Dakota County officials are making several changes in how they notify the public about County Board meetings, after a civic group accused them of a lack of transparency.
County officials denied any sunshine law violations but admitted that some meeting times and locations listed on the county’s website and elsewhere had been incorrect.
“Our view is, we meet the legal requirements of the Open Meeting Law in notifying the public,” said County Manager Matt Smith said. “We go often well beyond what’s legally required.”
That law requires that government meetings generally be open to the public, with some exceptions, and lays out consequences if they aren’t.
The League of Women Voters’ Dakota County chapter wrote an 11-page letter to county officials in late January, pointing out what its leaders said was inadequate notice of meetings, along with examples of incorrect information regarding meeting times and locations.
League officials also alleged that Dakota County commissioners broke the state’s Open Meeting Law when they met with legislators outside the county. They asserted that the county should either videotape its committee meetings and workshops, or post more detailed meeting minutes.
“We feel that these problems needlessly discourage the public from participating in Dakota County’s governance,” according to the letter, which was signed by eight of the League chapter’s leaders.
Smith said that posting information in multiple places sometimes led to inconsistencies, though the official meeting notice was always correct. He said he was a “little surprised” to receive the League’s critique, because county officials had already had many conversations with them about improving how the county shares information.
“I recognize that it’s on us to continually manage those to make sure that they’re all accurate,” he said.
League officials declined to comment Monday on their letter or the county’s response.
In a letter to the League sent last week, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and Dakota County Board Chairwoman Liz Workman laid out changes the county plans to make, including an interactive public meeting calendar on the county website, though Smith said that change was in the works before.
Other modifications include adding more information to county e-mails so residents know about cancellations and special meetings. The county also will provide more staff time to ensure that notices are accurate and will look into posting audio recordings of committee meetings online.
“The question now is, how technologically feasible is it?” Smith said, referring to the audio recordings.
The county currently videotapes County Board meetings and keeps audio recordings of committee meetings, which are available upon request. Meeting minutes are posted, but League members said that the minutes taken for committee meetings weren’t always easily understandable.
The League also had taken issue with the County Board’s practice of scheduling meetings back to back, saying the arrangement makes it hard for citizens to know when to show up.
Stacking the meetings one after the other “makes good use of the board’s time,” Smith said, adding that while committee meetings might start later than posted, they never start early.