Victoria City Council members who violated the state Open Meeting Law dozens of times can’t be removed from office, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
That’s because the infractions occurred as part of a single trial, the high court said, and not as three separate, sequential violations as required under the law to unseat public officials.
The ruling upholds a previous decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, as well as the original district court ruling.
“Three courts have concluded with finality that these council members should not be removed,” said Janel Dressen, the defendants’ attorney.
Larry Gubbe, one of the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed by the ruling but that it wasn’t completely unexpected. “We hoped that the number and the egregious nature of the violations would sway the judges,” he said.
“I think the defendants won on a technicality,” Mayor Tom Funk said.
The suit was filed in 2014 by a group of Victoria residents that included Funk. They alleged that then-Mayor Thomas O’Connor and council members Lani Basa, James Crowley and Thomas Strigel had deliberately and repeatedly violated the Open Meeting Law by holding secret meetings and exchanging e-mails to avoid scrutiny relating to the construction of City Hall and other buildings.
Two subsequent lawsuits were filed by other plaintiffs, including Gubbe, each containing different allegations related to breaking the state’s sunshine laws.
The separate lawsuits were filed to demonstrate that three distinct actions had occurred and that the council members should be removed from office, as state law requires, Gubbe said. But the court combined all three suits into one because they were similar, with the same defendants.
In 2016, District Judge Janet Barke Cain ruled that the four council members had intentionally violated open meeting laws 38 times by failing to properly disclose, record and give notice for meetings. She also found that they had improperly sent e-mails to avoid public hearings.
Cain found O’Connor and Crowley each liable for 11 violations, and fined each $2,250. Strigel was fined $2,100 for 10 violations, and Basa was fined $1,200 for six violations.
The defendants said they relied on the city attorney’s advice and that proper procedure should have been made clearer.
Only two defendants, Crowley and Strigel, remain on the council. Strigel was pleased with the decision. “The court wasn’t allowing itself to be used as a political bludgeon,” he said.
After becoming mayor in 2017, Funk, along with his wife, Carolynn, removed their names from the original suit and opted out of subsequent legal action so that he would avoid conflicts of interest when voting on matters related to the suit.
Funk said Wednesday that the Supreme Court ruling hurt Victoria residents and “eviscerated” the Open Meeting Law. He said that he plans to go to the Legislature to change it.
In the last year, Victoria citizens and public officials have engaged in another debate over who should pay the legal fees of the council members found guilty. The city has paid $504,000 of those fees, with $400,000 covered by insurance, city officials said.