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State: Newport City Council violated open meeting law

The Newport City Council violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, a state agency concluded.

According to an advisory opinion issued Wednesday by the state Information Policy Analysis Division, the Newport City Council did not comply with the open meeting law when it failed to summarize the March 6 one-year performance evaluation of City Administrator Deb Hill at its next regular meeting, which was March 20.

IPAD, an office of the Minnesota Department of Administration, interprets questions surrounding the open meeting law and Minnesota Data Practices Act issues; its opinions are non-binding but can help clarify how public agencies and local governments must conduct business.

The state’s open meeting law requires elected officials to publicly summarize a closed-door performance review of a city administrator. It is the second time Newport council members did not summarize Hill’s evaluation. They also did not publicly summarize her six-month review in August 2013.

The IPAD opinion was requested by Newport resident and former City Council member Pauline Schottmuller, who has been critical of Mayor Tim Geraghty.

In a response to IPAD, City Attorney Fritz Knaak maintained the city acted legally.

Knaak said the city did not violate the law because the statute “does not define its use of the term ‘summarize,’ or what ‘conclusions’ must be reported.”

Knaak also said in the opinion that “no formal ‘conclusions’ of any kind” were found, therefore the city did not have to summarize the closed meeting.

However, Administration Commissioner Spencer Cronk disagreed.

In the published opinion, Cronk said while the law does not specifically define the word ‘conclusion,’ one was found. He said during the closed meeting, the council discussed Hill’s performance and, in doing so, “must have made judgements.” Regardless if the council decided to pursue any further action, Cronk said, “that itself is a conclusion which the council was required to summarize,” according to the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.

“I found it a little disappointing,” Knaak said of the IPAD opinion. “There is no definition of what a conclusion is therefore there would be no report coming back.”

Knaak, however, added that the opinion is “good advice,” specifically noting that the commissioner’s admittance to there being no specific definition of an appropriate conclusion could be basis for a new city policy.

“It could be an advantage in the future if the city were to create a policy to do conclusions,” Knaak said.

After the Bulletin reported on the council’s failure to summarize Hill’s evaluation, Geraghty briefly mentioned the evaluation at the April 3 council meeting and said that he simply forgot to provide a public summary.