April 21, 2024

Barrett Stormwater Drainage Committee conducts meeting hidden from the public eye

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By Reed Anfinson and Jake Sias
Grant County Herald

As the Barrett City Council debated who should pay for the new $1.69 million city water drainage system and what properties should be exempt, its members received considerable citizen input.

An assessment plan currently in front of the council would exclude 46 of 252 property units from paying for the system. A vocal component of the community opposes the proposed exemptions.

To study citizen concerns and consider a proposal for the council, a committee was appointed last month including Mayor Jenson, Council Member Susie Sieben, and Public Works Supt. Jason Wendt. The committee was scheduled to report to the council at its meeting Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 5 p.m. Its report could be the basis for action by the council on those properties that will be exempt from an assessment.

Jensen is one of those who owns property that could be excluded.

There is also frustration surrounding the lack of transparency that the committee has shown regarding how they intend to assess who benefits from the drainage system. It is not even clear how they are defining the idea of “direct benefit.” Questions regarding such as Barrett’s topography, relative distance of properties to storm drains, and property value impact of a clean lake have gone unanswered.

Because the meeting was Tuesday evening, and this week’s edition of the Herald was printed Tuesday morning, the story on the Barrett City Council’s decision will be published in next week’s edition.

When the council named the committee, the Grant County Herald requested to be notified of the time and place of the committee meeting. 

After repeatedly telling the Barrett City Council and Mayor Jenson that the Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) clearly requires committees appointed by the city council to be open to the public, the committee met without notice to the public.

All committees appointed by public bodies are subject to the OML with extremely rare exceptions. One exception would be applied to an advisory board appointed by the Minnesota Board of Regents to recommend a candidate for the U’s new president. No member of the board of regents serves on the advisory board. 

In the case of the committee appointed by the Barrett council, two members of the public body, Jenson and Sieben, were named to it. Both will be voting on the assessment plan as part of the council.

When two members of a three-member committee meet, they constitute a quorum, and their meeting is subject to the OML. 

In an email to the Herald Sept. 13, Jenson argued that she was advised by the Minnesota League of Cities (LMC) and advised that the committee would not be subject to the OML. 

“I have been in contact with the League of MN Cities to confirm that we are not violating any laws. The statute you shared is only for closing an open meeting that had a quorum. A Committee Meeting that is not a quorum, is not subject to the open meeting law,” she wrote.

In response to her email, the Herald’s Publisher, Reed Anfinson wrote to her that while two members of five-member city council do not constitute a quorum of the council, two members of a three-member committee appointed by the council do make a quorum. That committee is subject to the rules dictated by the OML. Notice of the place, date, and time of the meeting are required and the meeting is open to the public.

“I would guess the LMC did not fully understand the situation to provide the advice you say you have been given,” Anfinson said.

After not hearing anything more about the committee meeting time, the Herald again contacted Jenson. 

“Our editor, Jake Sias, is seeking the dates and times of the meetings of the new committee that was created by the council to review the assessments for the stormwater system,” Anfinson wrote Sept. 26. “When a public body appoints a committee, it is also subject to the Minnesota Open Meeting Law even if no members of the council serve on it. This fact is established in state statute and court findings. 

“We would sincerely hope the council and committee follow the law to avoid the penalties that could be assessed for a willful violation of its requirements,” he stated.

In response to the email, Mayor Jenson wrote Sept. 27: “At this time we have no committee meetings scheduled.”

October 4, Anfinson was notified by a Barrett resident that the meeting had been conducted and that he had seen no notice of that meeting posted. Anfinson again contacted Jenson.

“It has come to our attention that the committee appointed by the council to look at the assessment question and bring a recommendation back to the council has already met,” he wrote Jenson. “We were also told that the meeting was conducted without notice, as required by state law. If this is true, it is unfortunate. We have repeatedly asked for notice of this meeting and pointed out what the Minnesota Open Meeting Law requires.”

In her response Oct. 4, Jenson said: “The committee did meet, and I encourage you to educate yourself and reach out to our city attorney or the League of MN Cities to get the correct information on committee meetings.”

The Herald did contact that League and was told that public bodies, including committees, are subject to the OML. This is also the position of Minnesota Newspaper Association Attorney Mark Anfinson.

Penalties for violating OML

The Minnesota Open Meeting Law provides a civil penalty of up to $300 for an intentional violation of its requirements. Any citizen can pursue a case against a public body that is suspected of violating the law.  

“A person who is found to have intentionally violated the law in three or more legal actions involving the same governmental body forfeits the right to serve on that body for a time equal to the term the person was serving.,” the law says.

“The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that this removal provision is constitutional as to removal of elected officials only if the conduct constitutes malfeasance or nonfeasance, and provided that the violations occurred after the person had a reasonable amount of time to learn the responsibilities of office,” it says.

A public body may not pay a civil penalty on behalf of a person who violated the law.

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