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Willmar, Minn., city attorney reviews Open Meeting Law with Municipal Utilities Commission

WILLMAR -- Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission members received a training session Monday from City Attorney Robert Scott on best practices for compliance with Minnesota's Open Meeting Law.

Scott is with the St. Paul law firm of Flaherty & Hood, which the Willmar City Council selected to provide legal advice after Rich Ronning retired as city attorney at end of March after many years of service.

Scott said his law firm frequently provides Open Meeting Law training to the city councils, boards and commissions that the law firm works.

Scott said he has not seen any problems with Willmar Utilities compliance with the Open Meeting Law. He's been attending the twice-monthly commission meetings since April.

"I did not ask to give this presentation because I have any problems with anything I have observed,'' Scott said. "I am not aware of any violations since I've been involved with the commission. This is just something we do occasionally with the city and the municipal organizations we work with.''

Scott said the purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to shine a light on government operations.

"It requires public bodies to publish or otherwise provide advance notice of meetings where it's going to conduct public business and designed to allow the public to attend every public meeting where public business is conducted,'' said Scott.

"The whole purpose is to prevent any secret meetings, to allow the public to observe the decision making process of their public bodies,'' he said.

Scott said a meeting is defined as a quorum or more of a public body where public business is conducted. A quorum is defined as a majority of officers or members of a body that when duly assembled is legally competent to transact business.

Scott said the law broadly defines which public bodies are subject to the law. Just about every body of any sort that conducts government business at the state or local level is subject to the law, such as city councils, utility commissions, and other committees, boards and commissions.

Some are not covered, such as ad hoc advisory committees, subcommittees or work groups containing less than a quorum of the public body; committees that only have the power to recommend; and non-standing committees without a regular meeting date and time.

He said the best practice if a quorum of commissioners might attend a social gathering is to liberally provide notice that a quorum or more is likely to attend and that commissioners are not to discuss utility business at unnoticed or chance gatherings.

He said the law provides instances when meetings are required to be closed or may be closed, but notice of the closed meeting is required and the public body must make a statement on record as to the authority that permits a closed meeting and describes the subject to be discussed.

Penalties include a $300 fine (not to be paid by the city or utility) for intentional violation. Three intentional violations result in forfeiture of office. Scott said violations create bad public relations and increase scrutiny from the public and media.

Scott was asked if interviews with general manager candidates can be closed, referring to a search for a new general manager.

Scott said interviews conducted by the full commission must be done in open meeting. "Whoever the commission wants to interview as a full commission, that interview would have to be publically noticed and it would have to be open to the public,'' he said.

In other business, Planning Committee Chair Steve Salzer reported a pilot water treatment plant will be delivered to the utility as part of a three-phase project to improve the quality of water delivered to utility customers.

Carollo Engineers of Walnut Creek, Calif., has specially-built a miniature version of proposed, large-scale treatment equipment for Willmar. During a nine-month period, the pilot plant will monitor the presence of iron, manganese, ammonia and total organic carbon in the water.

These compounds pose significant operational difficulties now and also create byproduct compounds that are not currently regulated but will be regulated in the foreseeable future, according to Bart Murphy, director of water and district heating for the utility.

Carollo will use the monitoring results to develop design criteria for a proposed new treatment system. At the end of the nine-month study period, Carollo will deliver preliminary design and cost estimates that the commissioners can consider if they choose to move forward with the project.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150