Port Authority abuses open meeting law

Red Wing Republican Eagle
Sept. 6, 2000

Port Authority commissioners met in closed session Thursday night on the stated basis of attorney-client privilege to discuss litigation pending against the agency by former Executive Director Don Holbrook.

The fact is that the case was dismissed a week earlier by U.S. District Judge James M. Rosenbaum. The court order, dated Aug. 24, stated, “The court has been advised by counsel that the above entitled action has been settled. Therefore, it is ordered that: This action is dismissed with prejudice. In the event the parties wish to file settlement documents, counsel are directed to do so within 15 days.”

The Port Authority’s legal counsel received notice of the dismissal Aug. 25.

The R-E argued its case regarding why Thursday’s meeting should be open. The 6-1 vote to close the meeting — Commissioner Greg Johnson dissented — was made on the recommendation of Patricia Beety, legal counsel with the League of Minnesota Cities who represented the Port Authority in the lawsuit.

At the time of the meeting, commissioners claim they were unaware that the $160,000 payment to Holbrook had been finalized a week earlier at a pretrial settlement conference attended by Executive Director Myron White, Board Vice Chairman Roy Harley and Beety. In fact, commissioners did not learn the judge had dismissed the case until the day after the closed session, when informed by R-E reporter Mike Fielding.

The events of the past week are disturbing on many fronts. At the top of the list are serious questions of whether the Port Authority violated the state’s open meeting law and/or Data Practices Act.

Letter of law

Red Wing citizens should be concerned about the agency’s actins with respect to the law. Specifically:

State law says the attorney-client privilege no longer applies once a settlement is reached. The judge’s order is clear that the court action was dismissed.
State law requires that public bodies approve lawsuit settlements in a public vote. The Port Authority has yet to offer evidence that commissioners authorized White, Harley and Beety to settle the lawsuit at the Aug. 23 conference.

State law provides that the notice of documenting relating to a settlement is public data. The R-E did not ask for this because we were told by White, Harley and Beety that the settlement was pending. The agency effectively withheld public data by misrepresenting the actual circumstances.

Spirit of law

The facts raise legitimate questions as to whether the agency circumvented state law. But an even more important consideration — in terms of the ramifications of the closed meeting — is the spirit of the law.

In February 1998, the Port Authority Board terminated Holbrook in a public meeting. He then sued the agency and, for more than two years, the public has largely sat on the sidelines while lawyers debated the merits of his lawsuit — whether to settle or to fight.

A proposed settlement — in full detail — was publicly announced last week. It has created a buzz among city officials and throughout the community.

The discussion and the decision of the Port Authority last week were arguably the most important in the agency’s history — certainly in terms of the agency’s image and credibility. The public deserves a firsthand account.

To their credit, Commissioners Johnson and John Key challenged Beety on whether the meeting should be closed. Beety responded that a public discussion could hinder the agency if the litigation proceeded — as she still failed to disclose the fact that the case had been dismissed, according to other commissioners.

Beety argued that nothing prevented the board from reconvening in public session, leaving it open for commissioners to explain the reasons for their actions.

No accountability

The conclusion to Thursday’s meeting ws predictable. Commissioners reconvened in public to take a 6-1 vote (Roy Harley dissented) and reported that they were sending a “counterproposal” to Holbrook. The vote came after about an hour of closed discussion. No board member offered comment.

The importance of last week’s meeting cannot be overemphasized. No local public agency has been under greater scrutiny than the Port Authority in recent years. Commissioners should agree that it’s in everyone’s best interests to know what was said and decided.

One reason why Beety might have pressed to keep the meeting closed was to avoid the possibility of facing embarrassing questions about what occurred at the pretrial conference.

We pose the same question to the Port Authority that we did last week in arguing to keep the meeting open: Can commissioners really make a full public accounting behind closed doors?