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Newport council twice did not make state-required public comments

A recent oversight by the Newport City Council raised questions about an apparent open meeting law violation involving City Administrator Deb Hill’s performance evaluation.

The city’s elected officials failed to provide a public summary of Hill’s one-year job review during the March 20 regular council meeting, when state law specifies it should have been summarized. It’s the second time the council did not summarize a Hill review as state law requires, and a similar action by another local elected body two years ago drew a rebuke from state officials who review open meeting complaints.

Hill’s evaluation was listed on the March 6 regular council meeting agenda and council member Tom Ingemann, filling in for Mayor Tim Geraghty, announced that there would be a closed meeting to conduct the evaluation, as is allowed under state law.

However, the Minnesota Open Meeting Law also states: “The public body must summarize the conclusions of the evaluation at its next open meeting.”

March 20 was the council’s next regular open meeting. No summary of Hill’s March 6 evaluation was provided.

“I just completely forgot,” Geraghty said in an interview.

Geraghty, who was out of town during the March 6 meeting, said he knew the closed meeting would occur during his absence and gave the council the green light to conduct the evaluation.

“I did complete the (evaluation) form and I did give it to her and talked with her individually, so she had my feedback,” Geraghty said.

This is the second time Newport city officials neglected to provide a brief summary of Hill’s performance evaluation at its next regular meeting. Her six-month evaluation, conducted on Aug. 1, 2013, was not summarized publicly at the Aug. 15, 2013, meeting.

Attorney Mark Anfinson, who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association and is considered an expert on issues relating to the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, said the city’s failure to provide a summary is a violation of the law.

“It’s very clear under the law, specifically under the open meeting law, and under advisory opinions issued by the state, that a summary is supposed to be provided at the next open session of the council,” Anfinson explained. “So if that doesn’t happen, it’s pretty clear that it does not comply with the law.”

Anfinson said while the infraction is minor, what is more questionable is the number of times it has occurred.

“If they simply don’t comply within a significant amount of time, it begs the question as to what is going on,” he said, adding repeated offenses could be grounds for the issuance of an opinion from the state’s Department of Administration.

“There is also the issue of magnitude,” he said. “If you don’t provide the summary at the very next meeting, it’s not a huge problem if you provide it a week or several weeks later. But it’s not hard to do in the first place.”

Geraghty said the council would speak about the evaluation at its Thursday, April 3, meeting.

Hill said she felt the most recent evaluation went well and that she enjoys her job.

“I think we’re satisfied with her performance,” Geraghty echoed.

Newport City Attorney Fritz Knaak did not return calls for comment on the timing of the evaluation summaries.

It’s not the first time local elected officials were tripped up by the state open meeting law.

In 2012, the South Washington County School Board conducted a performance evaluation for then-Superintendent Mark Porter. The evaluation was given during a workshop prior to the Dec. 15, 2012, meeting but was not discussed at the regular meeting later that evening.

The Bulletin requested an opinion from the state office that reviews open meeting law complaints. The Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division concluded that the School Board had violated the open meeting law.