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Transparency? Our view – Meetings should be open for all

City elected officials typically love to profess their belief in transparency, the idea that government and the decisions elected council members and commissioners make is conducted in the bright light of day for all to see and learn from. It is, after all, a basic concept, an easy one to support. Ask your county commissioner or city councilor about closed door meetings and they’ll look you in the eye and sincerely state they have nothing to hide.
And then City Administrator Mark Larson announced Friday, Feb. 22, meetings between city council members and representatives of the Buffalo Creek Watershed District and Twin Cities & Western Railroad would be conducted behind closed doors. The justification for doing business behind closed doors is that a quorum of the city council or county board won’t be present.
The closed-door meetings will be to discuss the additional cost-share funding the City of Glencoe and McLeod County want the watershed district and railroad to contribute to the County Road 15-Morningside Drive project. The cost of the project has increased by about $1.35 million to $6.3 million since its preliminary design began in 2017. The city’s engineer estimated the additional cost at about $500,000 for both Buffalo Creek Watershed District and TC&W Railroad, an amount both groups believe is too much.
Two residential properties and land for easements have already been purchased for over $600,000.
Without the additional money from the watershed district and the railroad, the project will either have to be scaled back or additional funding be sought, most likely from taxpayers in one form or another.
Minnesota’s open meeting law allows some meetings be held behind closed doors. Beyond that, it was written with the idea that government meetings should be open to the public.
For a few members of a six-member city council or a five-member county board to meet behind closed doors and discuss an issue means the other members of the council or county board won’t legally be able to learn any details until the issue is discussed in public. If the other members of the council or board hear the details from the closed-door meeting before the public, the law and the public’s trust have been violated.
It is oh-so naive to believe members of the city council or county board don’t privately discuss key details of important issues. That’s why claims of transparency are rightfully met with a bit of skepticism.
The city will claim the sensitive nature of cost share agreements with TC&W Railroad justifies the meetings be conducted behind closed doors. Guess you know what’s important.
If the city has a different reason the meetings with TC&W Railroad and Buffalo Creek Watershed District simply can’t be conducted in public, we’d all like to hear that rationale and then have that justification weighed against the ideal of transparency.
If the city and county insist the discussions simply can’t be conducted in the light of day, here’s a solution. Let staff, the professionals hired to handle the details, handle the negotiations and then make a recommendation to the city council and county board during a workshop or city/board meeting.
We recognize the city and county are trying to do the right thing regarding an equitable cost share agreement involving the county, city, watershed district and railroad. But we will argue the public – the people to who transparency is pledged – have a right to know.