Secrecy breeds distrust

The meetings, held Jan. 3, Feb. 7, Feb. 15 and March 28, were closed to the public, according to Minnesota Statute 13D.05, Subd. 3(A). The statute states: “A public body may close a meeting to evaluate the performance of an individual who is subject to its authority. The public body shall identify the individual to be evaluated prior to closing a meeting.”

The problem is that the City Council, following these closed meetings, did not fulfill the second part of the statute, which says: “At its next open meeting, the public body shall summarize its conclusions regarding the evaluation.”

Upon learning of Fulton’s resignation, I wondered if it had anything to do with the meetings. In an interview, Fulton told staff writer Mehgan Lee that his resignation had nothing to do with the meetings. I wondered, though, why four meetings were necessary for a performance evaluation. I wanted to get the summary, which should have been presented publicly at the City Council’s next open meeting.

One problem with the statute is that the portion requiring a summary can be interpreted in different ways. Mayor Steve Larson, when asked about the meetings, told Lee that he was informed by the League of Minnesota Cities that all he needed to provide as a summary was that the meeting was a performance review of an employee, which we already knew because that was the information listed on the meeting agendas.

Not exactly sure how to proceed once denied information beyond what we already knew, I consulted our attorney to find out what information the City Council specifically needed to provide as a summary of the performance review.

He sent an advisory opinion to the Bulletin office from the Minnesota Department of Administration regarding a similar situation — a performance review of a superintendent — between a weekly newspaper and a school board. The opinion expressed what the nature of a summary, as stated in the statute, should include: “How a public body approaches the evaluation will determine exactly which data it should summarize. The public body should carefully review the specific points it established in reaching a conclusion about the performance evaluation. Clearly, the language of the Open Meeting Law indicates that the governing body ought to summarize each salient point of the evaluation so that the public is given the opportunity to get the best possible sense of the performance — good, bad, or indifferent — of the public employee.”

The situation between the newspaper and school board went further — to court — and the findings of the court concurred with the advisory opinion. It stated that the school board did not sufficiently summarize the evaluation.

The school board’s argument in this case was that “a public employee’s right to privacy outweighs a newspaper’s desire to publish details of a public employee’s private personnel data.”

The court’s response to that argument was that “the Board after the meeting would have been able to disclose the specific areas or topics mentioned without disclosing details or private data.”

The conclusion I reached from both the opinion and court ruling is that summarizing the meeting by saying it was “an evaluation of the city manager’s performance” is not sufficient.

Readers may ask, why do we care about this situation?

Well, while the evaluation may not have had anything to do with the city manager leaving his position, we don’t know if it was a factor because an adequate summary of the performance review has not been provided to us. The New Brighton council members owe an explanation to the taxpayers, who pay the city manager’s salary, and whose votes get them elected every four years.

And it is the newspaper’s job to keep the public informed, to shed light on the happenings at city hall, and to hold public officials accountable for their actions.

Once we, as the media, become lax in our job and stop pursuing what should be public information, we set a dangerous precedent that could be difficult to reverse, and, in turn, put the public at risk. Government officials can not pick and choose what to disclose; it is clearly stated in black and white in state laws.

If we did not feel the public had the right to know about the evaluation of the city manager, we would not pursue the matter. It would be much easier to turn a blind eye, but that would ignore our fundamental responsibility of keeping the public informed.

We will continue to pursue this issue and keep you, the readers, updated on our progress. And once we do receive an actual summary of the points of Fulton’s performance evaluation, we will bring that to you as well.

After all, it’s our job.

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