A year after a judge found that four Victoria City Council members violated the state’s Open Meeting Law 38 times, divisions in the small west metro city continue to deepen.
Some of the citizens who sued the council members now say the city has made an end-run around the public to pay $43,023 in legal fees for the council members who lost the case.
Eleven plaintiffs from Victoria object to the city paying the defendants’ legal fees and want them to reimburse taxpayers. They contend that the legal bills were rammed through quietly on the City Council’s consent agenda.
“This is a public-interest lawsuit,” said Alan Kildow, who is representing the plaintiffs at no charge. “We’re of the opinion that the Open Meeting Law in Minnesota is very important to ensure the transparency of public proceedings. With respect to the city of Victoria, that was not the case.”
Last March, District Judge Janet Barke Cain ruled that the four council members intentionally violated sunshine laws several years earlier by failing to properly close, record and give notice for meetings. She also found that they had improper e-mail communications to avoid public hearings.
Topics discussed at meetings and in e-mails included plans for a new city hall/library and public works building, which opened two years ago.
The defendants paid the fines, though they contend they were simply relying on the city attorney’s advice on the Open Meeting Law. Former Mayor Tom O’Connor and City Council Member James Crowley each paid $2,250 for 11 violations. Council Member Tom Strigel paid $2,100 for 10 violations. And former Council Member Lani Basa paid $1,200 for six violations. The judge also made the city pay the plaintiffs’ legal expenses — about $10,000 — which was not covered by city insurance.
O’Connor, who lost his mayoral bid in November, said he unknowingly made mistakes. The city should have moved on, he said. Instead, both sides appealed.
The plaintiffs appealed a decision consolidating three suits into one case because public officials who intentionally break the law on three occasions must be removed from office, Kildow said. That appeal is pending.
The defendants argued in their appeal that there wasn’t enough evidence that they intentionally violated the law. A judge dismissed their appeal March 14 as moot because they had already paid their fines. They are appealing to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
‘A case of good government’
City Manager Laurie Hokkanen said the city has paid $43,023 since May to the Hoff Barry law firm to represent city officials during appeals. The payments simply continue the city’s earlier insurance coverage, she said.
The Open Meeting Law states that “a public body may pay” attorney fees incurred by public officials. Hokkanen says because the city was found partly liable for the council members’ violations, the city should pay for their defense.
Requiring elected officials to pay their own legal fees if sued, O’Connor said, will diminish the pool for public office.
O’Connor said the lawsuit and appeal are part of a “vendetta” against him and council members Crowley and Strigel by current Mayor Tom Funk, who was originally a plaintiff but opted out of recent actions because of his new position.
“I disagree,” Funk responded. “If he and the other defendants had obeyed the law, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Kildow noted that the defendants were sued individually. Once the court found they intentionally violated the law, he said, they became obligated to pay their own legal fees.
Kildow objects to the City Council approving payments for the defendants’ legal bills, which was done without discussion three times last year as part of the consent agenda. The four council members who were defendants should have recused themselves from voting, Kildow said.
“Those people voted to pay their own legal fees,” he said. “They had a personal financial interest in it.”
Without those votes the Council would have lacked a quorum and would have needed court approval to pay the bills, Kildow said.
Twice this year, the consent agenda again included the defendants’ legal bills, totaling about $13,500. Funk blocked one payment because he said there weren’t enough unbiased council members to vote, and Hokkanen removed the second payment in March.
Hokkanen nevertheless paid both bills on the advice of the city attorney. The city set aside $60,000 in 2016 to use for such expenses, Hokkanen said. She said she may ask the Minnesota attorney general for an opinion on the matter.
Plaintiff Larry Gubbe said City Council meetings have become “a little tense” lately.
“It’s basically a case of good government,” he said. “If we get rascals in government who can essentially do what they please, it’s our fault.”