Yes, You Have A Right To Be At That Meeting

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

 “I just wanted to find out if I can show up or not?” rural Danvers resident Mark Hughes told the Swift County Board of Commissioners at their meeting last week.

Hughes was referring to a meeting of the Community Perspective Committee established by the commissioners at their May 7 meeting. It consists of two members appointed from each of the five county commission districts. It was formed in response to strong citizen opposition to a proposed $17.5 million justice center.

It was tasked with studying the reasons behind the county board’s support for the justice center and bringing back alternative recommendations for addressing problems with a projected increase in jail needs, the cost of housing prisoners in other counties, and the cost of transporting those prisoners out of the county. It was to look at the need for additional space at the Law Enforcement Center, human services and county attorney’s office. The new justice center would also house the Restorative Practices program and 6W Community Corrections.

The 10-member body has now met at least five times and is getting closer to developing its recommendations for the county board. Monday night’s meeting was supposed to help it finalize some of its proposals for commissioners.

At last week’s county board meeting, Benson resident Gwen Dale asked commissioners when the committee would be presenting its findings. County Board Chair Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton, told her that the committee had more questions to be answered as it sought additional information from county staff and commissioners.
When those questions were addressed, and the dialogue between county staff and commissioners completed, then there would be a public meeting, he said.

If Dale had questions about the activities of the committee, Administrator Kelsey Baker told her she could ask her representative on the committee. “If you do have concerns, we want you to voice them to the people who are on the committee,” she told Dale. “When we meet next Monday, we can discuss them with committee members and county folks all in the same room. We can decide next Monday if we are going to have an open forum meeting after that,” Baker said.

Whatever comes out of the committee meeting Monday night will have “a public side of some sort,” Hendrickx said.

At this point, Hughes asked if he was allowed to attend the committee’s meeting.

 “There…are times when you have to have the conversations that lead to productivity, and sometimes it is very difficult for people to speak in a public forum,” Hendrickx said. “They just don’t feel comfortable. We want to make sure that everyone’s comfort is there. That is my opinion.”

Commissioners Eric Rudningen, District 5-Kerkhoven, Pete Peterson, District 3-south Benson and Torning Township, Ed Pederson, District 2-north Benson and Benson Township, and Joe Fox, District 4-Hegbert Township didn’t comment on Hughes’ question. Hughes was left with the impression that Monday night’s meeting was not one that the public had a right to attend.

The straight answer to Hughes’ question was that he most certainly did have a right to attend the meeting. He wouldn’t have the right to stand up and speak at the meeting, but he could listen to the discussion.

Under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) all “state and local multimember governmental bodies, including committees and subcommittees, and nonprofits created by political subdivisions,” are public.

The OML defines public meetings as any meeting where a “quorum or more of the governmental body is gathered—in person or by electronic means, whether or not action is taken or contemplated.” It requires that notice be given of its public meetings, including those of committees.

The public “may attend and observe, and relevant materials are available to the public,” the OML states of the meetings.

There are exceptions to the law. Public bodies can close a meeting for labor negotiation strategy sessions, attorney-client discussion on litigation the public body is involved with, security issues, employee reviews, and meetings where property transactions and purchase prices are going to be discussed.

Clearly, under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, Hughes had a right to attend Monday night’s meeting.

Too often, in fact, most often, citizens have no idea about their rights to attend meetings or the right to public documents in front of elected officials at those meetings.

Through the years we’ve covered public bodies we have seen citizens timidly wondering if they had the right to come into a room where a public body is meeting. As we have now seen with the county board’s response to Hughes, a citizen doesn’t always get a straight answer.

If someone serving on a public body, or a committee appointed by a public body, feels too uncomfortable, or intimidated, with the public being present at a meeting their sentiments should never, ever, carry more weight than the public’s right to be there. The public body can lay out the ground rules for the audience at the meeting, but citizens have to attend.

Citizen observation of those serving on public bodies, whether elected or appointed, helps them judge whether their concerns are being addressed and the quality of those serving on the body.

Minnesota’s Open Meeting law guarantees transparency so that decisions aren’t made with citizens left in the dark on how those decisions were reached. The transparency created through the law gives citizens comfort that their elected and appointed officials are looking out for their best interests.

It is essential for a community that there is a watchdog always looking out for their rights. That is what we do.

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