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Editorial: Willmar, Minn., city, utilities officials should follow the rules

Mayor Frank Yanish and most of the Willmar City Council Monday night voiced their support of the Municipal Utilities Commission concerning the organization's operations and pending investigation of General Manager Bruce Gomm for "activities disruptive to utility operations."

They all may want to have the Utilities Commission get its own house in order by following the appropriate open meeting and data privacy laws of this state. Doing anything less continues to increase the legal liability of this city and endangers any related action and/or decisions the commission may take.

Our criticisms of the commission and the city here have nothing to do with any allegations against Gomm. Those issues still need to be investigated and appropriate action taken. Our concern here is with the increasingly poor actions by the commission and city officials in regards to the Gomm allegations.

If they question our concerns and don't think they are significant, the city may want to place a call to the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. This is the cooperative, member-owned organization that provides for the property, liability, workers' compensation and employee benefits needs for Willmar and other Minnesota cities.

First, the commission has held two closed meetings recently to address allegations about its general manager. Unfortunately, both meetings were closed improperly according to the state's Open Meeting Law. Also, in both meetings persons outside of the commission were allowed into the close meetings, which may have violated the Data Practices Act and, possibly, Gomm's individual rights under the Data Practices Act.

Under the Open Meeting Law (Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13D), all meetings of public bodies in Minnesota must be open to the public. There are specific regulations as to what meetings can be closed and specifically how they should be closed.

For the commission to close a meeting, it must explain what legal authority it has to close the meeting and describe what it will discuss at the closed meeting.

Witnesses at both public meetings do not remember any statute citation in the closed meeting motions. According to the commission's minutes of Oct. 11, Vice President Dave Baker's motion was "to close the meeting to discuss personnel issues." The Dec. 12 minutes state Baker's motion was "that the meeting be closed for preliminary consideration of possible misconduct of a utility employee or employees."

In both cases, the motions were poorly written and likely faulty, thus making both closed sessions likely illegal.

According to the Minnesota Department of Administration's website, the motions should have specifically cited the Minnesota statute under which the meeting was being closed and should have been specific as to the individual or individuals and topic to be discussed.

Second, the West Central Tribune has now learned that not only was the second closed meeting attended by non-commission members, but the first closed meeting in October was attended by non-commission members as well.

In the Dec. 12 closed meeting, the commission allowed Willmar City Council member Ron Christianson to attend the entire closed session considering Gomm's actions.

In the Oct. 11 closed meeting, the commission allowed Mayor Yanish to attend the entire closed session reviewing Gomm's "personnel matters."

Both actions may have violated portions of the Data Practices Act through inappropriate discussion of Gomm and/or other utilities employees' actions in front of non-commission members. Christianson or Yanish may have heard, discussed and/or even recommended action to the commission. Their mere presence in the meeting may have created a significant city liability.

"Just because you're a city official doesn't give you the right to see all the personnel data (of city employees)," said Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson. The Data Practicse Act specifically protects private personnel data.

"I don't believe that with regard to this independent city agency, that a (City Council member or mayor) has any right to the general manager's personnel data. ... The rule of thumb in Minnesota is 'need to know.'"

On another issue of concern, Baker told the Tribune last week that City Attorney Richard Ronning helped him write his motion to close the Dec. 12 meeting. In addition, Ronning was reportedly in attendance at both closed meetings when non-commission individuals were in attendance. We question Ronning's legal advice when these actions occurred. Is it not part of the city attorney's role to help keep city officials out of legal trouble and advise them on how to stay within the law?

These inappropriate and possible illegal actions should all be of serious concern to the city and all of its residents.

It is inappropriate and often illegal to just make up the rules as one goes along and to have city officials micromanaging within city government. Ignorance on the part of public officials and/or their employees is not a defense. All Willmar city officials and employees should know, understand and follow city procedures and state statutes. That does not seem to be happening in some cases recently.