Five Years Later, Citizen Watchdogs Get Their Day at MN Supreme Court

Five years after a group of watchdog citizens first challenged the status quo at Victoria City Hall, their bid to hold local elected officials accountable under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law will culminate before the state’s highest court on Monday.

The Star Tribune says the citizens’ determination to persuade the justices to put some teeth into the Open Meeting Law continues to make waves in the fast-growing western Twin Cities suburb.

An intense political and legal feud is dividing the city of Victoria, where city officials have spent nearly $500,000 to defend against a 2016 open meeting lawsuit — a case now headed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

A debate rages over who should pay the legal fees two years after a Carver County judge found that four City Council members intentionally held secret meetings and exchanged e-mails to avoid public scrutiny relating to the construction of the new City Hall and other buildings.

The conflict has sparked clashes between Mayor Tom Funk, who initiated the lawsuit before taking office, and two council members who could lose their seats in the dispute, Thomas Strigel and James Crowley.

Their day before the high court represents a highlight rivaled only by the election of two of the watchdogs to city government in 2016, current Mayor Tom Funk and City Councilor Tom Gregory.

The legal battle has its origin in a political dispute dating to 2013, when Funk rallied a group of residents to question local leaders he thought were conducting city business in secret.

He distributed yellow fliers around town accusing council members of hiding public information, and then filed data requests to confirm those suspicions.

Funk and his supporters filed a series of three lawsuits. His goal was to target individual council members and stick them with any fines and legal fees, rather than taxpayers. “We did not want the citizens of Victoria to pay for this,” he said.

Elected officials who intentionally violate the Open Meeting Law on three or more individual instances must be removed from office. That’s one of the key issues before the high court for the citizen watchdogs, who’ve devoted thousands of hours of their time in an unprecedented campaign to see the case through.

Janel M. Dressen, an attorney representing the current and former elected leaders, including Strigel and Crowley, accused the opponents of drawing out the legal battle in an effort to oust her clients from office — even after they paid court-ordered fines and accepted responsibility.

“It’s really unfortunate that once the underlying lawsuit was resolved [in 2016] that everyone couldn’t just move on,” Dressen said.

…Crowley accused Funk of “making a mockery of this body,” by continuing to push the case.

Said Council Member Tom Vogt, “This is really wasting a lot of the City Council’s time.”

Of the city’s $476,000 in legal bills, $400,000 is covered by insurance.

Funk helped initiate the legal action against his predecessor and current city councilors Strigel and Crowley but is no longer party to the case. But the mayor maintains the principles behind the effort–transparency and accountability–are worth it.

Funk, however, said the council members’ open meetings infractions should disqualify them from serving the city.

“It’s unpleasant. It leaves an ugly aftertaste; I get that,” Funk said. “But to me, it’s the right thing to do. Instead of just complaining about the government, I’m trying to change it.”