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Menahga to open committee meetings

The Menahga City Council will revise its ordinance to have committee meetings follow open meeting law requirements, making them open to the public.

The decision came after a lengthy discussion with city attorney Jeff Pederson Monday evening. He was asked to attend the meeting to address several questions from the council.

Councilwoman Maxine Norman said she was concerned that committee meetings held with two council members were in violation of the open meeting law. She wanted the meetings to be posted and open to the public.

Pederson said that in his opinion committee meetings weren't required to be open to the public because there wasn't a quorum - at least three members of the council - at the meetings.

Norman said she had spoken with her attorney and two attorneys at the League of Minnesota Cities who disagreed. She said she is just looking at what other cities are doing and thinks Menahga should follow.

"We should be very willing to be transparent," Norman said.

At one point, the council discussed getting an opinion from the Attorney General's office about whether committee meetings were subject to the open meeting law. It was later decided to amend the ordinance to have committee meetings follow open meeting law requirements.

According to Minnesota State Statute 13D, the open meeting law applies to:

n A state agency, board, commission, or department when it is required or permitted by law to transact public business in a meeting.

n The governing body of any school district, unorganized territory, county, city, town, or other public body.

n A committee, subcommittee, board, department, or commission of a public body subject to the law.

n The governing body or a committee of a statewide or local public pension plan.

The statute also says gatherings of less than a quorum of a public body are not subject to the law; a "meeting" is held when the group is capable of exercising decision-making powers.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that the open meeting law applies only to a quorum or more of members of the governing body or a committee, subcommittee, board, department or commission of the governing body.

Mayor Tom Larson said that Menahga's committees do not have decision-making powers and the gatherings have less than a quorum. Committees make recommendations to the full council, he said. He doesn't think committees need to follow open meeting law rules because of these points.

The council decided to have city administrator Teri Osterman revise the city's ordinance to include committee meetings under the open meeting law requirements. The revised ordinance will need to be approved at a future meeting and published before it is set.

Other questions for Pederson included whether individual members of the council could contact him for opinions or advice.

He said that as the city's attorney he represented the city council as a whole and could not speak with council members individually.

"It would completely eliminate my effectiveness," Pederson said.

The best way to communicate with him is through the city administrator or mayor, he said. Or, one person from the council could be designated to contact him.

Councilman Dennis Komulainen then presented Pederson with a letter that he wanted him to read and respond to. Pederson repeated that he couldn't accept correspondence from an individual council member.

Komulainen said he has been trying to deliver the letter from former Menahga mayor Donna Anderson to Pederson, along with a letter from himself. Komulainen said he's unsure if the letters can be read in an open meeting due to private data, he said.

Pederson said the council could direct Komulainen to give the letters to him to review. He can then determine if they should be looked at in a closed or open meeting, Pederson said. The council voted to have Pederson review the letters.

Pederson also briefly went over the open meeting law in regard to e-mail. He said e-mails bring about the potential for serial meetings.

For example, if one council member e-mailed another council member and it was forwarded to another member, that is a violation of the open meeting law.

The council also voted to have all correspondence with the city attorney, from the city administrator or mayor, be given to the entire council in writing so they know what business is happening.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
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