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County board training doesn't violate Open Meeting Law

Cook County courthouse
Cook County courthouse

The Cook County Board of Commissioners will meet on Tuesday, June 11 from 1 to 5 p.m. for a work session intended to improve the way commissioners interact with one another.

The meeting will be facilitated by the Association of Minnesota Counties and the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation services. Commissioners, Auditor Braidy Powers, County Attorney Molly Hicken and Administrator Jeff Cadwell will be in attendance at the meeting.  

And although WTIP Community Radio agrees that training for our local government officials is beneficial, this meeting raises a question. Does a meeting for board development fall under Open Meeting Law requirement that government meetings be open to the public?

WTIP spoke to County Administrator Cadwell about this and he said there was precedent that allows government bodies to gather privately for training programs related to interpersonal and communication issues.

Indeed, the Minnesota Attorney General’s office has issued a decision on this, back in February 1975, when Attorney General Warren Spannaus answered this very question raised in the city of Mankato, Minnesota.

In Mankato’s case, the mayor, city council members and the city manager participated in a 20-hour program geared to help them develop effective lines of communication between the council and the community.

Because the course was designed to strengthen understanding of the responsibilities of the council, mayor and staff and to prevent future problems, it was deemed exempt from Open Meeting Law requirements.

However, Attorney General Spannaus stressed that … “No discussions relating to public business will be made at such sessions, although it could be reasonably anticipated that some collateral discussions … would take place.”

As an example, the Attorney General’s office said one council member might state that he has difficulty communicating with another council member on the approach to take in granting liquor licenses. That conversation would have to be halted.

So, who will see that county business is not discussed?  We spoke with Administrator Cadwell about that, asking how the discussion would be monitored.

He replied, “Both Attorney Hicken and myself have a responsibility to maintain public trust and make sure that we follow these rules. Our offices are charged with making sure that we follow the statutory requirements and meet all those conditions.  

“So while training and communications and board development doesn't meet the standard of being a meeting, we can't talk about what meetings are we going to have? What meetings are we going to record? What public comment looks like? Anything that's related to the business of the board has to happen at a public meeting.

“So the trainer from the Bureau Mediation Services, Attorney Hicken and myself, will have responsibility to make sure that the agenda of this training session stays on the line of training and doesn't fall into county business,” said Cadwell.

WTIP also reached out to County Attorney Molly Hicken, who reiterated what Cadwell said, “The board retreat will of course not involve any discussion of county business and I will be present to remind commissioners of that rule.

“The commissioners are not in the business of making decisions in secret and they take their responsibilities under Chapter 13.D very seriously.

“Since I became county attorney, I've publicly, repeatedly, advised the commissioners that courts construe the public's right to access liberally, and that any attempt to avoid Open Meeting Law is itself a violation of Open Meeting Law.

“My personal beliefs about transparent government also happen to align with Open Meeting Law. So, I take those responsibilities seriously…”

Hicken added that it is actually most effective if the meeting is not open to the public.  “It's in the best interest of the public that it not be, so your elected officials effectively communicate to make the best decisions for the county. A conversation about interpersonal communication, recorded and in front of a crowd, would be difficult, stilted, and ineffective.”