Minnesota lawmakers eye closed-door advisory sessions

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2010 - 9:33 PM

Some see clarity, but others see risk to transparent government in allowing citizen advisory groups to meet behind closed doors.

When the St. Paul City Council recently appointed a citizens panel to interview candidates for police chief, the group eventually bowed to pressure and opened its meetings, even though state law is unclear.

But when Minneapolis created the Free Speech Working Group three years ago, that city resisted attempts to open the panel's discussions about preparing for demonstrators at the Republican National Convention.

Now, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration is pushing for a change in state law that could make it easier for schools, cities and the state to follow the Minneapolis approach and close meetings of citizen advisory groups. Two DFLers, Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona and Sen. Ann Rest of New Hope, are carrying the similar bills.

Pelowski calls the change a technical one, saying task forces and advisory groups "don't make ordinance law. ... They make some suggestions to a body that does."

Yet closing those meetings would shut the public out of discussions that ultimately shape public policy.

"So much is done by groups other than governing bodies -- they're doing the work that the governing body is just going to accept," said Don Gemberling, former head of a state agency that helps resolve disputes over open meetings.

A search for clarification

The existing statute requires meetings of a "public body" and its commissions or committees to be open, but it doesn't specify whether that includes task forces. Court rulings have narrowed the interpretation to the point where Pelowski and others say clarification of the law itself is needed.

The bill requires that meetings be open to the public when they are attended by a quorum of a "governing body" or its committees, which could mean only those who vote on an issue.

Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, who replaced Gemberling as head of the agency, said that whether an advisory committee meeting would be open or closed would "kind of depend on how the group is formed."

Formal advisory panels such as committees of the Metropolitan Council would still need to open their meetings.

But under the proposed legislation, St. Paul citizens could be barred from the process of vetting candidates for police chief.

Beyer-Kropuenske said the Pawlenty administration won't push for opening those kinds of meetings because the idea lacks support among officials from school districts, cities, towns and counties.

The Minnesota School Boards Association, for instance, maintains that advisory committee meetings shouldn't have to be open to the public because no decisions are made at those meetings.

A way to avoid attention

Former state legislator Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, said school districts have used task forces to avoid public attention when setting up school boundaries in racially diverse districts.

"When you look at the record of how boundaries are set, often there are citizen advisory commissions that operate outside the public meeting law and they come to the school board with an all-but-wired plan," he said.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the bill isn't a watershed because court decisions have already narrowed the scope of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law to exempt many citizen groups.

"It's just an effort to clarify, not to change the law," said Anfinson, who participated in negotiations with local governments over the bill.

"I eventually got to the point ... that I was pretty comfortable with it."

Still, he acknowledged that changing the statute could have unintended consequences.

"The treacherous risk you take ... is that even what you think are minor or slight wording changes intended to clarify can later be construed as a major change," he said.

Gemberling said the existing statute at least leaves the door open to public meetings for all citizen task forces.

The St. Paul citizens task force is interviewing candidates for the police chief job and will submit five names to the mayor for consideration. After closing its initial meeting, the city reconsidered. St. Paul deputy city attorney Jerry Henderickson said the statute is ambiguous.

"In an abundance of caution, we advised in favor of the openness," Henderickson said.

He cited a 2007 case in which the Department of Administration cited a state Supreme Court decision to open an advisory panel of the city Port Authority.

But the Department of Administration also said in 2007 that meetings of the Minneapolis Free Speech Advisory Group did not need to be open because the group lacked the decision-making powers of the city, even though the group included two City Council members. The department said the advisory group only was intended to "create a model" for the council on how it could preserve free speech and public order.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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