Thursday, April 10, 2014

Research Q of the Week: How About a Little Sunshine? (4/10)

Question: I know that sunshine laws require government to be transparent and open to the public most of the time. What are the exceptions?

Answer: Spring is finally here and we could all use a little sunshine! Lucky for those in Minnesota cities, "sunshine" is also part of good government. The Open Meeting Law is a “sunshine law” that promotes public access to government decision-making.  It generally requires city meetings to be open to the public, and applies to city council regular and special meetings, work sessions, executive sessions, and public hearings. By requiring that city meetings be open to the public, the Open Meeting Law ensures the public’s right to be informed of city actions, detect improper influence, and present its views to the city.

Ahhh, sunshine feels good, doesn’t it?

But there a few times when closing a meeting is called for by law, and it’s important to know when that is. The Minnesota Legislature has identified certain limited instances when closing a meeting may be necessary. A meeting must be open to the public unless there is specific statutory authority allowing the city council to close a meeting. 

City council meetings must be closed:

  • for preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual subject to its authority.
  • to discuss certain information pertaining to crime victims.
  •  to discuss active investigation data.
  •  to discuss internal affairs data relating to allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct.
  •   to discuss educational, health, medical, welfare, or mental health data that is not public.  

City council meetings may be closed:

  •  to evaluate the performance of an individual who is subject to its authority.
  •  to consider strategy for labor negotiations under the Minnesota Public Employer Labor Relations Act.
  • for attorney-client privileged communications.
  •   to determine the asking price for real or personal property to be sold by the government entity.
  •  to review confidential or protected nonpublic appraisal data; or
  •  to develop or consider offers or counteroffers for the purchase or sale of real or personal property.
  •  to receive and discuss security briefings and reports if disclosure of the information discussed would pose a danger to public safety or compromise security procedures or responses.

A city council meeting can only be closed if one of these exceptions to the Open Meeting Law applies.

But first ...
Before closing a meeting the council must state on the record the specific grounds permitting the meeting to be closed and describe the subject to be discussed.  Except for meetings closed for attorney-client privileged communications, all closed meetings must be electronically recorded. Unless otherwise provided by law, the recording must be preserved for at least three years after the meeting. The city council should consult the city attorney prior to closing a meeting.

For more information on the Open Meeting Law see the League of Minnesota Cities informational memo on Meetings of City Councils or contact the LMC Research Department (research@lmc.org).   
 This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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