Did St. Cloud City Council Violate State Law?

You’ve got to give the St. Cloud City Council bonus points. The council’s justification for getting around and almost certainly flat-out violating the Minnesota Open Meeting Law was out of the box.

Council members cited Robert’s Rules of Order as their validation for a secret vote Monday in taking the unusual action of censuring one of their colleagues, Councilman George Hontos.

City officials said they carefully consulted Robert’s Rules before deciding the handbook empowered them to circumvent state law in voting by paper ballot that allowed them not to disclose how they voted individually to the public, according to the St. Cloud Times.

In an email to the Times on Wednesday, City Administrator Matt Staehling said he, City Attorney Renee Courtney and City Clerk Seth Kauffman consulted Robert’s Rules of Order before the vote on Monday.

“We agreed that the guidance recommended (that) the subject of the censure does not participate in the vote but can participate in the discussion and debate (and) the ballot should be by confidential ballot,” Staehling stated.

Nice try, but one of the state’s foremost experts on and defenders of the Open Meeting Law unequivocally states that Robert’s Rules of Order do not supersede state law on transparency.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the law is clear that a public body cannot vote by secret ballot.

Anfinson cites a decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in which the Mankato Free Press sued the city of North Mankato after the city refused to provide the names of job finalists for city administrator, conducted closed interviews with job finalists, and took a written straw vote to narrow the field of candidates; the results of that straw vote were not made public until later.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals wrote: “Secret voting denies the public an opportunity to observe the decision-making process, to know the council members’ stance on issues, and to be fully informed about the council’s actions.”

Lost in the controversy was the reason the city council censured Hontos in the first place, namely for criticizing the council in a letter to the editor.  But Hontos says his colleagues’ clumsy attempt to censure him, legal or not, just won’t work.

“They are just tired of me bringing things up, putting them on the spot, making them accountable and asking some hard questions,” Hontos said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s just goofy. It’s a disappointment.

“But it’s not going to stop me from being who I am. I’m still going to ask the hard questions. I’m still going to represent my constituents.”

In the end, it’s not that complicated. Public business must be transacted in public with few exceptions. So the St. Cloud City Council will go through the motions all over again at its next meeting, but do it right.

“I don’t believe it was a violation but as a remedy, I will recommend they take it up at the next meeting,” [City Administrator Matt] Staehling said.