Landmark ruling as court finds Victoria city officials committed 38 open meeting law violations

In what may be the biggest Open Meeting Law case in Minnesota history, a Carver County District Court has found four current Victoria City Council members committed a total of 38 intentional violations of the state transparency statute, leveling a total of $7,800 in personal fines.

The civil case brought by 13 residents of the Twin Cities suburb alleged numerous violations of the Open Meeting Law by city officials in 2013 in the process leading up to building a new city hall and public works building. State law requires governmental bodies to open their meetings to the public for transparency and stipulates fines of up to $300 for each intentional violation.

Carver County District Judge Janet Cain found Victoria Mayor Tom O’Connor and City Councilor Jim Crowley each responsible for 11 Open Meeting Law violations, City Councilor Tom Strigel responsible for 10 violations and City Councilor Lani Basa responsible for six violations. O’Connor and Crowley face fines of $2,250, while Strigel was fined $2,100 and Basa was fined $1,200.

None of the defendants commented in response to an American Experiment inquiry.

“They’ve been convicted of not complying with the law and misled the public about what was truly going on,” said Tom Funk, a plaintiff with wife Carolyn. “The public was not allowed to participate in and witness the decision making process.”

Judge Cain also found numerous additional violations of the Open Meeting Law by the Victoria City Council as an entity for failing to record meetings, provide notice of meetings and properly close meetings. She placed most of the responsibility for those failures on top city staff.

“The Defendants profess their ignorance of the OML to a degree this Court finds shameful with regard to their duty to the public,” Judge Cain wrote in a 38 page opinion released late Thursday. “Defendants claim the OML is somehow unclear and overly technical. There is no justification for this argument. All meetings of the public body are to remain open, with certain specifically defined exceptions.”

The case has taken nearly two years to adjudicate at a cost of more than $260,000 in attorney’s fees, covered by insurance, to the city alone. A core group of about 20 citizen watchdogs logged thousands of hours and procured more than 30,000 pages of city documents in filing the civil case against the four elected officials.

“The toll is just unbelievable for the amount of time, stress, effort, cost, all of that,” Funk said. “But it’s the right thing to do and we’re going to see it through to the end now.”

In her decision, Cain said she weighed the council members’ service to the community against “a comprehensive showing by Plaintiffs of a lack of accountability to the public by Defendants in their lack of adherence to the OML.”

The Carver County jurist also suggested the need for a “legislative overhaul” of the Open Meeting Law to make it more feasible for citizens to participate. The citizen watchdogs were represented by veteran litigator Alan Kildow of DLA Piper pro bono, avoiding significant legal fees that make it difficult for most taxpayers to pursue potential claims.

“Private individuals—ordinary citizens—are generally ill-equipped to adequately address and litigate alleged violations of the OML, primarily for financial reasons,” Cain wrote in a footnote. “Private individual financing of a case such as this is simply not a reasonable expectation.”

While the court granted the plaintiffs’ request for reimbursement for about $20,000 in expenses related to the litigation, she ordered the city, instead of the defendants personally, to provide payment.