Wadena County staff identified what they considered an open meeting violation recently, when Commissioner Jon Kangas decided to listen in remotely to a building committee meeting which already included two other Wadena County Commissioners, thus creating a quorum of the county board.
When County Attorney Kyra Ladd was made aware that Kangas was listening in she asked County Coordinator Ryan Odden to stop the meeting or have Kangas exit the meeting. While Kangas insisted he was within his rights, he voluntarily left the meeting and the committee continued as usual.
“I did not believe or I’m still not convinced that it is a violation, at least the intent,” Kangas said.
The action of even just listening in without active participation is prohibited by the open meeting law, according to Ladd.
“You attending and not participating still constitutes an open meeting,” Ladd said.
Minnesota Open Meeting Law states that “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 building committee meeting switched from a committee meeting with no voting power, to a board meeting with the ability to make decisions, like spending money, when Kangas took part.
In that situation, where a quorum was a part of the meeting, the group could have potentially made a binding decision. The meeting was not posted as a meeting of the county board. Instead the meeting was posted on the county website as a building committee meeting, which has the power to discuss and bring forward a recommendation to the county board. That’s all.
Commissioner Sheldon Monson and board chair Chuck Horsager agreed that the way they understood it, these committee meetings can have up to two board members present to avoid the open meeting violation. In most cases, one or two board members present at each of these committee meetings allows them to bring insight to the decision-making process when brought before the full board. With three present, they are potentially able to make a decision without the knowledge of the other board members or the public, outside of any scheduled and posted regular or special meetings of the board.
Kangas pressed against allegations that he had violated the law and noted that he has been a staunch supporter of making the meetings more open to the public. He has, since coming on the board, pushed for better posting of committee meeting dates in order to allow the public an opportunity to listen in on these discussions. Those postings of meetings to the online county calendar have increased, but Kangas noted there is still often little notice given before the meeting starts.
He states that his reasoning for listening in was so he could have a better understanding of the background of discussions before hearing about the discussion at a county board meeting. Kangas did not intend on joining the conversation. He did not have ill intent, he said.
Kangas shared that by definition of the opening meeting laws, all the committee meetings are subject to open meeting laws. Ladd agreed that they are open meetings that must be posted. Kangas said that these meetings are not following the law, though. He pointed to the fact that these meetings have not always been posted for the public to know about and when they are, it is often less than three days notice. He added that meetings such as the building committee must post the purpose of the meeting. No agenda was posted with the notice.
“If I’m going to be accused of a violation, I think we are all guilty in much more detail,” Kangas said.
He explained that his actions did not violate the three stated purposes of the open meeting law set forth by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Those include:
To prohibit actions being taken at a secret meeting where it is impossible for the interested public to become fully informed about a public board’s decisions or to detect improper influences.
To assure the public’s right to be informed.
To afford the public an opportunity to present its views to the public body.
“I believe there are ongoing violations of the open meeting law and I’ve been trying to get these changed since coming on the board,” Kangas said.
Kangas pressed further stating that he felt all committee meetings should be treated as county board meetings, where any or all board members could be present and capable of decision making powers.
Commissioner Bill Stearns disagreed with that notion and made it clear that the board and public could not possibly attend all the various committee meetings and if they did miss one, they would potentially miss out on the decision making process.
“I think you are grasping at straws right now,” Stearns said. “I do appreciate your talking about the posting of committee meetings and they do need to be posted further in advance, just my own personal, because I need to know whether a committee meeting is going to be held or not …”
Stearns said having every committee meeting scheduled as a special meeting “is ridiculous.” He said the board members do not have time to attend every meeting. He added that he knows there will only be two board members and they will not be taking action at these committee meetings. He refused the idea of changing the meeting structures.
“I say we are not going to do that, that doesn’t make any sense at all,” Stearns said.
Commissioner Monson said that the committees do important groundwork before arriving at the full board. He trusts the committees to do that work, though he understands that the recommendation is not always accepted by the board.
Ladd said she had a spirited debate with Kangas on the topic in the last week.
“This is well settled law by the Supreme Court,” Ladd said. “This issue has been litigated and has been the law of this land in excess of 40 years ... and you cannot come together, you guys, as a quorum, without it being properly posted, matters related to official business, and that means listening, listening to information that you could receive that would influence later decisions of this board.”
Ladd said the nitty-gritty of all this discussion is that meetings need to be open and transparent, and a quorum gathering needs to be posted as such so the public is aware of it. Committee meetings also need to be posted, however it is understood that decisions are not to be made in those committee meetings.
Auditor Heather Olson even weighed in saying that if the board decides to make more special meetings to remember board members are paid for each of those meetings, so they would have to increase their budget for paying themselves.
Kangas responded that he did not want to attend all the meetings. Rather he wanted it to be well known what meetings were being held and what topics were being discussed. No one argued with him about that.
Commissioner Jim Hofer, who had otherwise been quiet during the discussion, made a motion to end debate at that time with all board members in favor after about 50 minutes on the topic.