The public’s input and its knowledge of the basis for the decisions of its elected officials lie at the heart of a constitutional government. Public input was denied on May 8, 2018, during a closed meeting of the Edina school board when it met to determine the fate of one of its members, Sarah Patzloff.
Patzloff was facing disciplinary action by the board after she exercised her First Amendment right by posting a comment on social media. Word of her impending removal spread like wildfire through the community, who quickly organized on her behalf.
Dozens of concerned citizens and parents descended upon the Edina Community Center wearing professionally made “We Are Sarah” T-shirts emblazoned with her photo. Large banners bearing her image were paraded through the hallways. This group of exuberant supporters surprised board members as well as the attorney for the district, foiling their plans for her removal. Over the course of a five hour meeting, Sarah sat sequestered in a room, isolated and alone from the very board she was elected to serve. Board members stalled in hopes that the group of supporters would grow weary. Comments seen on The Deplorable Housewives of the Midwest Facebook live indicate that community members who arrived late were unable to enter the building; locked out and unable to participate.
According to Minnesota Statute, 13D.05, Subd. 3(a), meetings may be closed under the Open Meetings Law (OML) for a very limited number of specific reasons.
Germaine to this matter, meetings may be closed “to evaluate the performance of an individual who is subject to its authority.” Students and employees are subject to the authority of the school board. The board has every right to have a closed meeting when discussing the termination of an employee or the expulsion of a student. Sarah Patzloff is not subject to the authority of the board because she is an elected member according to State law. Sequestering Sarah in a room by herself is in direct violation of OML. The board cannot make a decision outside of the law to close a meeting simply because it wishes to do so.
Minn. Stat. 130.06, Subd. 1, provides that personal liability penalties may be imposed against “any person who intentionally violates this chapter … “The liability of a person violating the OML is “in the form of a civil penalty in an amount not to exceed $300 for a single occurrence, which may not be paid by the public body.” The Court may also award reasonable costs, disbursements and attorney’s fees to any party in an action under the OML statute.
Moberg v. Independent School Dist. No. 281,336 N.W.2d 510,517 (Milll1. 1983), determined that The OML “was enacted to prevent public bodies from dissolving into executive session on important but controversial matters, and to insure that the public has an opportunity both to detect improper influences and to present its views.” Moberg states that in formulating a definition of what “meetings” must remain open for public viewing, “the public’s right to be informed must be balanced against the public’s right to the effective and efficient administration of public bodies.” The general rule is “… open meeting statutes should be construed most favorably to the public.” Locking the doors of the Edina Community Center and preventing the public from viewing the meeting was a clear violation of state statute.
A landmark decision in 2016 found that officials in the city of Victoria committed 38 OML violations. The summary judgement by District Court Judge Janet Cain, leveled a total of $7,800 in personal fines against Victoria city council members. Judge Cain stated in the judgement summary that, “The Defendants profess their ignorance of the OML to a degree this Court finds shameful with regard to their duty to the public,” and “Defendants claim the OML is somehow unclear and overly technical. There is no justification for this argument. All meetings of the public body are to remain open, with certain specifically defined exceptions.”
Sarah Patzloff and the people of Edina were not equipped with knowledge of the law and are therefore encouraged to seek legal council to litigate these alleged allegations of violations of Minnesota Open Meeting Laws. Community members should not be “locked out” and unable to participate in a school board meeting nor should those they elect to duly serve them.
May 8, 2018 Edina School Board meeting video: