St. Cloud City Council vs. Minnesota Open Meeting Laws

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When the St. Cloud City Council voted to censure Councilman George Hontos, it may have violated Minnesota’s Open Meeting Laws. According to the article, “Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the law is clear that a public body cannot vote by secret ballot.”

Needless to say, the City offered a different perspective:

In an email to the Times on Wednesday, City Administrator Matt Staehling said he, City Attorney Renee Courtney and City Clerk Seth Kauffman consulted Robert’s Rules of Order before the vote on Monday. “We agreed that the guidance recommended (that) the subject of the censure does not participate in the vote but can participate in the discussion and debate (and) the ballot should be by confidential ballot,” Staehling stated.

Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful when the law isn’t clear. In this case, Minnesota’s Open Meeting Laws are quite clear, clear enough for the Minnesota Court of Appeals to render a decision:

Anfinson cites a decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in which the Mankato Free Press sued the city of North Mankato after the city refused to provide the names of job finalists for city administrator, conducted closed interviews with job finalists, and took a written straw vote to narrow the field of candidates; the results of that straw vote were not made public until later.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals wrote: “Secret voting denies the public an opportunity to observe the decision-making process, to know the council members’ stance on issues, and to be fully informed about the council’s actions.”

It’s one thing if the Council was voting to suspend a city employee. There are certainly times when a closed session would be required. Suspending or terminating an employee fits that situation. Telling a councilman that his First Amendment rights can be suspended by the government doesn’t fit that description.

Frankly, I want to know who voted that the City Council has the right to violate a person’s civil rights. Further, I want to know which jackasses voted to censure George Hontos. What Councilman Hontos did was entirely proper. City Council Rule No. 6, at least as much of it that is public, “states council members ‘respect the majority vote of the council, and do not undermine or sabotage implementation of ordinances, policies and rules passed by the majority.'”

That rule isn’t enforceable because it precludes a City Council member from representing his constituents by limiting his speech. How can any representative of the people effectively represent his/her constituents if he can’t voice his/her opinion on matters that’ve come before the board/legislature he/she serves on? That part of Rule No. 6 needs to be abolished because it’s unconstitutional.

Here’s the First Amendment’s text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

How can the government stifle a person’s right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances”? The idea that the City Council insists that its members “respect the majority vote of the council” sounds nice but it doesn’t respect the rights afforded to the people by the Bill of Rights.

It’s more than a little frightening to think that St. Cloud’s lawmakers are this constitutionally illiterate. What’s encouraging is that Councilman Hontos has stated on the record for LFR that he “will continue to represent the constituents of St. Cloud as [he has] been doing for 18 years.” As long as Councilman Hontos keeps fighting for these principles, I’ll keep voting for him.