If any public body ought to comply with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, it should be the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority (CRA). But it doesn’t.
The CRA was formed in part because of the lack of transparency and accountability in the Internal Affairs Unit of the Minneapolis Police Department. Two recent events demonstrate the CRA Board’s willingness to operate in secret and to flout the open meeting requirement as well as the ordinance that created the CRA.
First, on October 16, 2010, the CRA Board had scheduled a day-long Board retreat. The retreat, which had been several months in the planning, had previously been scheduled for August. The August retreat was announced on the CRA website and members of the public were invited to observe the proceedings. The re-scheduled October retreat was not similarly announced and was not open to the public. I tried to inform the CRA four days before the scheduled retreat that it ought to be open — notice to the public must occur three days before public meetings — but I was unsuccessful.
Several outside speakers were invited to this retreat, and it was clear by who they were and by statements from Board members during the previous monthly Board meetings that this retreat had to be open to the public. The Board was going to be discussing matters of substance that were currently facing or that might come before the Board. I sent an email to the Board, referring them to a November 2008 Information Brief of the Research Department of the Minnesota House of Representatives (http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/openmtg.pdf): “The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that the open meeting law applies to all gatherings of members of a governing body, regardless of whether or not action is taken or contemplated. Thus a gathering of members of a public body for an informational seminar on matters currently facing the body or that might come before the body must be conducted openly.” (St. Cloud Newspapers, Inc. v. District 742 Cmty. Schools, 332 N.W.2d 1 (Minn. 1983).
And lo and behold, the day before the scheduled retreat, Board Chair Don Bellfield cancelled it. Of course, he gave some manufactured reason for the cancellation — something about some requested additional agenda items by Board members — but it was clear to everyone that the real reason was the violation of the Open Meeting Law.
Then on November 3, 2010, the Board again defied the Open Meeting Law. Frequently, at its monthly meetings, the Board opens the meeting, approves the agenda, and then immediately closes the meeting to deal with matters required by law to be dealt with in closed session. After concluding the closed portion of the meeting, the portion open to the public resumes. At least for the last 17 months, whenever the closed portion was completed before 6:30 p.m., the Board would take a recess until 6:30 before resuming the open meeting. That way the public would know when to arrive and not miss any part of the meeting.
Unannounced, that practice was discontinued on November 3. The Board’s monthly meeting, announced to begin at 5:30 p.m., was closed shortly after that time. The open portion of the meeting was resumed at 5:55 p.m. Members of the public who were aware of the Board’s previous practice were in effect kept out of the meeting. The Board was essentially saying to the public: “If you want to attend our meetings, come at 5:30 p.m., wait sometimes for an hour or more while we meet in closed session, and then you will be able to observe our meeting, as prescribed by the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.” (There have in fact been times when the closed portion of the meeting has gone 15 or 20 minutes past the normal 6:30 time for resumption of the open meeting.)
The CRA ordinance itself requires “a regularly scheduled time” for the Board’s monthly meetings. Because the closed portion of the meeting precedes the open portion, the Board has tried to estimate how long the closed session will last. That has meant that meetings have been scheduled to begin at 5:30, at 6:00 and at 6:30, clearly not regularly scheduled times.
By resuming the open portion of the meeting at a regularly scheduled time, the Board had previously been complying with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law and the CRA ordinance. That no longer is the case.
The CRA Board, a public body that especially ought to value openness, has recently clearly demonstrated an attitude of “the public be damned.” Call the CRA at 612-673-5500 and let its Board know how inappropriate this attitude is for an agency established to bring greater transparency.