Councilors show up for each other’s Ward meetings: what’s the problem?

Scott DavisWard 2 meetingNoah Cashman and Kris Vohs

Northfield City Councilor Scott Davis held a Ward 2 meeting last night at the Northfield United Methodist Church. Seated in the back: at-large councilors Noah Cashman and Kris Vohs.

Some citizens have raised concerns with City Attorney Maren Swanson about whether Councilors should be attending each others’ meetings because if four show up, it’s evidently a quorum and therefore an open meeting that needs to be publicized.  City staff have also attended some of these meetings, which has some people concerned, too.

I’m not sure I understand what the concerns are, hence, a blog post.

Also, if you were there, please attach comments about what was discussed, as I only stayed long enough to take these photos.

13 thoughts on “Councilors show up for each other’s Ward meetings: what’s the problem?”

  1. Griff,

    I think it is appropriate for Noah Cashman & Kris Vohs to attend all the meetings since they are councilors at large & represent the city. They need to hear all the concerns that the citizens have.

  2. The council would appear to want to make sure they are in lock step on the Lansing issue which unfortunately may make them operate in lock step on every issue (I hope they haven’t signed a blood oath). Packing the hall would seem a sign of determination to identify and undermine any opposition. I would think making up with the Mayor would be so much more effective for the city and so much easier on them.

  3. David, I was at the meeting last night and wasn’t going to comment because it was just so routine. But your comments require some respectful clarification.
    There was virtually no mention of the mayor. Councilors Vohs and Cashman sat in the audience and Councilor Denison remained in the hall (with the door closed) when he saw that his presence would create a quorum. Councilor Davis made no speeches, just listened and answered a few questions. There was no packing the hall, no opposition to scout out, just a nice group of neighbors visiting with their councilor.
    The focus of the residents was the city’s capital improvement plan and how and when the council will determine which projects to include.
    The meeting was in no way an effort to show the council’s lock-step mentality, but a genuine effort to listen to the concerns of residents in a more informal format than a meeting at city hall. People have complained that the council doesn’t listen and is too contentious. Now the council is getting along and getting out and listening to people, so I’m surprised by the criticism.
    It seems that these events should just be listed as council listening sessions, so a quorum can be in the room. There was nothing in the session that would compromise any city business.

  4. Anne–I live in Ward 2 and was at the meeting Thursday night, too (sitting just to your left), but I was left with a couple of different impressions.

    As far as I know, the meeting was open to anyone, so there was no reason that Kris Vohs and Noah Cashman shouldn’t have been there. Mr. Vohs didn’t say much, but there were times when Mr. Cashman seemed to dominate the discussion more than was appropriate; after all, it was Scott Davis’s show. If Mr. Cashman lives in the ward, though, that might make it sort of OK, if he was speaking as a resident. He doesn’t have an address listed in the phone book, so I don’t know.

    Most of the discussion was taken up with what some people might think of as capital improvements, but which boiled down to “stuff to buy.” There was discussion of building a better ice arena and a bigger and fancier library, liquor store, safety center, and city hall, but Mr. Davis was the only one who brought up building another street. Most of the people commenting weren’t just residents, either, but what I think of as full-time citizens–people who have been on one commission or another for years and have already had more than their fair share of say in what gets done here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, overall; I’m just pointing it out because I don’t think Mr. Davis had to call a special meeting to find out what they wanted.

    I’m glad I went to the meeting, and I learned a lot about how local government in Northfield works. Basically, citizens that can afford the time look around at other communities, compare our stuff to theirs, and go to our elected officials with their wish lists. And, like a bunch of beleaguered husbands, the council tries to put off what it can and figure out how to pay for what it can’t.

  5. Scott, we were at the same meeting, just seeing it from dramatically different points of view. There’s no right or wrong, just a difference of opinion.

  6. Griff, here’s some information on cases involving open meeting law (from WestLaw):

    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. Prior Lake American v. Mader, 2002, 642 N.W.2d 729. Administrative Law And Procedure 124

    And

    Although “chance social gatherings” are exempt from requirements of open meeting law, a quorum may not, as a group, discuss or receive information on official business in any setting under the guise of a private social gathering. Moberg v. Independent School Dist. No. 281, 1983, 336 N.W.2d 510. Administrative Law And Procedure 124

    Whether a ward meeting might be interpreted as a “chance social gathering” or not may be up for grabs, but if the councillors present didn’t discuss information on official business (even if there were four of them) I doubt it would be found as a violation of open meeting law.

    (Any attorneys reading this, jump in and correct me if I’ve said something egregiously wrong.)

  7. Tracy (#10): Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. It seemed pretty weird, which is why I mentioned it.

    And regarding open meetings (#11), the meeting was announced publicly, although whether or not in a way that would fulfill the legal requirements I don’t know. And it seemed to be open to anyone who walked in off the street except for Jon Denison, who they made wait in the hall. I thought the open meetings thing was something they just made up, but perhaps the three extra council members had come up with a fair and principled way to decide which one wouldn’t get to play.

  8. Nfld News editor Jaci Smith has a blog post on this topic titled Overkill?

    I did a little research. Here’s the scoop, according to city attorney Maren Swanson and Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson (I’m citing both because I’ve been criticized in the past for taking the word of only one or the other): There is nothing specifically to address the idea of “quorum” in the state’s open meetings law. However there is an attorney general opinion, which both Swanson and Anfinson cited for guidance. The opinion says that there isn’t a violation as long as the councilor(s) who make the quorum number are simply observing and not participating.­

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