Township seals appointment discussion, skirting state law
September 23, 2022
The Thomson Township board of supervisors defended itself this week after closing a public meeting to discuss applicants to fill an open seat on the board.
The board went into what it termed “closed meeting” on Sept. 8 to discuss what was labeled on the agenda as “a personnel issue.”
In fact, the board was meeting to discuss replacement of Jason Paulson, who resigned in August from the board with two years remaining on his term. Paulson cited a staffing shortage in the airline industry, causing him to work more hours as a pilot.
In private discussion about his replacement, the board narrowed its applicant pool from six to three. Gary Bonneville, Eric Rish and David Sunnarborg were chosen for interviews, while Darla VanHeerde, John Bergman and Dan Belden were not selected.
When asked about the improperly closed meeting, attorneys representing Thomson Township argued the board’s private discussion about an appointment to a public seat amounted to sifting through protected employment applications.
“I believe that my reading of the (Minnesota) Open Meeting Law … is still correct,” attorney William Helwig said. “By submitting applications to the town board for appointment to the open seat, the applicants have voluntarily placed themselves under the authority of the board, until it is determined that they are no longer under consideration.”
The Pine Knot has asked for a recording of the closed session. So far, the township has declined to share the recording of those discussions, with Helwig calling it “private application data.”
The newspaper’s legal consultant disagreed.
“The township board has no legal basis whatsoever for discussing anything relating to the candidates for the open board seat in closed session,” said Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspapers Association. “Specifically, there is no ‘personnel exception’ to the Open Meeting Law.”
Anfinson explained there are a few personnel-related exceptions, but that those were narrow — such as for preliminary consideration of charges or complaints against a government employee, or for evaluating the performance of a government employee.
“None of these exceptions comes close to allowing a public body to talk about a candidate for membership on the body in a closed meeting,” Anfinson told the newspaper.
Anfinson also shared a long list of information about applicants for appointments to a public body that is always public, including the names of the applicants as well as veteran status, prior government service, volunteer work, education and training, according to the Data Practices Act.
The board was scheduled to meet again Thursday, Sept. 22. Township clerk Rhonda Peleski said the topic of the appointment would not be picked up again so soon.
“Once interviews are scheduled, it will be an open, posted session,” she said.
Helwig is an attorney for the Cloquet-based firm of Rudy, Gassert, Yetka, Pritchett and Helwig. He was sitting in for the township’s usual attorney David Pritchett when communicating with the newspaper.
The Pine Knot expects to continue reporting on the Thomson Township appointment and any fallout from the board’s decision to close its meeting.
If the Thomson Township interpretation were to be upheld, it could help to create precedent for a secret appointment process, versus open discussion of applicants. Publicly elected boards often appoint replacements in the event of the resignation or death of officeholders, for example. Appointments can be made in lieu of a special election or sometimes preceding one, depending on a municipality’s charter.
Anfinson challenged that the definition of “personnel data” does not include data on people who perform services on a voluntary basis for a government entity.
“I’m extremely skeptical that members of a town board are considered to be employees of a township,” Anfinson said.