A quorum of Stillwater Area school board members was present at a committee meeting last week, leading to questions if the board complied with the Open Meeting Law.
The board’s Finance and Operations Committee, an advisory group made of three board members to provide consultation and perspective regarding district financial decisions before presentation to the entire school board, met at Central Services Thursday, Aug. 29.
All three committee members attended including Director Liz Weisberg, who is the committee chairperson, as well as Directors Mark Burns and Shelley Pearson. Additionally, Director Tina Riehle attended and sat in the audience.
Four board members is a quorum — a majority needed for the school board to vote — but lawyers’ interpretations of the Open Meeting Law differ on what constitutes proper notice of a meeting in this case as well as whether or not a fourth board member can participate at a committee meeting as an audience member.
In video of the meeting, Riehle asks Stillwater Area Public Schools Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel a question.
“I got to be honest, you’re making me a little nervous because now I have four board members,” Hoheisel said.
“It’s open meeting,” Riehle responded.
“Yeah but you’re speaking,” Hoheisel said. “I’m just saying, I get nervous.”
At the meeting, Riehle also discussed how an expenditure and programming form she made could help make board approval of expenses more efficient. Riehle said she attended the meeting to be available for questions about that form, which she designed to help the board maintain a sustainable budget. Riehle added she attended all legal trainings the previous school board went through prior to taking office.
“I would never have attended a meeting that wasn’t open and public and posted,” Riehle said.
The school district’s attorney Maggie Wallner said via email Riehle did not violate the open meeting law.
“A meeting of a quorum or more of Board members, that is properly noticed and open to the public, does not violate the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. Any statement that such situations violate the law is incorrect,” Wallner said.
In the notice for the working group meeting, it does not state that a quorum of the full school board may be present.
Wallner also said Minnesota’s open meeting law does not require that a notice of a meeting include the names of the board members who will or will not attend.
“Nor does the law require that the notice state whether a quorum will be present at a particular meeting,” Wallner said.
Mark Anfinson, the attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said if the open meeting law was triggered by the Riehle’s involvement at the meeting, then it would be considered a meeting of the full board.
“Since the meeting didn’t occur at the same time and place as regular board meetings do, it would be defined as a special meeting, which requires separate notice,” Anfinson said.
Anfinson added board members can attend committees as an observer without violating the open meeting law.
If a board member participated in the committee meeting “to some extent,” a quorum of the full school board was engaged, he said. Anfinson said it was impossible to be certain that a violation occurred, but he suspected a judge would weigh their decision on how much Riehle participated in the meeting.
“There’s no doubt that the additional member’s action placed her and the committee in the Twilight Zone,” Anfinson said. “If it doesn’t amount to a violation of the Open Meeting Law, it comes pretty close.”
In Minnesota, the State Supreme Court case “Moberg v. I.S.D. 281” provides case law defining open meetings. In the case, the court defines the role of the public body in a meeting “to persuade each other in an attempt to resolve issues,” instead of arriving at consensus on an issue prior to an open meeting.
“We therefore hold that ‘meetings’ subject to the requirements of the Open Meeting Law are those gatherings of a quorum or more members of the governing body ... at which members discuss, decide, or receive information as a group on issues relating to the official business of that governing body,” the case states.
According to Minnesota’s open meeting law, the consequence for an intentional violation could include up to a $300 civil penalty. If a person intentionally violates the law in three or more legal actions involving the same governmental body, they forfeit the right to serve for a period of time equal to their term — four years for the school board.
Riehle added while Finance and Operations and Community Engagement committee meetings are open to the public, each committee chairperson decides if the audience can ask questions or make comments.
“It’s up to the board chair if they want to be open to communication,” Riehle said.
Contact Kim Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org