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Newspaper loses challenge against closed city council meeting

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Freedom of Information         May 11, 2001    

Newspaper loses challenge against closed city council meeting

  • According to the state appeals court, a mayor properly invoked an exemption to the open meeting law to privately discuss the potential of a lawsuit against the city.

A Minnesota newspaper lost its legal challenge of a city council’s decision to close a discussion of what it determined was a threat of litigation against the city. The Minnesota Court of Appeals on April 17 said the Prior Lake City Council properly exercised an exemption to the state open meeting law to exclude the public from its deliberations.

Last February, the mayor moved to close a city council meeting in order to discuss an application for a conditional land use permit. Four members of the city’s five-seat council believed an applicant’s comment alluding to legal action was sufficient for it to invoke an exception to the state’s open meetings law that allows for closed discussion of information protected by the attorney-client privilege. In its application for a mining permit, Ryan Contracting wrote that it “may seek legal action to ensure proper handling” of its application.

The city’s newspaper, Prior Lake American, promptly challenged the meeting’s closure in county court, which ruled that the council had properly invoked the litigation exemption to the open records law. The newspaper appealed.

A majority of the three-judge appeals panel found that the “threat” of potential litigation sufficiently triggered the attorney-client privilege exception because the city needed “timely advice on the legal rights, obligations and potential liabilities of the city.”

However, in a lengthy dissent, Judge Gary Crippen stressed that discussions falling within the attorney-client privilege must involve “legal strategy or the negotiation of a settlement of adverse claims,” not simply the proper manner of “handling” a permit application. Crippen noted that the Supreme Court of Minnesota has said in similar cases that it would not tolerate a “blind application of the attorney-client privilege” without any deference to the First Amendment. Crippen also warned that extending the privilege to include discussions like the one by the Prior Lake counsel would “render ineffective the state statute, offend a vital constitutional guarantee, and undermine the democratic character of state and local government.”

(Prior Lake American v. Mader; Media Council Mark Anfinson, Minneapolis) CC

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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