or are essential to the operation of the services the city provides, which might not otherwise be raised proactively by the council. In both cases, we rely on skilled professionals to do the jobs they are hired to do.

    I never thought I’d quote Ronald Reagan, but maybe his sound bite about relations between the US and the Soviet Union is appropriate: trust, but verify. We need to work on the trust part first. We’ve already got plenty of citizen skeptics who delight in the “verify.”

  2. Tracy:

    Thank you for posting the articles and the commentary. It convinces me that the OML is not as simple and straightforward as one might wish.

    That being said, it seems to me that elected officials ought to be smart enough and have enough integrity to live up to the spirit of the OML, whatever the legal niceties, subtleties, and intricacies. Serial meetings to get everyone “informed” or “on the same page” or whatnot really seem to me a fairly ham-handed way of avoiding the OML or at least what its basic purpose is. I understand that serial meetings might (or might not) be technically “legal”–but they don’t pass the smell test.

    Especially at this point in Northfield’s history–with so many of us shaking our heads and wondering what’s up with our elected officials–my advice to them would be–don’t take these foolish risks. BE above board and avoid even the appearance of impropriety–especially on sensitive issues. Yes, meeting only in public venues is inefficient. Democracy, as my civics teacher once noted, is a VERY inefficient way to do things…

  3. Thanks, Kathie, for your analysis. Atty Hood may not be as bold in orchestrating moves against Northfield area townships that do not, as you say, “pass the smell test.” That would be a positive outcome.

    I will be very interested in what Waterford’s attorney has to say as we come closer to the 30-day extension deadline.

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