When it comes to the open meeting law, state officials say, the 11 miles separating an out-of-town hotel and St. Anthony City Hall can make all the difference.
The state Department of Administration has found that St. Anthony city officials violated the state's open-meeting law in January when they held their annual planning retreat outside city limits.
Administration Commissioner Matt Massman, in an advisory opinion published Monday, found that the St. Anthony City Council's long-standing practice of meeting at an out-of-town locale to cement goals and priorities each year was against the law.
In holding the goal-setting sessions outside St. Anthony, Massman wrote, "the Council effectively removed themselves from the people that they serve, thus undermining the public policy intent" of the open-meeting law.
City officials had opted for the Marriott Hotel in Brooklyn Park for the overnight gathering, saying that the out-of-town setting made the sessions more productive. They cited a lack of suitable meeting space in their own city of 8,800.
While the opinion is nonbinding, St. Anthony City Manager Mark Casey said Monday that the City Council will keep it in mind when making plans for next year's planning meeting.
"We disagree with the conclusion," Casey said. "However, we will take the advisory opinion into consideration when scheduling future planning sessions."
St. Anthony officials for years have ditched what they called the "daily distractions" of City Hall to meet beyond the city limits in a hotel for the annual planning retreat.
They have defended the practice as key to building crucial camaraderie, saying other cities have used them as a model for effective planning.
"Nobody has had an issue with it before," Council Member Hal Gray said Monday. "It's not like going away to a resort or anything."
But St. Anthony officials are alone among their municipal neighbors in staying overnight outside the city for such annual retreats. Many cities hold goal-setting sessions at City Hall or other public buildings.
'Under the radar'
Council members, staffers and other stakeholders met Jan. 11-12 across the river in Brooklyn Park. Some stayed overnight for the sessions, which covered everything from finance to street projects to affordable housing.
The out-of-town setting didn't sit well with St. Anthony resident Nancy Robinett, who asked the state to weigh in. Robinett, who said the retreat wasn't well-publicized, asked officials to hold it in St. Anthony when she found out about it.
"This meeting has very much been held under the radar," said Robinett, a lawyer who has run for the City Council. "It has a chilling effect on public participation."
Robinett raised three concerns in her request for an advisory opinion from the state: the gathering's out-of-town location, the lack of copies of meeting materials and the question as to whether a dinner held at the hotel as part of the retreat complied with the open-meeting law.
Massman found that the city did not make its printed meeting materials properly available to the public. But he sided with the city over the question about dinner, noting that council members sat at different tables and did not discuss official business.
The costs of the retreat and the legal fees to defend it have raised some eyebrows in town. According to Casey, taxpayers footed the $10,482 bill for this year's retreat, which included hotel, food and room rental costs, as well as the cost of a facilitator to guide the sessions.
The city also spent about $15,000 in legal fees to respond to Robinett's request.
"I regret they spent that money. I wish they hadn't," Robinett said. "I wish they hadn't worked so hard to try to defend this practice."