St. Anthony’s Out-of-Town Junket Violates Open Meeting Law

Somewhere along the line the St. Anthony City Council started holding its annual sleep-over planning session in a hotel in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park. Supposedly there’s no place in St. Anthony that qualifies for hosting the strategic gathering to set the city’s course for the year.

Just one problem. The overnight stay and out-of-city location violates the Minnesota Open Meeting Law designed to make sure citizens can track the actions of elected officials. The Star Tribune reports the Minnesota Department of Administration’s ruling could cramp future plans for the junket, which cost taxpayers almost $10,500 this year.

But Administration Commissioner Matt Massman ruled that the St. Anthony City Council’s long-standing practice of meeeting at an out-of-town locale to cement goals and priorities is against the law.

In holding the goal-setting sessions outside St. Anthony, “the Council effectively removed themselves from the people that they serve, thus undermining the public policy intent” of the open meeting law, Massman writes in his advisory opinion.

Naturally, St. Anthony officials find fault with the state’s nonbinding but clear cut conclusion that their weekend jaunts break with the public trust and transparency by meeting outside the city.

“We disagree with the conclusion,” [St. Anthony City Manager Mark] Casey said. “However, we will take the advisory opinion into consideration when scheduling future planning sessions.”

St. Anthony officials for years have ditched what they called the “daily distractions” of City Hall to meet beyond the city limits in a hotel for the annual planning retreat.

They have defended the practice as key to building crucial camaraderie, saying other cities have used them as a model for effective planning.

“Nobody has had an issue with it before,” Council Member Hal Gray said Monday. “It’s not like going away to a resort or anything.”

But a citizen watchdog who got wind of the getaway filed a complaint.

The out-of-town setting didn’t sit well with St. Anthony resident Nancy Robinett, who asked the state weigh in. Robinett said the retreat wasn’t well-publicized and asked that it be held in St. Anthony when she did find out about it.

“This meeting has very much been held under the radar,” said Robinett, a lawyer who has run for the City Council. “It has a chilling effect on public participation.”

$15,000 in taxpayer-funded legal services later, the state ruled against the city’s annual outing. But no word yet on where city officials plan to hold next year’s planning retreat.