Closed-session vote: School Board commits apparent Open Meeting Law violation discussing new school
WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board appears to have violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law in August when members voted on a motion during a closed meeting to discuss a land purchase.
WILLMAR - The Willmar School Board appears to have violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law in August when members voted on a motion during a closed meeting to discuss a land purchase.
The meeting on Aug. 10 was closed, as state law allows, to discuss negotiations for the purchase of land in southeastern Willmar for a new elementary school. Voters approved the new school in a bond referendum in May.
According to minutes from the Aug. 10 meeting, the board voted 7-0 on a motion to “re-design softball area within 20.81 acres and look at a second access.” The board also apparently decided when to have its next meeting about the land purchase before reopening the meeting.
The law does not allow a public body to make motions or vote on them during closed meetings, when the public can’t be there to witness it. They aren’t allowed to stray from the stated purpose of the meeting.
Board Chairwoman Liz VanDerBill said the board did vote on a motion, “erroneously.”
“I think it was intended as direction, versus a decision,” she said.
“We haven’t even decided where we are purchasing the land.”
Redesigning a softball area would not seem to be related to a land purchase, according to Mark Anfinson, a lawyer retained by the Minnesota Newspaper Association to speak on media law issues.
VanDerBill said the motion grew out of a discussion about how much land was needed for the school and adjacent facilities.
“It was part of the conversation of what we were going to be bidding for property, coming up with what we think is the right dollar amount and how much property we need to purchase, she added. “We’re just trying to do what’s best for our students and get the best piece of property at the right price.”
VanDerBill said she couldn’t answer a question about whether any of the board members knew they couldn’t vote in a closed meeting. She is in her third year on the board. She said she had some Minnesota School Boards Association training on the Open Meeting Law when she first joined the board, but that was the only time.
Board members’ tenures range from less than one year to about 15 years.
Superintendent Jeff Holm was at the Aug. 10 meeting, his second since moving to Willmar from North Dakota to join the district.
North Dakota’s open meeting laws are similar to Minnesota’s, he said. He had questions after the meeting and sought more information from the Minnesota School Boards Association.
“They can’t vote during a closed session,” and he has clarified that with board members since the Aug. 10 meeting, he said. Any vote taken during a closed meeting would be invalid, he added.
Holm said he believes the interest in details like softball fields was a sign of board members’ eagerness to get going on the new building.
“They would like to have walls going up any day,” he said. “I agree with them; I’d like to have things happening soon, too.”
However, discussions just began this summer about the new school’s design and location, he said. Groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for June 2016.
Anfinson said in an email, “Public bodies are rarely permitted to vote or take action in a closed meeting. … I don’t think there’s any doubt that the statute was violated.”
Discussing an apparently unrelated matter, voting on a motion and setting another meeting outside the public eye all reflect “an apparent lack of appreciation for the requirements of the OML,” Anfinson said, but scheduling the meeting is the lesser violation.