The Savage City Council broke the state’s open meeting law prior to a special meeting Monday.
The council met at Savage’s Environmental Learning Center on July 8 for their annual retreat to discuss planning, finances, policies and department operations but failed to provide public notice of the meeting’s location and discussion topics.
“The Minnesota Supreme Court has held for obvious reasons that a meeting the public doesn’t know about is not, in effect, an open meeting,” said Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association.
The open meeting law guarantees the public’s right to attend government body meetings in order to see and hear what elected leaders and other officials do on the public’s behalf, according to the Minnesota Department of Administration.
City officials said the violations were honest mistakes. The location was “changed last minute” to the environmental center despite being planned for City Hall, said Emily Gunderson, the city’s communications manager.
Because open meeting laws are only enforced by private lawsuits, Anfinson said cities don’t often face consequences for such violations.
Minnesota state statute requires public notice of a special meeting’s date, time and location at least three days prior to the meeting. A special meeting is any meeting held at a time or place different than a regular one.
Gunderson said the meeting’s agenda was posted in the City Hall lobby on July 3 with the inaccurate location. The city’s website also showed the meeting would be held at 7 p.m., but it actually happened at 5:30 p.m.
All council members, Savage Mayor Janet Williams, City Administrator Brad Larson and Assistant to the City Administrator Allie Polsfuss were present.
Members had previously discussed the possibility of having the upcoming retreat at the environmental center during the council’s July 1 meeting.
Larson said Wednesday the inaccurate location was a mistake made when rescheduling the meeting, which was originally set for July 18 before a member had a timing conflict.
The city’s violations included failing to provide adequate public notice of all items to be discussed at a special meeting, Anfinson said. The agenda posted in City Hall stated the council would “discuss city council retreat topics” rather than giving enough detail to be a valid public notice.
The council also discussed an agenda item titled “other policy items or discussion.” Larson said it gave members an opportunity to share updates or concerns, much like the “council member minute” sharing time at the end of regular council meetings.
However, the special meeting classification prohibits opening the floor to discussion of miscellaneous items not noted on a public notice, Anfinson said.
“I’m not too concerned about that,” Larson said of that issue in an interview Wednesday.
Williams in an email Wednesday acknowledged the location should have been updated but said the mistake wasn’t deliberate. She said the majority of the council’s retreats have been held at the environmental center during her tenure.
In 2016, a judge in Carver County ruled city officials in Victoria had committed a combined 30 open meeting law violations when considering plans to build a new City Hall, library and public works building, according to the Chanhassen Villager.
“Defendants claim the OML is somehow unclear and overly technical,” the judge wrote. “There is no justification for this argument,” she added. “The concepts of the OML can be conveyed and understood in a matter of minutes.”