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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Greenwood’s secrecy

Town board flouts state law and the constitution with its restrictions on access to government

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A majority of the members of the Greenwood Town Board appear to believe that their township is somehow above the laws of the state of Minnesota. They demonstrated that stunning misperception yet again earlier this month when they reaffirmed an earlier motion that bans Greenwood citizens, and all but one pre-selected township supervisor, from attending meetings of the township’s fire department.
The state’s Open Meeting Law is clear. Local government meetings, including meetings of town boards, city councils, county boards, or school boards— or any committee, subcommittee, board, department or commission, of any of those same governmental bodies, are open to the public.
Given that most township fire departments in our area conduct considerable public business, have some independent spending authority, and conduct regular monthly business meetings where members vote on a wide range of matters, basic transparency (in addition to the law) argues for keeping these meetings open to the public. Townships have zero authority to supersede this state law, unless they wish to provide for even greater openness than state law requires. That, of course, is not Greenwood’s way, at least not with the current makeup of the board of supervisors. No wonder no insurance company wants to write the township’s errors and omissions coverage. The town board’s illegal, authoritarian actions literally invite lawsuits.
In Greenwood’s case, the context of the town board’s decision to restrict access to fire department meetings is even more troubling than it might appear at first glance. When it comes to local governance, it’s an axiom that “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” so when a government opts to close all meetings to the public, even from members of their own governing board, it’s almost always because they’re doing something they’re not proud of.
The public had a glimpse of that recently when a recording of a Greenwood fire department meeting revealed the department was blatantly involving itself in electoral politics. A three-judge panel at the Office of Administrative Hearings, while dismissing a formal complaint, excoriated the fire officials involved in the incident.
Yet, rather than disciplining the officials involved, the town board’s response was to ban recording of fire department meetings, even by members of the department. For years, the town board had required recording of the meetings, apparently in hopes that such recordings could protect the township from complaints from members and aid in the production of meeting minutes. But when a member’s own recording formed the basis for the electioneering complaint, the town board responded, not by disciplining those responsible for the misconduct, but by prohibiting anyone from recording the meetings in the future. In the town board’s mind, apparently, the solution to misconduct is to get a bigger rug.
This town board directive almost certainly violates the state’s constitution, under which the laws of the state apply to all citizens, including citizens of Greenwood. Minnesota is a one-party consent state for recording conversations, which means anyone in the state can record any conversation they want without permission from anyone else.
What is perhaps most appalling about the town board’s actions is that the intent is so transparent. The town board’s majority is either unable or unwilling to address misconduct and is clearly taking steps to keep the problems under wrap. Unfortunately, just as sunshine is the best disinfectant when it comes to government, secrecy is the primary cause of rot. And the smell in Greenwood is getting pretty strong.

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Shaking my head

Spot on Marshall!! The board refuses to accept their responsibility of managing the fire department. Keep it up please!

Thursday, September 23