Wadena County commissioners again discuss Open Meeting Law
The discussion returned to the board after a request by commissioner Jon Kangas, who was told to bring the discussion to the board rather than another committee.
Wadena County commissioners again entered muddy waters in a second lengthy discussion on the Open Meeting Law on April 6.
Commissioner Jon Kangas raised his concern about a violation considered in September when he attended a building committee meeting. As the third commissioner, which designates a quorum, he was asked to leave the meeting so the Open Meeting Law would be followed. The September meeting was posted as a committee meeting, not as a board meeting. The agenda was not posted. A board meeting represents a quorum or more is present and means that action can be made and needs to be posted as this type of meeting.
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The discussion returned to the board after a request by Kangas, who was told to bring the discussion to the board rather than another committee.
Kangas said the issue was not being able to stay in the meeting as well as not having access to the minutes following the meeting. He requested changes such as a statement being included in meeting postings about commissioners observing meetings. Kangas believes he was not in violation of the law without participating.
He shared information on the law from the League of Minnesota Cities , which a community member gave him. The information discusses city councils but is applicable to city boards, commissions and other public bodies. The LMC handbook explains a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision from 1993 and a Minnesota Attorney General opinion on the law from 1996 in which attending but not participating is allowed. A special meeting notice would need to be included for a quorum of commissioners to participate.
The key is that the meeting needs to follow the Open Meeting Law, which states the meeting is open to the public, notice has been given and relevant materials are available. A meeting includes when at least a quorum is present, even if action is not taken, according to the law.
“By going by this attorney general’s opinion, I would have not been in violation of the Open Meeting Law. In fact, I was denied my right to attend a public meeting subject to the Open Meeting Law,” Kangas said.
The 1996 opinion goes on to state that a public posting about commissioners attending meetings might be helpful but is not necessary.
County attorney Kyra Ladd said open meeting law issues and serial meetings have been concerns her entire time as county attorney since 2006. The commissioners have a “heightened” responsibility to follow the requirements, she said.
“Mr. Kangas is very well learned in this area, schooled in this area, and I appreciate very much how he holds everyone accountable but this issue I do not agree with him,” Ladd said.
In 2004, the Minnesota Supreme Court defined a meeting as at least a quorum of members where they “discuss, decide or receive information as a group on issues related to official business of the body that constitutes a meeting which is subject to open meeting laws and has to be posted as such,” as Ladd explained.
“It sounds like perhaps you want to seek outside legal advice on this because you don’t like the opinion of me,” Ladd said. “I’m just telling you what the Supreme Court says, I don’t have to like it, I don’t have to agree with it, it’s the law because the Supreme Court says it’s the law.”
Ladd said the Minnesota Department of Administration Information Policy Analysis Division will not issue a different opinion because they have already made opinions on this issue. The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled on this issue since 1983. Kangas said the opinions from the different entities and Ladd were clear but wondered if they were consistent.
The commissioners discussed the county’s standard of having only the assigned commissioners attend their specified committee meetings. The issue is noting if a quorum of commissioners, which for Wadena County is three commissioners, will be present. If there is one commissioner on the committee a second commissioner could attend and participate in the meeting. Commissioner Bill Stearns said having a third commissioner present could give the appearance of a meeting. If this happens, the meeting should be stopped or the third commissioner should leave, Ladd said.
The commissioner would then be able to request the minutes following the committee meeting, according to Ladd. The problem would be talking with a commissioner on the committee about the minutes, which would constitute a serial meeting.
The information is also available to the public after the meeting. One of the possible issues commissioner Mike Weyer noted is when committee minutes are made available to the public. For example, this could be days after the meeting or during the next meeting when the minutes are approved.
Stearns said he is “uncomfortable” about allowing a third commissioner at committee meetings since it could violate the Open Meeting Law. He is also concerned about the penalties that could impact commissioners who were scheduled to be at the committee meeting. The penalties listed in the law note “intentional violation” and include a $300 civil penalty as well as possible removal from their position if there are three violations.
Kangas noted that observing the meeting is only a benefit for commissioners to be better informed.
“It’s a public meeting, what is being discussed there that we’re afraid of a third commissioner hearing it, just like the member of the public can hear it?” Kangas said. “Nobody has showed me a reason why, a legitimate reason why you can’t listen. I guess that’s the point, it’s not to participate.”
Stearns remarked the county is not trying to hide anything but follow the law.
Stearns again added the committee structure has been “successful” as it is. Commissioner Sheldon Monson and Stearns are confident in the structure as well as trusting each commissioner to bring the relevant information to the board.
“We don’t rule by committee in Wadena County. We rule by commissioners, voting five members,” Stearns said. “I think that’s important that these committees don’t make decisions on their own.”
Ladd suggested several ways the board could decide to work on the issue:
They could have no committee meetings and all information could be shared at the board meetings.
There could be no commissioners on committees. Commissioners can also choose to include committee minutes or agendas in their board reports for additional information.
Committees can also present to the board on any topic, whether through a continuous allotted time or an occasional presentation.
Multiple homes on one parcel discussion
Commissioners also reviewed a discussion from the planning commission on allowing multiple homes on individual parcels. The idea was for rental properties for senior citizens , as stated in the commission minutes.
Planning and zoning director Deana Malone summarized that the commission does not see a present demand for a change to the zoning ordinance . The process could still be possible with a conditional use permit. The additional dwellings could take away from the “rural character” of the area as well as water and sewer safety, fire and police protection, and the sandy soil, Malone said. The infrastructure for higher densities is in place closer to the county’s municipalities.
The county’s subdivision ordinance allows another home with split proportions for rural development and the zoning ordinance has a conditional use permit for agricultural districts. Malone said six applications in six years have been approved for the permits.
In the counties of Aitkin, Big Stone, Wabasha, Benton, Murray and Stearns only Stearns is considering a change to their ordinance for additional dwellings, Malone said.
Kangas had previously discussed the topic with Malone and had hoped to be invited to the meeting. He said something has to be done to support property owners as the county is “still in the belly of poverty” along with high taxes. The planning commission is not against residents generating an income stream, Malone said.
Commissioner Murlyn Kreklau said the conversation was “a little premature” in Wadena County. He discussed an Isanti County presentation about changing their zoning ordinance and suggested the commissioners look at the change if and when it happens.
In other action
The board also approved:
A liquor license for the Vintage Golf Course in Staples. The course has new owners.
Applying for a Department of Natural Resources easement purchase for two parcels the DNR owns by a bridge the county is preparing a replacement for. The bridge is on CSAH 1 over the Wing River. This is one of the steps the county is taking if funding becomes available for bridge projects.
A conditional use permit for a landscape supply company on Hwy 71 near Sebeka. The company will include decorative rock, wood mulches, driveway aggregates, sand and garden mix supplies as well as trucking, skid steer, excavator and dozer work.
An extension of the county’s vacation sick and PLT time benefit updates until July 1, 2021.
The continuing of the screening station attendant at the courthouse until June 15, 2021.