‘Mother of open meeting law cases’ heads to court

The new Victoria City Hall and public works buildings are already built. But citizen watchdogs are only now wrapping up construction on their open government case — focused on the process and on the elected officials behind the $6 million public buildings project, which goes back to 2012.

Recent court documents filed on behalf of seven Victoria residents allege “repeated, knowing, and intentional violations of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law” by Victoria Mayor Tom O’Connor and City Councilors James Crowley, Lani Basa and Tom Strigel.

“Neither our clients nor our firm will be providing any comment on the pending litigation at this time,” defendants’ attorney Jared Shepherd said in an email to Watchdog Minnesota Bureau.

The taxpayers involved in the litigation characterize it as one of the most comprehensive open meetings law cases.

“This is the mother of all opening meeting law cases in the history of the state,” said Victoria resident Tom Funk, a plaintiff with wife Carolyn. “Go out and look in the case law.”

The civil court trial against city officials over transparency in the process for acquiring property finally goes to Carver County District Court on Nov. 16, but only after District Court Judge Janet Cain scolded the citizens’ attorney Friday in turning down yet another request for more documents, data and a delay.

“This Court will not unnecessarily prolong the trial in this matter because Plaintiffs at this late stage feel they need more discovery information to prove their case,” Judge Cain wrote. “… This discovery request is duplicative at best, and overly burdensome and unnecessary at this stage.”

The plaintiffs behind the litigation have received 12,000 pages of documents, including 3,500 pages of emails from the council members’ personal computers.

City staff estimate taxpayers have spent $10,000 compiling data from 42 public information requests related to the case since August 2013. Insurance through the League of Minnesota Cities covers the $230,000 in legal fees for the four elected officials.

While corporate attorney Alan Kildow offered his services pro bono, the citizen watchdogs have spent about $18,000 for out-of-pocket expenses, such as court filings, copying fees and stenographers.

Yet the number of alleged open meetings law and related violations remains unclear in the run up to the Nov. 10 deadline to submit final legal briefs in a case first slated for trial six months ago.

“The defendants allegedly failed to notify the public of meetings, neglected to record and identify issues under discussion in closed meetings and communicated by text and phone to reach “consensus in advance of planned votes on City business,” according to a legal brief filed by plaintiffs earlier this month.

“The decisions that they were making related to the City Hall, the library, the public works, the personnel committee, all of this was supposed to be done where the public could watch the process, participate in the process, detect undue influence,” said Funk.

On their attorneys’ advice, the defendants have declined to comment for months. But O’Connor told Watchdog Minnesota Bureau this in May 2014: “I think that we’re going to be absolved in the future.”

“The suggestion that this was either ill-conceived or rushed through or in some way done in secrecy, when every piece of this process has been very open, it’s at best, a misrepresentation,” Strigel said in an April 28, 2014 meeting of the City Council.

In her most recent ruling, Cain declined to order the defendants to provide so-called “metadata,” electronic information encoded in emails. Open government advocates argue the public should have access to metadata on records requests.

After investing an estimated 3,000 hours of time digging into and documenting their claims, volunteers remain hard at work compiling the documents and emails.

“I think it will change the way people maintain governmental records, so that the citizenry can get at those records or data requests and see what their governmental officials are doing,” said Kildow, the plaintiff’s attorney.

The state agency overseeing the application of open government laws is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There’s data practices litigation that happens at the district court level that we don’t ever hear about,” said Stacie Christensen, director of the Information Policy Analysis Division of the Minnesota Department of Administration. “There’s no real kind of record. So it’s the appellate cases that have more impact that are on our radar.”

One thing both sides can stipulate to — in or out of court.

”We’ll be glad when it’s over,” Funk said. “For three years, this has consumed me, day and night.”