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Open Meeting Law questioned at Menahga School meeting

At the most recent Menahga School Board meeting, two board members, Jon Kangas and Al Peterson, presented accusations of possible violations of the Open Meeting Law.

On Monday, Feb. 24 the Menahga School Board met in the high school media center to discuss issues of the district.

All members of the board were present, with the exception of Ernest Huhta, Jr.

Two motions presented by school board members Kangas and Peterson highlighted the meeting with lengthy discussion.

Kangas began with a proposed adoption to the agenda by offering documentation he would like to present and enter into the record.

In a document distributed at the meeting, Kangas presented information stating, “The information Policy Analysis Division of the Department of Administration has ruled that material distributed to board members in relation to agenda items includes emails. This board has failed to comply with this portion of the Open Meeting Law by elected officials. I move that this board direct the superintendent to immediately begin complying with the Open Meeting Law by including all correspondence, emails and any other required documents in the public packet, and that it also be included in the board book.”

“In part of the Open Meeting Law it states that email needs to be included; it is public information. I move to enter the letter prepared by myself into the public record, which includes a motion in regards to fully complying with the open meeting law,” Kangas said.

“I am coming with this now because at our last meeting we did discuss this, and I did point out that the department administration and other legal firms all concur that email communications are required to be a part of the public packet and public record. There was considerable push-back at this meeting, at this table,” Kangas said.

He presented the motion with the intention of adding the action item to the agenda. However, his efforts were ultimately thwarted by a 3-2 vote of the board.

“You have a right to present this information, but we have a right not to vote on an agenda item that wasn’t on the agenda. We have a right to postpone it to a later date,” said board member Curtis Hasbargen.

“I am sure this is well researched and you have spent time on it, but I am not prepared, until I have a chance to read through this document, to make this an action item tonight. I think we can re-introduce it at another board meeting if you would like. I’m not going to sit here and take action on a document that was just put in front of me, I’m not going to do that,” said Chairman Durwin Tomperi.

Then the allegations of data practice misconduct began to really pile on.

School board member Al Peterson put forth another addition to the agenda in order to present supporting information, and a motion regarding the Data Practices Act and Open Meeting Law.

Peterson presented a packet, providing documentation that included a legal invoice explaining correspondences prepared by legal counsel – something he says ultimately brought attention to the fact that a request for information had occurred. Included was a photocopy of a letter sent to Matthew Johnson of the Sebeka-Menahga Review Messenger in response to his request for tape recording and/or transcript data. His request was denied.

Documents then show correspondence from Peterson in emails he sent to the Depart of Administration, Information and Policy Analysis division, asking whether or not the letter fully complies with the Data Practices Act in regards to the Open Meeting Law.

The response from Taya Moxley-Smith stated that “There aren’t any statutes that classify requests for public data, and the responses, as not public.” The opinion was adversarial to the actions previously done by the district administration, albeit unofficial. To get an official opinion, Peterson said, a request needs to be submitted to the Commissioner of the Department of Administration at a cost of $250.

However, Peterson went on to say, “The facts that occurred indicate that we weren’t following the Data Practices Act. I have a motion to make an effort to follow this Data Practices Act, as well as, meet to discuss the possible resolution to these alleged data practices violations. The fact that we have denied access to copies of information is indicative of the fact that we have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to data practices and understanding the law,” Peterson said.

“In discussion at the last regular meeting I asked several times whether or not someone could have copies and was basically not answered. The practice of not giving copies was then maintained when two of us requested it both in email and in person and were denied, even after being told that this could be a violation of the law,” Peterson said.

Other members of the board again opposed any immediate action to take place at the open meeting, preferring it to be discussed in one that is closed to the public.

“This information could have been brought forward a lot sooner than just being dropped in our laps. If you want to make this be a motion to be added to the agenda, you can do that. But this should be more of a work session item, or for a policy meeting. Are you alleging that there were violations done? Be very careful what you are saying right now,” Tomperi said.

“Yes. Some of these acts that occurred are specific to one individual. These are allegations of violations of the law. I am making allegations that there was a violation of the Data Practices Act. No particular person is named, but these are the facts of what happened and the opinion that this data was refused to board members was public information,” Peterson said.

The email correspondence with Matthew Johnson that was photocopied, claiming that the “tape recordings you requested are not public data as set forth in Minnesota Statutes Section 13D.03. Therefore the school district will not be providing you with the tape recordings you request at this time” was signed by Superintendent Mary Klamm.

“If you are asking that this be added to the agenda, you can make a motion like Jon (Kangas) did and we will vote on it for further discussion,” Tomperi said.

Peterson’s motion to add the supporting information regarding Data Practices Act violations to the agenda for further discussion, and to “move the school board to make every reasonable attempt to follow the Data Practices Act, as well as, meet to discuss a possible resolution to the alleged data practices violations”, was struck down by a 3-2 vote.

The Enterprise will follow this issue as it develops.

Nick Longworth
A graduate from St. Cloud State University, Nick photographs and writes a variety of stories for nearly every section of The Park Rapids Enterprise. His duties also include section layouts and online content submission.
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