City council members fined for violations
MINNESOTA — Four members of the Hibbing City Council, including the mayor, must pay hundreds of dollars in fines and attorneys fees for violating the state’s open meetings law, the state’s appeals court ruled in late October.
However the court rejected an appeal by several of the town’s residents that the officials should be removed from office for repeated violations of the law.
Minnesota law allows a city to indemnify its officers for fines where the court finds, as it did here, that a violation was not in bad faith. The court fined each councilman $100 for each breach and $700 in attorneys fees. The councilmen are personally liable for the attorneys fees.
The council closed five meetings from January through April 1991 for the announced purpose of discussing negotiations with city employee unions, in line with an exception to the open meeting law that allows labor negotiation discussions to be held in executive session.
Several members of the local unions believed that the council members had discussed other issues such as privatizing the city’s water plant, discussions the open meetings law required to be held in public.
In June 1992 they asked the state district court in Hibbing to fine the council members and to remove them from office.
The court looked at minutes of the closed meetings, which showed that although the main topic of the closed meetings was labor negotiations, council members had discussed a wide range of topics at the meetings. Two council members admitted violating the law and paid $200 fines. Four others told the court the discussions were incidental.
The trial court levied fines for each “intentional” violation. The court excused new council members from one to three meetings saying they should have some time in office to become familiar with the law. The court refused to remove any of the council members from office. Both sides appealed.
The court of appeals affirmed the district court on each issue in late October.
(Claude v. Collins; Counsel: Roger Aronson, Minneapolis)