Tribune Opinion: Murdock City Council must learn from its poor virtual meeting
The Murdock City Council failed in their attempt at transparency during the council's meeting Wednesday when they made a decision on the conditional use permit for the Asatru Folk Assembly, an alleged white supremacist religious group, to use the abandoned Lutheran church it purchased as its third “hof” in the United States. The council did not hold a roll call vote as required by the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.
The Murdock City Council conducted a virtual meeting Wednesday with all members basically hidden due to the video option being turned off, council members not stating who was speaking or being heard sufficiently by the public, and, finally, failing to use roll call vote.
This all occurred while making a decision to approve a conditional use permit allowing an alleged white supremacist religious group, the Asatru Folk Assembly, to use the abandoned Lutheran church as its third “hof” in the United States. The group is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and faces significant resistance from town and area residents.
This was likely the most significant issue to come before the Murdock City Council in its 139-year history, but the public was basically left in the dark Wednesday night.
The Minnesota Open Meeting Law reads:
“A state entity may hold meetings by telephone or other electronic means as long as specified conditions are met to ensure openness and accessibility for those who wish to attend. …
In general, those conditions include the following:
All members of the body can hear one another and can hear all discussion and testimony.
Members of the public at the regular meeting location can hear all discussion, testimony, and votes.
At least one member of the body (or, in the case of a health pandemic or other emergency, the chief legal counsel or chief administrative officer) is present at the regular meeting location. ...
All votes are conducted by roll call. …”
The non-transparent Murdock City Council simply did not do so - either intentionally or unintentionally.
This Murdock City Council instead ended up hiding behind a no-video feed and avoided speaking clearly for the audio feed. And the public often could not hear what was said or knew who was speaking.
And the vote was not a roll call vote as required by statute.
And to make matters worse, the City Council’s action may have violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law or, at least, the spirit of the statute.
The City Council’s decision plus its non-transparent actions made news across the Midwest and the nation by the end of the week. It was not a good week for the City Council, the city of Murdock and its residents.
Mayor Craig Kavanagh stated at the beginning of the meeting that “we as leaders of the city of Murdock want people to know that we condemn racism in all forms.” We all agree with that position.
Granted, the Murdock City Council was between a rock and a hard place on the conditional use permit issue. The majority of city residents do not want the Asatru Folk Assembly in Murdock. And the council’s legal advice stated there was no evidence that the religious group’s use of the building would violate the city’s conditional use permit standards. Thus, if the city did reject the permit request, the City Council likely could face a lawsuit and significant legal costs for rejecting the group’s religious permit.
The conditional use permit for the Asatru Folk Assembly was approved by a 3-1 vote by the Murdock City Council.
Oh, Murdock City Attorney Don Wilcox told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis that council members “do not feel like they broke the law.” That does not mean that their actions did not break the law.
Certainly, the Murdock City Council failed to be fully transparent for the residents of Murdock, whom the council serves.
Kim Diederich, Murdock city clerk, later did publish the minutes of the meeting on Facebook, which stated Jim Diederich, Pat Thorson and Kelly Demuth voted yes to grant the church’s permit, while Steph Hoff voted against the permit.
"We apologize for the ineptness of it," Diederich told the West Central Tribune Friday in an email. "As far as the vote, all the members were present in the same room so (a) roll call vote was not needed, per our city attorney." That advice is not correct.
Most importantly, the Murdock City Council failed to keep its residents informed in a transparent and open meeting manner during its meeting Wednesday. That is very unfortunate and poor government.
The Asatru Folk Assembly is a very challenging situation for this small town city council and its community, which has resulted in significant negative publicity for the town. Hopefully, the Murdock City Council will learn from this poor meeting experience, gain a better understanding of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law and operate more transparently in the future.
This editorial is the opinion of the West Central Tribune Editorial Board, consisting of publisher Steve Ammermann and editor Kelly Boldan.