REGIONAL— The St. Louis County School District repeatedly violated the state’s Open Meeting Law in late 2020 and earlier this year. That’s according to an advisory opinion, issued …
REGIONAL— The St. Louis County School District repeatedly violated the state’s Open Meeting Law in late 2020 and earlier this year. That’s according to an advisory opinion, issued by the Minnesota Commissioner of Administration this week, which could have statewide implications for public bodies that are continuing to meet remotely during the ongoing pandemic.
The Commissioner issued the opinion at the request of Timberjay Publisher Marshall Helmberger, who had raised concerns about what appeared to be misuse of a state law that allows governing bodies to meet by electronic means when they determine that meeting in person is not “practical or prudent” due to an ongoing pandemic.
The school board had approved a motion on March 24, 2020, stating that meetings would be held virtually for the foreseeable future, and that the public (including the media) would not be allowed to attend. That restriction on public access has remained in effect since, although it was modified on Jan. 26, 2021, to provide for limited in-person public comment, allowing just one member of the public into the board room at a time. Despite such restrictions on the public, several members of the school board and staff continued to attend meetings in person.
That’s a misuse of the law, argued Helmberger in the brief he submitted to the Commissioner in early March. The Commissioner agreed, noting: “When a quorum of the members gathered in person to discuss, decide, or receive information as a group relating to official business, the school board contradicted its prior determination that in-person meetings are not practical or prudent.”
The Timberjay had argued much the same in a Feb. 26, 2021, editorial which advised that some local public bodies were likely running afoul of state law, by meeting primarily in person while restricting public access. The city of Tower amended its procedures shortly after, allowing public access to its meetings, which were being held in the city’s civic center to allow for social distancing.
But the school district continued to hold its meetings primarily in-person, while continuing to deny the public physical access to its meetings. In his submission to the Department of Administration, Helmberger provided school board minutes documenting that a quorum of the board met in-person for school board meetings on Sept. 22, 2020, Nov. 24, 2020, Jan. 5, 2021, and Jan. 26, 2021.
And while the approved minutes from later dates were not available at the time of Helmberger’s submission, the school board minutes from the board’s regular meeting, held Feb. 23, 2021, also indicate that five of the seven members of the board met in-person, providing evidence of a fifth violation of the Open Meeting Law.
Helmberger had sought the opinion in hopes of bringing a halt to practices that had become too common in Minnesota as a result of the pandemic, where public bodies used Minn. Stat. 13D.021 in a way that restricted public access to their meetings, even though some continued to meet in-person.
In the case of the St. Louis County School District, Helmberger noted in his brief to the commissioner that the school district could easily accommodate the public at its board meetings by holding them in larger venues, like school lunchrooms or gymnasiums, which would easily provide for social distancing. Some area governing bodies have moved to larger venues since the pandemic, to better accommodate public attendance at meetings. The school district has, for years, held board meetings at its various schools, so moving board meeting to such locations was clearly practical.
“I think there was some complacency at play here,” said Helmberger. “It was simply convenient to keep the public out, but doing so isn’t legal under the Open Meeting Law, except under circumstances that didn’t apply in the case of the school district.”
In response to the opinion, school district superintendent Reggie Engebritsen contended that the school district had reopened its meetings to the public back in January. “At our board meeting on Jan. 26, 2021, we approved to have the public attend our board meetings starting in February 2021,” said Engebritsen. “The public has been able to attend in person since January 26, 2021.”
Engebritsen’s claim, however, does not match the district’s official minutes, which state that the board was solely allowing public comment, not attendance, with only one member of the public allowed in the board meeting room at a time. Anyone wishing to comment would need to make pre-arrangements with the district’s executive secretary, Jeanne Sopp, prior to the meeting. When challenged on her claim of public access, and provided the text of the actual minutes, Engebritsen said she “would review it and get back to you.”
But Engebritsen did not provide any further comment as of the Timberjay’s weekly press time.