Governance
Written by Tom Steward | March 27, 2017

Residents Oppose Paying Officials’ $43,000 in Legal Bills

CCFour years ago a handful of Victoria residents decided to challenge the local political establishment. Today Tom Funk, the citizen watchdog who started it all, serves as the newly-elected mayor, joined by fellow watchdog Tom Gregory on the Victoria City Council.

But their latest battle with the city’s old guard shows just how hard it is to reign in government at any level and change the political culture, even from the inside.

A year after a judge found that four Victoria City Council members violated the state’s Open Meeting Law 38 times, divisions in the small west metro city continue to deepen.

Some of the citizens who sued the council members now say the city has made an end-run around the public to pay $43,023 in legal fees for the council members who lost the case.

Eleven plaintiffs from Victoria object to the city paying the defendants’ legal fees and want them to reimburse taxpayers. They contend that the legal bills were rammed through quietly on the City Council’s consent agenda.

“This is a public-interest lawsuit,” said Alan Kildow, who is representing the plaintiffs at no charge. “We’re of the opinion that the Open Meeting Law in Minnesota is very important to ensure the transparency of public proceedings. With respect to the city of Victoria, that was not the case.”

The four city councilors who violated the Open Meeting Law paid fines ranging from $1,200 to $2,250 out of pocket. But the defendants want taxpayers to cover their mounting legal bills as the case moves forward on appeal, including ousted former mayor Tom O’Connor.

City Manager Laurie Hokkanen said the city has paid $43,023 since May to the Hoff Barry law firm to represent city officials during appeals. The payments simply continue the city’s earlier insurance coverage, she said.

The Open Meeting Law states that “a public body may pay” attorney fees incurred by public officials. Hokkanen says because the city was found partly liable for the council members’ violations, the city should pay for their defense.

Requiring elected officials to pay their own legal fees if sued, O’Connor said, will diminish the pool for public office.

O’Connor said the lawsuit and appeal are part of a “vendetta” against him and council members Crowley and Strigel by current Mayor Tom Funk, who was originally a plaintiff but opted out of recent actions because of his new position.

“I disagree,” Funk responded. “If he and the other defendants had obeyed the law, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Now that he’s mayor, Funk has removed himself from the case. But his friends pursuing the appeal hope it ultimately results in the removal from office of the two city councilors with Open Meeting Law violations who remain on the job. Until then, city council meetings will continue to be rocky.

Twice this year, the consent agenda again included the defendants’ legal bills, totaling about $13,500. Funk blocked one payment because he said there weren’t enough unbiased council members to vote, and Hokkanen removed the second payment in March.

Hokkanen nevertheless paid both bills on the advice of the city attorney. The city set aside $60,000 in 2016 to use for such expenses, Hokkanen said. She said she may ask the Minnesota attorney general for an opinion on the matter.

Plaintiff Larry Gubbe said City Council meetings have become “a little tense” lately.

“It’s basically a case of good government,” he said. “If we get rascals in government who can essentially do what they please, it’s our fault.”

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