NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MINNESOTA · Freedom of Information · Oct. 27, 2005
County officials sanctioned for open meetings violations
Oct. 27, 2005 · What started as a small-town land-use dispute among neighbors led to a rare court finding of open meeting violations by one neighbor who, along with two other county officials, held secret meetings to discuss the property-related issues.
Cannon Falls Township Supervisors Gary Hovel and Keith Mahoney along with former supervisor Lawrence D. Johnson were personally fined for eight violations of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law after a state district judge in Red Wing found that they intentionally broke the law eight times in 2002 when the board met to discuss issues related to the land dispute between Hovel and his neighbor Robert Banks. The two were removed from their positions and may not serve again for three years. Johnson, whose term had since expired, also is precluded from seeking a seat for three years. Hovel was fined a total of $2,400 and Mahoney and Lawrence were each fined $1,600.
Judge Thomas W. Bibus found that the supervisors were “fully aware” of the land dispute issues between Hovel and Banks, and because of that took actions “limiting public comment and access to information” at the eight 2002 meetings.
Banks had requested a permit to build closer to his property line than allowed by law and sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors asking for advance notice of meetings that would discuss related issues, according to his attorney, David Hvistendahl. Once a permit is requested, notice is required under the state’s open meeting law. Hovel operated a feedlot on his adjacent property, and was also interested in a variance permit, according to court documents. The opinion cites a Cannon Falls Beacon article noting that the public’s perception was that the first to be granted the permit — either the feedlot or the homebuilder — would set precedent for future permits. When Banks and another neighbor, Kenneth Brown, learned that the supervisors met without notifying them, they sued the individuals as well as the township for violating the law.
The eight meetings in question, from June to December 2002, were technically open to the public, but because they were held without notice, in effect they were closed, Bibus ruled. Some of the meetings “directly impacted” Banks’ property, Bibus wrote, calling it “highly suspicious” that the board ignored Banks’ notice request. The court found that the intentional violations “constituted nonfeasance of office, and ultimately misfeasance of office,” and sanctioned the supervisors for their actions — a rare occurrence in cases of open meetings violations. The opinion dismissed the township as an improper party under the law.
“We were surprised because it is a rare remedy,” Hvistendahl said. “It was certainly deserved in this case. It took a lot of courage on the part of the judge to reach that conclusion, certainly it was justified.” Cannon Falls Township is a rural area with a small population, he said, making the issue one the town intently followed. “The whole thing was very divisive. It all gets down to money.”
(Brown v. Cannon Falls Twp.; Requester’s counsel: David Hvistendahl, Northfield, Minn.) — CZ