There seems to be no end to the rationalizations public bodies use when they want to ignore rules related to public information and open meetings.
A recent MinnPost story detailed a case of the Minneapolis school board changing a public meeting to a closed meeting so members could “speak freely” while learning to work together.
Isn’t that nice?
Board members asserted that they would not be discussing district business during this closed meeting.
Instead, they were just getting to know each other, during what Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon called “leadership capacity building.”
The Minneapolis board sought advice from its legal counsel. Justification for the closed meeting was based largely on an earlier closed meeting of the St. Paul Board of Education.
It is important to note that in the St. Paul case, the board had hired an outside facilitator for a training session, and the meeting included union leaders and school administrators.
The presence of an outside facilitator seems likely to at least reduce the potential for board members to discuss official business during the meeting.
In Minneapolis, the excuse seems to have been that the board simply couldn’t get along, and they wanted to get to know each other.
The language some of the board members used in the Minneapolis case is troubling.
One member said experience has shown that having these types of conversations in public can deter board members from fully engaging.
She further noted that there was a fear that people wouldn’t be comfortable enough to be open and honest in any discussion.
Another member noted that the type of “relationship work” being undertaken by the board would be hard or impossible to do in the public eye.
A couple thoughts emerge, based on the situation in Minneapolis.
First, if people are uncomfortable doing their jobs and speaking in a public setting, perhaps they do not belong on a public board.
No one is suggesting it’s easy to take a stand under the scrutiny of constituents, but this openness is at the core of the system.
Second, if we allow public bodies to close meetings any time they discuss something that may be uncomfortable or controversial, it won’t be long before there are no more open meetings.
There are a number of clear exceptions to the open meeting law that allow public bodies to meet in private based on specific situations, but the convenience of the members is not one of them.
When public bodies ask the public to trust them not to do anything improper or illegal behind closed doors, a wise observer will remain skeptical.
If meetings are open and transparent, as they should be, public bodies may still do things they ought not do, but at least the public will have an opportunity to hear the discussion, and that is a crucial point.