A Carver County judge has ruled that four members of the Victoria City Council have violated the state’s Open Meeting Law.
In a civil suit filed by 13 Victoria residents, Judge Janet Barke Cain found that Mayor Thomas O’Connor and Council Members James Crowley, Thomas Strigel and Lani Basa were liable for sunshine law violations.
Barke Cain ruled that the public officials failed to properly close or record meetings and e-mails in 2013 about the financing and building of Victoria’s new city hall/library and public works buildings, which opened last year.
The judge also found three violations by former Council Member Joe Pavelko, who resigned last summer after moving and was not listed as a defendant.
O’Connor and Crowley each were found liable for 11 violations, and each fined $2,250; Strigel was fined $2,100 for 10 violations, and Basa was fined $1,200 for six violations.
The defendants appeared in court late last year and said city staffers should have better outlined open meeting procedure.
Former City Administrator Don Uram, who now works in Prior Lake, declined to comment on the findings, and former City Attorney Mike Norton did not return a phone call for comment.
Defense attorney George Hoff said Tuesday that he isn’t yet sure whether they will appeal the ruling.
“This isn’t their career. They make little money in relation to the work they do,” Hoff said. “They need to be able to rely on advice — it’s the staff’s responsibility to make sure they follow the technicalities.”
Barke Cain said in her findings, filed March 31, that the defendants “were all well aware or should have been aware of the [Open Meeting Law] and the basic requirements.”
Every one of the elected officials named, aside from Basa, has held office for more than five years, the judge noted; and Basa’s attendance at a League of Minnesota Cities conference made her responsible for understanding the law.
“Relying on attorney advice is appropriate,” Barke Cain wrote. “Believing the attorney would totally insulate you from liability under the [Open Meeting Law] is not.”
She added: “Public officials cannot simply put all the onus on staff and expect to avoid liability under the [Open Meeting Law].”
Citing several cases, the judge found the council members in violation of the Open Meeting Law, including four instances of “serial communication.”
According to court documents, topics discussed by council members in person and via e-mails included putting the library in the new city hall, real estate acquisition and sales, and contracting for construction and design of the building projects.
The attorney for the Victoria residents, Alan Kildow, requested e-mail records from the defendants.
“Given this case, elected officials should become knowledgeable of the Open Meeting Law and follow it,” he said. “Implement it, and follow it religiously.”
Kildow added: “Electronic media makes it much easier for public officials to conduct governmental business outside the realm of the direct knowledge of the public.”
Hoff disagrees with Barke Cain’s findings and said, “with all due respect, I think she simply misconstrued the law.”
The defendants could not be reached for comment.