One of the main mantras taught in journalism classes is that reporters serve as government watchdogs.
This means reporters serve as the eyes and ears of citizens at government meetings whether it be at the school district, township, city, county, state or federal level. As watchdogs, reporters ensure elected officials don’t abuse their power and do follow the rules.
In the lakes area, we believe the rules haven’t been followed in at least two instances.
Both cases involve city councils and police chiefs. Both cases, we believe, involve abuses of the Open Meeting Law and Data Practices Act.
In Pequot Lakes, the city council terminated then-police chief Jerry Braam in September 2010 without giving a reason, saying the police chief was an at-will employee who could be terminated without a specific reason. Then-council member Tom Ryan cast the sole vote against the termination.
We, the public, never did learn why the police chief was fired. We at Echo Publishing maintained that terminating the police chief was a form of disciplinary action, which required the council to share its reasons for taking that action.
The city, however, claimed no disciplinary action was taken, maintaining, then, that it didn’t have to give a reason for the firing.
We continue to advocate that state statute clearly says that once an employee is fired, the information about the reasons for any disciplinary action are public.
In Nisswa, the city council recently offered police chief Craig Taylor a resignation agreement offering a year’s severance pay and benefits on the condition Taylor not reveal the agreement terms or disparage the council. If Taylor rejected the agreement, the council told him it planned to terminate his employment.
Taylor did reject the agreement, but — throwing a loop in the proceedings — the Bureau of Mediation Services in the meantime had received a petition for unionization among department heads. Thus, the city learned it couldn’t make any staffing changes until the petition is resolved.
Again, we maintain the city council violated state statute in several ways. First, it didn’t share that the police chief was the subject of a meeting that was closed for preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual or individuals subject to the public body’s authority and/or for preliminary consideration of whether to terminate a city employee or employees.
The Open Meeting Law states specifically in section 13D.01, subd. 3 that “Before closing a meeting, a public body shall state on the record the specific grounds permitting the meeting to be closed and describe the subject to be discussed.”
There are legal interpretations of this provision holding that “the subject to be discussed” includes the name of an employee or other person if the person is the topic of the closed meeting.
Then, the city didn’t disclose the police chief’s employment status when asked. Section 13.43, subd. 2(a)(4) of the Data Practices Act states that among the items of data about a government employee that are always public are “the existence and status of any complaints or charges against the employee, regardless of whether the complaint or charge resulted in a disciplinary action.”
And again, we don’t know the reasons the council had for seeking the chief’s resignation and for seeking to terminate him.
In this case, the termination didn’t occur, but it was intended.
Again, termination is nearly always a form of discipline, whether the employee is at will or not. So cities are obligated to provide the specific reasons if a termination occurs.
The taxpaying public deserves to know. We deserve elected officials who don’t ignore state statutes.