In the “news biz” editors and reporters tend to learn a little about a lot. With COVID-19 both of these categories have expanded. I have found myself learning much more than a little about many more things.
COVID has brought many changes to our lives, but somethings have stayed the same. One of these things is the need for a transparent government process. Part of the transparency is directed by laws. Knowing these laws and having them on your mind is part of being a reporter covering meetings.
Attending council and board meetings is really one of my favorite parts of my job. I am a regular attendee at almost all of the meetings covered by the Moose Lake Star-Gazette. With COVID meetings have been bouncing between in-person, online, call or dial-in and a hybrid of all three. Keeping up with the type of meeting being held, while also keeping track of how they fit into the laws about transparency in government is daunting.
At the February meeting for Sturgeon Lake City Council a decision was made on how to hold regular meetings. The council decided that city staff and council members would begin meeting in person starting at the March meeting, while members of the public were still only able to call or dial into the meeting. Knowing the small amount that I do about Open Meeting Laws, I reached out to a fellow editor for advice when this decision raised my red flags. Based on a description of the changes, she advised getting in contact with the Minnesota Newspaper Association (MNA) lawyer, Mark Anfinson.
A quick email to Mark, let me know that my red flags were not mistaken. His opinion was that this decision by the council was not following Open Meeting Laws. He recommended letting the council know. I shared the information from Mark with the City Clerk, she let me know she would pass on the information to the council.
A few days later, Sturgeon Lake hosted a Public Hearing to adopt the League of Minnesota Cities Basic Code. At the end of this meeting Mayor Danelski let folks know the next meeting would be on March 16 with the council and city staff meeting in person and the public able to call or dial-in. Mention was made about the issue I raised with this and Open Meeting Laws.
The council determined that I as the media would be allowed to attend in person and also represent the public. Because this discussion was not on the official agenda, the City Clerk determined further discussion of the issue would need to take place at the next meeting.
Never did I think that I would end up being a watchdog. I will be at that March 16 meeting. I will keep learning how I can keep my community informed about what their government is doing. I will continue to work with local government officials about how we can create even more transparency in the governing processes of our cities, counties and state.
I do want to be clear, I understand keeping track of all of the state statues, laws, rules and regulations about operating a city government while being a part-time official is daunting. A main part of my job is knowing about these laws and I still needed to reach out for help. If there is one thing I have learned it is knowing what you don’t know is important, but knowing you don’t know and asking someone who does is ideal.
Alanea White is the editor of the Moose Lake Star-Gazette. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org