Supervisor resigns as Thomson Township resets appointment process
After open meeting violation, board opens new application period to fill open board supervisor seat
December 9, 2022
The Thomson Township Board of Supervisors is once again accepting applications for an open seat on the board.
In an effort to self-correct after the Minnesota Department of Administration ruled this month that the board violated open meeting law during its previous appointment process, a special meeting Thursday, Dec. 8 was used to reset the process.
At the suggestion of township attorney Dave Pritchett, newly appointed Thomson Township supervisor David Sunnarborg resigned from his seat during a special meeting. The decision allowed the board to restart a process which led to Sunnarborg being appointed to the board Dec 1.
During the special meeting, Pritchett partly explained the Department of Administration’s ruling, and recommended the board “unwind” the appointment process and start again.
“The alleged error in this is that at the beginning of the closed meeting, the six candidates were not named,” Pritchett said. “So, they were named at the end of the meeting, but at the beginning of the meeting, they were just simply not named. According to the Department of Administration, that constitutes a violation of the open meeting law. We have a different opinion of that.”
Additionally, Pritchett noted the board also violated the open meeting law by neglecting to record its closed meeting, and claimed it was “an inadvertent mistake, but there is no recording of that [closed] meeting,” he said.
Still, Pritchett continued to disagree with the state agency’s opinion that the board could discuss applicants for the open seat in closed session, describing those violations as “alleged.”
The board did not openly discuss its violation of dismissing candidates for a public seat in closed session. In September, the board emerged from closed session having dismissed three candidates to replace former supervisor Jason Paulson, who resigned in August.
Sunnarborg and two others, Gary Bonneville and Eric Rish, emerged as candidates for public interviews, while Darla VanHeerde, John Bergman and Dan Belden were denied interviews and dismissed during the closed session at the heart of the state’s ruling.
“The language (of open meeting law) does not allow a public body to close meetings to generally discuss personnel issues, such as hiring or appointment decisions,” Department of Administration commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis wrote in her opinion.
The advisory opinion does not come with a penalty. Its purpose is aimed at making a governing body reflect and correct its behavior.
In a summary of the ruling that Pritchett gave to the board, he spoke on only the board’s failure to state the names of candidates prior to closed session and its failure to record the closed meeting.
Following Sunnarborg’s resignation, which was approved by the board, the board discussed how the new application process would proceed.
The board voted to reopen the application for the open seat on the township’s website and accept applications until Dec 22. The application will include written questions that each candidate will need to answer in writing. The written questions are in lieu of an in-person candidate forum, in order to expedite the process.
The board will then take two weeks to review the applications and plan to appoint the new board member at its first regular meeting of 2023, coming Jan. 5.
The advisory opinion had been sought by Pine Knot News editor Jana Peterson in a letter to the Department of Administration, which has oversight of data practices throughout the state, including open meeting law. The newspaper financed the $200 review, and first reported the suspected violation of open meeting law with a story in its Sept. 23 issue.
Editor’s note: This story was updated from a previous version published online earlier Dec. 9. Get more background on this story here: https://www.pineknotnews.com/story/2022/12/09/news/ruling-board-broke-state-open-meeting-law/8424.html