GREENWOOD TWP- At its May 12 meeting, and with little discussion, the town board approved a new ordinance that regulates the disclosure of township documentary information and sets up a cumbersome …
GREENWOOD TWP- At its May 12 meeting, and with little discussion, the town board approved a new ordinance that regulates the disclosure of township documentary information and sets up a cumbersome review process to release such information.
Town board Chair Mike Ralston alluded to, without specifically referencing, the Minnesota Department of Administration’s finding earlier this year that the township had violated the state’s open meeting law by denying access to information to resident Jeff Maus. The town board had passed a motion last fall to preclude access to “emails and stuff” specifically to Maus, who has filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry after being denied access to his own personal records and files as a fire department member.
“It was prudent to develop a procedure to distribute public information to the public,” Ralston said, “and private information not to the public.”
Clerk Sue Drobac asked why the township needed ordinances when the board wasn’t following township policies. She also asked if town board members had read the ordinance, which apparently had only been made available right before the meeting.
Several township supervisors indicated they had read the ordinance, but it was difficult to determine how many, since the meeting was being held via teleconference.
The new ordinance, drafted by the township attorney, was then adopted without any further discussion.
“I am very skeptical that the ordinance is lawful in establishing such a complicated process for obtaining public records except minutes, ordinances, resolutions, and previous meeting agenda packets,” said Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and an expert on Minnesota’s public access laws. Anfinson told the Timberjay that while townships are not subject to the state’s Data Practices Act, there is an older, separate, but still valid legal basis for public access to governmental records known as the common law right of access. This law, Anfinson said, requires access to governmental documents unless there is a strong basis for withholding them.
“I am confident that there would be many other kinds of township records that, under the common law right, would be considered public,” Anfinson said.
The ordinance states its purpose is to streamline the decision-making process under which requests for documentary information are responded to. It notes that township ordinances, resolutions, minutes, and agenda packets shall be “reasonably made available for viewing by the public at the town hall by request or as required by law.”
But all other township documents (referred to as non-public township documents) can only be disclosed by going through a 12-step process.
The process includes filling out a written form which must be presented to the clerk during regular business hours, then the clerk must transmit the form to the town chair. The town clerk must give an estimate of the time required to assemble the documents and determine the charge for the time involved plus the per-copy fee. At this point the request can be denied by the town board chair; if not, the clerk shall determine what documents meet the parameter of the request and transmit a listing of those documents to the town board chair. The chair must then review the information request and the documents to determine if such information shall be released. At this point, the chair may consult with the township attorney. The town board may authorize release of the information which the chair deems necessary or prudent and must make this authorization in writing to the clerk. The clerk would then determine the cost for the request, and then shall release only those documents that have been approved by the chair. The clerk is not permitted to release or provide orally information on any other non-pubic documents without prior written approval by the chair.
The ordinance does not relate to information requested by town board members or to any documents required by the state, county, or a court of law. The ordinance does require that all nonpublic documents remain in the town hall except if authorized in writing by the chair to be removed.
The ordinance also places restrictions on documents placed in the monthly meeting public agenda packet. It states the town board chair shall review and approve all documents in the packet before the start of every town board meeting before the packet is made available to the public. Any document that is proposed to be presented to the town board at a meeting must first be presented to the chair, who shall determine whether or not it shall be used by the board at the meeting. If the chair determines it shall not be used at the meeting, the document must be withdrawn.
Broadband survey results
The board expressed concern with the apparent lack of interest from township residents in completing online surveys about broadband service.
“We are starting to get some more responses,” said Ralston. “The survey is still open.”
Links to the surveys are on the township website at www.greenwoodtownshipmn.com.
“The board is doing all it can,” said Carmen DeLuca. “Nine-percent (participation in the survey) is not a good showing for our township.”
DeLuca said he felt the town board should stop working on the issue of providing broadband level service for the township.
“I don’t think the community is interested,” he said. “We need to stop spending money on it. I don’t believe we should have the responsibility of putting the cable in the ground.”
Ralston told the board they need to review the budget before they certify the $150,000 levy in September. The approved levy was $100,000 lower than the town board’s recommendation. The town board did not present a 2021 budget at the annual meeting.
“We need to find ways to increase revenue or decrease expenses,” he said, “to keep reserves at the level recommended by MAT (Minnesota Association of Townships).”
Township reserves were $601,724 at the beginning of April and $578,864 at the end of the month. The township receives the first half of its property tax apportionment in the summer, so township reserves tend to fall in the first half of the year.
The board adopted an ordinance with little discussion that prohibits interference with township security cameras. The town clerk has repeatedly expressed her concerns with a camera that is pointed at her workstation, describing it as a surveillance camera. The township still has no policy in place for who is able to view the camera footage, or in what cases it can be viewed.
In other action, the board:
• Discussed a bill from Calgaro Tree Service for brushing along Birch Point Extension. Ralston said the invoice from work done last fall and completed this spring was $4,600. “It’s getting outrageous,” he said. Ralston said he is talking with the fire department to see if they would be able to do the work, or else find another contractor. Brushing is done to make sure the road is wide enough to safely drive the fire trucks on.
• Byron Beihoffer and Larry Tahija voted against holding Fire Chief Dave Fazio’s payroll check until his background check is completed, which is township policy. Fazio was recently rehired as chief, which meant a new background check was required. The township hadn’t received the paperwork back. The motion passed 3-2. “He’s not officially chief until the background check is received,” Ralston said. “So we can’t legally pay him.” Once a positive background check is received, the paycheck for work done would be released.
• Approved the low bid from Extra Set of Hands for a three-year contract for lawn mowing service at the town hall at a rate of $150 per mow.
• Beihoffer noted that the pavilion was being used even though the township had closed it to the public until the stay-at-home order was removed.
• Heard that the parking lot repairs are being scheduled for early to mid-June, and the trail sealcoating will be done soon.
• Fazio reported the department had received PPE equipment from the state and donations of fabric masks from several individuals.
• Denied a request to post the monthly treasurer’s report and current investments on the website. Ralston noted this information is included in the monthly board meeting packet, available at the monthly meeting. Treasurer Pam Rodgers said a summary of the information is included in the minutes, which are posted online. Clerk Sue Drobac said it was a simple matter to post the requested reports on the website.
“We should follow the procedure set up by the attorney,” said Ralston, referring to the newly- adopted ordinance regulating disclosure of township information.
• Approved $100 donations to Northwoods Partners, the Tower-Soudan Historical Society, and the St. Louis County Fair. The town board did not act on a request from the Cook Community Center for a $5 per capita donation. “I think we have a debt right now,” said DeLuca. “I am not for giving anything new to anybody.”
“We will need to look at all these donations for next year,” said Ralston.
• Said they hope to hold their next meeting at the town hall, if possible.