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Meeting on Willmar, Minn., utility GM may have violated Open Meeting Law

WILLMAR -- When the Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission closed its meeting Monday to discuss possible misconduct by General Manager Bruce Gomm, it may have violated the Open Meeting Law in two ways.

The commission may not have had proper grounds to close the meeting at all -- especially in light of a request prior to the meeting that Gomm submit his resignation.

Second, Gomm was not asked Monday during the regular meeting if he wanted the discussion to be conducted in open session -- an option the state's Open Meeting Law provides.

The motion Monday by Vice President Dave Baker to close the meeting read: "I'd like to make the motion that the meeting now be closed for preliminary consideration of possible misconduct of a utility employee or employees.''

The motion was approved on a voice vote, and the members left the auditorium for a conference room. Gomm remained in the auditorium.

When commission members came out of the closed session, they voted 6-1 on a motion made by Baker to place Gomm on paid administrative leave while the commission, according to Baker, investigates activities disruptive to utility operations. Voting in favor were Baker, Commission President Doug Lindblad and commissioners Marv Kray, Steve Salzer, Matt Schrupp and Dan Holtz. Only commissioner Jerry Gesch voted against placing Gomm on leave.

The Open Meeting Law requires that meetings of government bodies are open to the public with limited, specific exemptions spelled out in statute. Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson described the "preliminary consideration" exemption that Baker cited in his motion as a "probable cause" type of discussion when a board may need to sort out the facts of a situation before any determination has been made about alleged misconduct.

The employee that is the subject of the discussion, however, has the right to choose for it to be conducted in open session.

Gomm told the Tribune on Tuesday that he met privately with Lindblad and Baker on Monday prior to the commission's scheduled meeting. Gomm said he was asked by Baker to resign. Gomm further said that Baker told him if he did not resign, it would get messy and the commission would move for a closed meeting to address the issues.

Gomm said he told them he not resign and that he then told Lindblad and Baker that he wanted any meeting concerning his own personnel issues to be open to the public.

Baker says that is not the case, and that Gomm did not say he wanted the session open.

"He did have the option of keeping an open meeting,'' Baker said Tuesday.

In any case, the question should have been raised during the open session of the meeting prior to going into closed session. It was not -- a fact confirmed Tuesday by both Gomm and Baker.

The closed meeting was apparently recorded as required by Minnesota statutes. Gomm has requested a copy of the closed meeting session from MUC officials. The Tribune has received his permission to review that recording and is seeking access in order to determine whether the discussion reflects proper closure of the meeting.

Anfinson said it would be a clear violation of the Open Meeting Law if members made up their minds about the alleged misconduct in a closed meeting.

While a decision to place an employee on leave for an investigation would be consistent with giving preliminary consideration to allegations, there are many other factors that make Anfinson "profoundly skeptical" that the closed meeting was strictly for preliminary consideration, asking Gomm to resign earlier in the day would be chief among them.

"There is reason to be skeptical as to what really happened in that (closed) meeting," Anfinson said, "and that warrants some further inquiry."

The recording of the meeting would be the only way to reveal that, and the Tribune is pursuing that.

Tribune reporter David Little contributed to this story.

Susan Lunneborg
Susan Lunneborg is news editor of the West Central Tribune. She joined the staff in Willmar in 1999 and has been a newspaper journalist for more than 20 years. She can be reached directly at the email linked here, but for the most timely response, please send news releases to the Tribune's general news email:
(320) 235-1150