A Dangerous Precendent Taking Root

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A Dangerous Precendent Taking Root

by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News



There is a dangerous precedent taking root in Minnesota that is subverting the public’s right to assess the character, quality and statesmanship of its elected officials. It allows bickering elected representatives of local governments to go behind closed doors to apparently work out their differences in a group therapy session – all in the name of becoming more effective leaders.

It started last fall with the St. Paul Board of Education. Its members were embroiled in bitter disputes that led to the departure of the superintendent and resignation of a board member. With the body becoming increasingly dysfunctional, the district’s attorney asked the state Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) if it could conduct a closed meeting to “improve trust, relationships, communications, and collaborative problem solving among board members.”

IPAD is tasked with resolving challenges to whether meetings have to be conducted publically under the state’s open meeting law, or can be done privately. There is a presumption of openness for meetings under the law with few exceptions listed in statute. In this case, IPAD was assured the school board would not discuss any official public issues.

Based on a previous Minnesota Attorney General’s decision, IPAD’s Director Stacie Christensen ruled that the St. Paul school board could conduct a closed meeting for training purposes as long as official business was not being conducted. Since a facilitator would be at the meeting, the board’s attorney assured there would be no public business discussed.

Based on that ruling the Minneapolis school board has now conducted a closed meeting to resolve unspecified tensions that followed an initial failed superintendent search, according to a story by Erin Hinrichs of MinnPost. Three new school board members also were being brought into the mix and it was thought it would be nice to have a “leadership capacity building” session to strengthen the board’s ability to work together, Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon is quoted by MinnPost. It’s about building a sense of collaboration, cohesion and a “solidarity of mission,” school board members agreed.

Having the ability to meet outside the public spotlight allows elected officials to talk freely about issues they have with staff or fellow board members without being quoted in the news media. It allows them to vent, to whine, talk about likes and dislikes, and confess stresses in their lives that might be affecting their effectiveness without seeing their words embarrass them in print.

And, again, the public was assured that no official business would be discussed – “trust us, we know when we are crossing a line and will police our own behaviors.”

Maybe the reason for the closed meeting is better explained this way:

“The path to that SEL [social, emotional learning]-informed community requires a level of openness and vulnerability that will not be achievable, nor be safe, under public scrutiny,” Board member Don Samuels wrote in an email to MinnPost. “As a result, relationships would be trapped at the level of postures and positions, while motives would be subject to conjectures, assumptions and suspicions. Ultimately, that leads to misplaced distrust and compromised effectiveness.”

Then, again, maybe your reaction to that gibberish is the same as ours. Maybe when you run for public office you should have your social, emotional and learning act together, and if you don’t, the voters should be able to assess that and boot you out in the next election if they find you lacking.

It is essential for voters to know the competency of their elected officials – competency, or the lack of it, that is displayed in meetings where there are disagreements that have to be worked out through debate and compromise that lead to decisions. Leadership is a quality the shines or fades in difficult situations.

Meetings of public bodies are not meant to be therapy sessions where everyone gets all personal and introspective with one another. If you have a problem with a member of a public body you serve on, go have a cup of coffee or a beer together.

We are wary, based on years of experience, of public bodies working out their differences behind closed doors with a promise of not discussing public business. How can a closed meeting not touch on issues that are at the heart of dysfunction? Differences always center on issues that are controversial or troublesome. They center on polarized points of view. A discussion to resolve differences necessarily has to touch on these issues.

Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson told MinnPost “he has no problem with the open meeting law not applying to a true training session, where board members are strictly talking about procedural and operational functions.” But, he adds, “The troubling thing about the (IPAD) opinion is once they’re in a closed meeting; you could say all day they’re not supposed to talk about anything having to do with public business. But it’s so easy to slide into that, where they start raising examples just to illustrate problems or issues that have come up in the past.”

Here is a refreshing take on the Minneapolis school board’s closed meeting from one of its former members:
 “Dealing with disagreements, tensions — those things are part of it,” Tracine Asberry told MinnPost. “They’re also not uncommon. What’s important is to demonstrate, as elected officials, as adults, how do we wrestle with these hard decisions with conflict with a colleague and move through this and make the best decisions for students. I think the public deserves to see that from every angle, even if it doesn’t make them look good.”

Of course many who serve in elected positions would like to tailor their public image to present the best possible impression of their character and quality. But then we are slipping into dangerous territory – the manipulation of public perception. Allowing them to go into closed session any time disagreements arise for “training” subverts our democratic process and our ability to judge the competency and character of our elected officials.

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