Hensel, Crowder level accusation of open meeting law violation

Quorum of council members were at Senior Center Candidate Forum

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

Little did Jean Dennis know what she would start by holding a candidate forum Sept. 20 at the Little Falls Senior Center. She simply wanted to make it easier for senior citizens to meet their political candidates and become informed voters, as she has done for years now.

Those candidates running for office affecting Little Falls senior citizens were called on the phone and invited to attend, to speak for three minutes and answer questions from the public. Dennis said candidates for the city council, state legislature, senate, school board and board of commissioners were called.

“Some came, some didn’t,” she said.

Of those, three current Little Falls City Council Members, Loren Boyum, Urban Otremba and Frank Gosiak, received phone calls, because they are running for re-election, she said.

As a courtesy and because she has done so in the past, Dennis said she called Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem to make the introductions.

Robin Hensel, also a City Council candidate, told the Council Monday during its work session that she felt the forum should have been posted at City Hall, as any other meeting with council members would be. She also said it wasn’t fair that only some council members were invited, and others were not, such as Council Member At Large Brian-Paul Crowder.

She said she felt it violated the open meeting law.

Crowder had not been invited, Dennis said, because he was not running for office.

Council Members LeeAnn Doucette, Jeremy Hanfler and Don Klinker were not invited with a phone call, either.

Klinker said he works out at St. Francis and heard about the forum from a friend he often sees at St. Francis, and decided to attend.

Interim City Administrator Dan Vogt, who said the city did not know of the forum until the day prior, cautioned the Council during its work session, that should four or more of the members be in one place, one of them should make the decision to leave, to be on the safe side.

Another safe way for the council members to come together, he said, would have been to call a meeting, and adjourn it into another meeting.

Crowder said he had called the Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) of the State Department of Administration, and said they were concerned about the incident.

The forum was advertised in flyers Dennis placed around town, a small news article was published the Record and it was announced on the local radio station prior to the forum, she said.

“It’s a Senior Center thing for members of the Senior Center, it had nothing to do with the City Council, nothing. They could come if they wanted,” said Dennis. “It’s bipartisan, we show no favoritism here.”

The forums are held at the Senior Center for its membership Dennis said because seniors have a difficult time getting to different functions to hear candidates.

“So the candidates come all at once to the Senior Center,” said Dennis.

“I’m a volunteer, a member of the Senior Center and I just do this, because I used to be involved in politics and I think it’s a nice thing for seniors,” said Dennis. “It’s a nice service to senior citizens to get to meet the candidates and that’s all it is. It’s one of the services we offer to our members.”

Dennis said she may not organize a forum in the future.

“I may not do this again if I have all this grief. Maybe we’ll have to forget this at the Senior Center,” she said. “We have freedoms left don’t we? One has the right to go where they want and to speak if they want to.”

Hensel said that VanRisseghem, “Who is the leader of this town should have known better.”

Vogt has been working with representatives of IPAD for advice on the issue.

Minnesota’s open meeting law, Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13D, requires that meetings of governmental bodies generally be open to the public, for three reasons:

• To prohibit actions being taken at a secret meeting where it is impossible for the interested public to become fully informed about a public board’s decisions or to detect improper influences;

• To assure the public’s right to be informed; and

• To afford the public an opportunity to present its views to the public body.

Attorney Mark Anfinson, Minneapolis, who works with the Minnesota Newspaper Association member publication staffs regarding many legal issues, including the open meeting law, said the most basic test used for determining when the open meeting law applies has two parts, those being: 1) Is a quorum of the public body present? and 2) If yes, is that group conducting public business?

The council members who attended the candidate forum said they were not conducting city business.

During the Council’s regular meeting Monday night, during a five-minute citizen appeal, Hensel again brought up the candidate forum and the possible violation of the open meeting law.

“You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill,” said Otremba.

Little Falls City Council Briefs

In other business Monday, during its work session, the Council:

• Received notice of candidate forums being hosted by the Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, including a forum for Little Falls City Council candidates on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 15;

• Agreed to meet Wednesday, Nov. 7, at noon at City Hall to canvass election results;

• Learned the city’s policy concerning taxi cabs will be updated due to an inquiry about the possibility of adding another tax service in the city;

• Learned David Drown, the city’s financial adviser, recommended the city refinance about $2.63 million in issued bonds. Finance Officer Lori Kasella related Drown had said he hadn’t seen rates this low (1.8 percent) in his entire career;

• Agreed to meeting Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 6 p.m. at City Hall, to go over the budget. Interim City Administrator Dan Vogt told the Council during its work session that he and department heads would be meeting several times to reivew the budget before that date;

• Received notice of the Oct. 11 meeting regarding the Camp Ripley Veterans Trail at the Morrison County Government Center, at 5:30 p.m. Several legislators will be in attendance;

• Learned from Vogt that he had received a memo from Jeanette Behr with the League of Minnesota Cities concerning several requests for data from council and staff cell phones, saying that this data is considered private information;

• Vogt noted he is researching other data requests made since the Council’s last meeting requesting e-mail information and is working with the city attorney;

• Chose to send to the Park Board for its consideration, a request made by Mary Warner, director of the Morrison County Historical Society, for the organization to write a nomination letter to place Pine Grove Park on the National Register of Historic Places;

• Received notice of a public hearing in the Council Chambers Monday, at 6:30 p.m., held by the Planning Commission. The public hearing is in regard to the rezoning of several different properties within the city; and

• Heard Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem request the number of data requests received in the past year be brought to the next Council meeting.

Other business conducted by the Council during its regular meeting included:

• Awarding the annual fall leaf and brush collection to Bob LeMieur Rolloffs, Refuse and Recycling for $2,780, $10 less than last year. The collection is set for Saturday, Oct. 27, rain or shine;

• Approved the bid for collection of garbage at various buildings and parks to City Sanitary Service with the low bid of $7,276.23. Bob LeMieur Rolloffs, Refuse and Recycling’s bid was $10,149.24. VanRisseghem asked for information on how much was charged for extra collections requested;

• Accepted the feasibility report and called for a public hearing for improvements on Fifth Street Northeast to be held Monday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m.;

• Approved a one-week free internship for Ryan Pogatchnik, a student at St. Cloud Technical College in the water/waste water program, from Oct. 22 – 26 at the water treatment facility;

• Confirmed a proposal for engineering services from Bolton and Menk Inc. for the proposed Fifth Street Northeast watermain extension project;

• Unanimously approved to pay for additional work on the pretreatment facility near the Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op including $5,990.26 to County Line Welding and $4,031.10 to Rainbow Inc.;

• Approved unanimously to pay Eagle Construction $3,060 for assisting city crews with the installation of the water and sanitary sewer lines on the extension of Third Avenue Southeast;

• On a unanimous roll call vote, approved certifying about $12,507.75 in delinquent city accounts to the County Auditor’s Office to be added to property taxes. Councilman At Large Brian-Paul Crowder asked why these bills were being certified to the county when a large water bill from the Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op had not been. Kasella explained the bill in question was under dispute due to a meter not being calibrated and an agreement had not yet been reached;

• Declared as excess city property and called for the sale of one male elk calf and one female elk calf, both born in May;

• Approved a grant contract with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety for various campaigns such as Safe and Sober, Night Cap, Motorcycle Task Force, etc., for a period of three years; and

• Introduced an amendment to the city’s ordinance regarding taxi cab services.

The next regular City Council meeting will be held Monday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m., preceded by a 6:30 p.m. work session.