Have you every watched a City Council or Port Authority Meeting and wondered how a decision was made with so little discussion? You’re not alone.
Take Mt. Carmel for example. 1. How was the decision made to purchase the Mt. Carmel land by motion, as opposed to resolution, thus bypassing the risk of the Mayor’s veto? 2. How was the decision made to have Council President Schultz sign the purchase agreement instead of following the City Charter and Code, which require the Mayor to sign all contracts? 3. Open Meeting Law (OML) allows discussion of a land purchase price in a closed session, but how was the decision made to purchase the Mt. Carmel land, as opposed to other alternatives? Was the land purchase decision made at the committee level and the Council rubber-stamped it, or was that discussion held in closed session.
At the end of February, the Council was faced with the deadline of appealing the decision in the Xcel litigation. The Council discussed their options, but did not vote on a course of action. A few days later the time for appeal expired. Of course, by not voting, the Council was in fact making a decision. But was the real decision to not appeal made at the committee level? It’s hard to believe, that after spending $100,000 on this litigation, that a discussion wasn’t held and a decision wasn’t made on some level to not appeal, even if it was to simply not vote on taking action.
The City Attorney argues that committees have no decision-making authority. On its face, this statement would appear to be true. But anyone following council meetings recognizes that there is little discussion of committee recommendations and that those recommendations are almost always unanimously approved. A reality-based analysis reaches one conclusion. Many, if not most, decisions are made at the committee level. One just needs to look at the consent agenda to see how many decisions are made without any discussion whatsoever.
There is the very powerful City Council Agenda Committee, headed by Council President Schultz, that decides what will be on the city council meeting agenda. The power to decide what gets on an agenda is not insignificant. By having closed agenda meetings, the press and the public are shut out from knowing what has been kept off the agenda and importantly, why. Why should such decision-making authority reside with one person and not be subject to public scrutiny? True, a motion to amend the agenda can be made at the Council meeting, but approval requires a majority of the council, and members are unwilling, for whatever reason, to raise such a motion.
Then there is the City Council Finance Committee. This is where a bulk of the analysis on how to address budget cuts will be held. This is where the sausage is made. While this committee does not have the authority to make a final decision on which cuts to make, it certainly will decide on which options to present to the full council for consideration. Any recommendations from this committee will most likely be adopted by the full council. There is no denying that actual decisions are being made at this level. These are the kinds of factors courts use in looking at the decision-making authority of committees.
Here’s the bottom line. Putting aside all the legal arguments, nothing prevents the Red Wing City Council, as a matter of public policy, to decide to make committee meetings open to the public, subject to OML, and where a quorum is determined by the committee size, not that of the governing body. It really is that simple. It would simply take a 4-3 vote for the Council to pass a resolution to make committee meetings subject to OML. This is the policy of the Red Wing School District, and every school board in the state. It is the policy of Goodhue County. It is the policy of the City of Minneapolis.
It is critical to understand that the decision by the City Council to keep committee meetings closed is a political, not a legal decision. I have no doubt that the City Attorney advised the Council as such. Every council member knows this, and they can’t hide behind the City Attorney’s opinion as to whether OML applies to committees. This is a truth the Council may find inconvenient. While I strongly disagree with the City Attorney’s legal analysis of whether OML applies to committees, there can be no disagreement that the City Council has made a political decision to keep their deliberations and discussions at committee meetings closed to the public, sometimes other council members, and the press.
From the Minnesota Townships Association:
“The legislative intent of applying the Open Meeting Law to committees is obvious – public bodies will not be able to avoid the law simply by moving discussions and deliberation of business to some subsidiary group of the body meeting behind closed doors.”