Balancing public safety with the public’s right to know has been a challenge for local units of government around the country over the past eleven months, including here in the North Country. Yet, with COVID infection rates falling and state guidelines loosening the rules for private business and schools, local officials, in some cases, need to re-examine the way they’re handling public meetings. In some cases, by failing to balance the rights of the public to attend public meetings, they may be running afoul of state law.
The Open Meeting Law in Minnesota does provide an exception for declared public health emergencies, like the current pandemic, which allows governments to conduct meetings remotely. But that’s only if they can meet certain conditions, including the condition that participants, such as the public, are able to access the meetings, participate in discussion, and hear all discussion and testimony on agenda items. We’ve sat through enough meetings on Zoom or GoToMeeting to know that these requirements are fully met only rarely.
What’s more, governmental bodies can only utilize the pandemic exception to the Open Meeting Law when a designated official has determined that in-person meetings are “not practical or prudent.” But that’s intended to apply to all people, not just the public. In the case of the Tower City Council, for example, the city council has been meeting largely in-person, at the city’s civic center, for months now. City staff have attended in person as well. Clearly, city officials have decided that in-person meetings are practical and prudent, since they are conducting them. And in a large facility, like a civic center or town hall, there is little reason that members of the media, and at least some members of the public, can’t be accommodated. This newspaper made that point last week by having a reporter attend a council meeting at the civic center in-person. Two days later, the council amended its rule to allow members of the media. That’s a step forward, but there’s still no authority in state law that allows a governing body to only allow media, while keeping out the public at large.
It’s the same story with the St. Louis County School District, where board members have had the choice of attending in person or electronically for months. If they can meet in-person, members of the public should be allowed, too, as long as they wear masks and can socially distance. If the district’s board room is too small to accommodate more than a handful of the public, the board could move their meetings to a larger venue, such as a school gymnasium. The Open Meeting Law doesn’t allow governmental bodies to close to the public simply because it’s more convenient that way. If a member of the public or media can attend a basketball game at a school gymnasium, there is no reason they can’t attend a school board meeting there as well.
If limits on public attendance need to be set to maintain social distancing, that’s fine. Requiring that attendees wear masks is obvious. But blanket prohibitions on the public’s attendance, without any clear purpose, are going well beyond both the letter and the intent of the pandemic exception to the Open Meeting Law.
In neither case do we believe these two local governing bodies are violating the law intentionally. And to help clarify the issue, we’ve requested an advisory opinion on the matter from the Department of Administration.
Other local governing bodies have gotten it right. Vermilion Country School’s board meetings are being held in person. Members of the public can also attend as long as they wear masks and socially distance, rules which apply to board members as well. The city council in Orr has been meeting in person and allowing the public to attend. At times, depending on risk levels, the Orr council has moved to larger venues to accommodate social distancing, but has always allowed the public to be present.
It’s the same with the city of Cook, where the council has been meeting for months at their community center to allow for social distancing, with the public in attendance. That’s consistent with the Open Meeting Law.
The Open Meeting Law is there for a reason— to ensure that the public has the right to hear and understand how governmental decisions are being made. While it allows governmental bodies to adjust in the event of pandemics, the rights of the public to attend public meetings need to be balanced with the risks posed by the pandemic. If a board or council finds it practical and prudent to meet in-person, it’s tough to argue that the public can’t be there as well.