Earlier this month, citizens thronged a meeting of the Bloomington City Council to plead for leniency for protesters who faced prosecution for a demonstration at the Mall of America.

They could have saved their breath. What they didn't know, as they passionately made their case, was that several council members already had made up their minds.

You'd never have guessed from the respectful way members listened. But in a work session before the regular meeting, council members got a briefing on the case from the city attorney and the chief of police. Several members spoke strongly in support of the decision to prosecute.

These work sessions — open to the public, but sparsely attended — are where a lot of decisions get made. Council members usually see detailed presentations from city staff on the key issues of the day.

Then they go to their regular meetings, the ones that often draw crowds of citizens who want to share their views. In many cases, decisions have already been made based on input from city staffers — who have more opportunity to present their case than citizens, who might get two hurried minutes.

At a recent work session of the St. Louis Park City Council, members discussed a moratorium on new liquor licenses in the city. The discussion was lively and sharp. Finally, one council member who favored the moratorium asked the others to declare a stance. Three members said they'd support the moratorium, meaning there would be four votes for it on the seven-member council.

So the item went onto the agenda for the next council meeting, where its passage would be guaranteed unless someone had a change of heart.

There's nothing deceptive about these work sessions. Council members need to work through complex issues frankly and thoroughly, with advice from professionals who run the city day to day.

But citizens interested in their local governments might do better to skip the big council meetings and attend the work sessions instead.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402