Editorial: Looking for a sunshine champ

Published 9:59 am Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New Albert Lea City Attorney Lee Bjorndal made a sound, thought-out statement Monday night at the Albert Lea City Council meeting. He seems like an open-minded person, one who will be able to interpret the state’s open meeting laws correctly. We’d like to welcome him to a community debate on the preagenda meeting, workshop, or whatever the Thursday assembly is termed.

He should be aware that the City Council for years has failed to take minutes at the preagenda workshop. Even if no action is taken, many items are introduced to the council — a public body meeting as a quorum, no less — for the first time. Failure to take minutes is in direct violation of the state’s law on open meetings. It’s simple to grasp.

However, because the council disregards our pleas for compliance, we have submitted a new argument. A meeting of a public body isn’t open simply because citizens are allowed to attend. The public body must also meet the requirements of state law for an open meeting. If the council fails to meet those requirements, then it is easy to argue the preagenda workshop must therefore be a closed meeting. In that case, under the law passed Aug. 1, the city is obligated to electronically record the preagenda workshop.

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It has not, and therefore is breaking the law in a second way.

It is our hope the city wishes to obey state laws. This is how: Treat the preagenda workshops like regular meetings or don’t hold them at all.

By the way, some officials compare preagenda workshops to caucus meetings at the state Legislature. However, lawmakers meeting in caucuses are not forming quorums. Any gathering with four or more members of the City Council constitutes a quorum, thereby invoking state open-meeting laws.

Quite often, public entities have a person who is a champion of sunshine laws, a person who knows government functions best when under public scrutiny. Sometimes it is a council member. Sometimes it is a city manager. Sometimes, it is a city attorney.

We hope Bjorndal can be that champion.