An Opinion on the Open Meeting Law

I met with Dr. Richardson this afternoon so that he could share with me a written opinion from the school district’s attorney on two issues:

  1. Is it permissible, under the Open Meeting Law, for a School Board member to write a blog?
  2. Is it permissible, under the Open Meeting Law, for the Superintendent to meet individually with Board members prior to a Board meeting?

To both of these questions, the Minnesota School Boards Association had responded cautiously, expressing the opinion that both blogging and individual meetings between Board members and the Superintendent could possibly lead to violations of the Open Meeting Law.

The attorney’s opinion adds nuance to this cautious interpretation.

First, it’s important to consider what constitutes a “meeting” under the Open Meeting Law. Here, the definition was set by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Moberg v. Independent School District No. 281 (Minn. 1983), which defined a meeting as “a gathering of a quorum or more members of the governing body…at which members discuss, decide, or receive information as a group on issues relating to the official business of that governing body.”

In the case of blogging, it would seem permissible as long as a quorum is avoided, which can be done by moderating comments on the blog and preventing a discussion among Board members in the comments thread. No other Board members have commented on my blog, and I will not allow such comments.

In the case of individual meetings between Board members and the Superintendent, it would seem permissible as long as neither the Superintendent nor the Board members use those meetings to make decisions or form a consensus. The Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) of the Minnesota Department of Administration issued an opinion in 2009 (IPAD Advisory Opinion 09-020) which states: “It seems reasonable that one-way communication between the chair and members of a public body is permissible, such as when the chair or staff sends meeting materials via email to all board members, as long as no discussion or decision-making ensues.”

As an extension of this, it would seem reasonable for the Superintendent and individual Board members to meet to review the meeting agenda. It would be questionable if the Superintendent were to use those meetings share the opinions of other Board members, and to line up votes for his position. But in my experience, the meetings with Dr. Richardson are purely to review the agenda and to provide Board members with information to enable them to make informed decisions.

My intention as a School Board member is to serve the best interests of the Northfield community and of the students in the Northfield Public Schools, as openly and as collaboratively as possible. If I meet individually with the Superintendent, I am always willing to make the content of those meetings public. I’m always willing to have an independent observer present at those meetings.

We will serve our students better if we can work together in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Please work with me to ensure that this is the case.

Note: The attorney’s opinion is summarized here, rather than quoted verbatim.

One thought on “An Opinion on the Open Meeting Law

  1. Rob,

    Here’s the issue I have with the individual meetings between the superintendent and school board members:

    There is a very fine line between “giving information’ and ‘advocacy.’ Indeed, in my opinion, the superintendent has repeatedly crossed that line in several instances wherein he says he’s ‘only’ giving information. The calendar proposal was framed by him as a ‘balanced’ calendar proposal (implying it was better than the current, presumably ‘unbalanced’ one); ‘information’ about proposed levy votes includes threats of possible cuts that have the effect of scaring parents into positive votes.

    Moreover, it would appear from the lack of substantive discussion at most school board meetings (prior to your arrival) that board members WERE and ARE making up their minds in those individual meetings (present company excepted, as evidenced from the video of the last meeting). And, since these meetings aren’t public, there’s nothing to prevent at least some of those meetings from turning into strategy sessions about how to quiet opposition (i.e., us peasant parents who are arrogant enough to think we should get a voice in educational decisions affecting our kids).

    So I would say, if the board members want public trust, they are going to have to work harder to EARN it. A start would be to automatically publish (post) the full annotated agenda and packet each Friday afternoon. And then to stop the individual meetings. Board members should be capable of forming their own opinions from the information provided without having Dr. Richardson ‘explain’ to them what they should think.

    Less efficient? Yes. More transparent? Damn, skippy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s