Oak Lawn Township grapples with open meeting concerns

OAK LAWN TOWNSHIP - Concerns related to a newly elected township supervisor, who also works as a township maintenance employee, were discussed at Tuesday's Oak Lawn Township meeting.

OAK LAWN TOWNSHIP - Concerns related to a newly elected township supervisor, who also works as a township maintenance employee, were discussed at Tuesday's Oak Lawn Township meeting.

In a letter to the board, resident Mark Haglin expressed unease about what he characterized as "continuous violations" of open meeting law among township supervisors due to the board's makeup.

Open meeting law in Minnesota requires most meetings of elected officials in which a quorum, or majority, of members are present be posted and open to the public. Exceptions to the law include disciplinary meetings, employee evaluations, meetings to discuss labor negotiations and those subject to attorney-client privilege.

Supervisor Lonnie Murray's employment with the township requires he meet with Supervisor Sharon Pike, who serves as road supervisor. The meeting of two of three supervisors discussing township business constitutes a quorum subject to the open meeting law

"There is probably some legal maneuver, affidavit, etc., that can be done on record to make it look OK to have these meetings, but it is a blatant disregard for the open meeting law," Haglin wrote. "The supervisors can easily vote to give a blanket OK for each of these meetings, but it sure doesn't look right in the minds of the residents of the township."


Murray's employment with the township raises conflict-of-interest issues as well, Haglin said, given township supervisors preside over matters related to employee salaries, benefits, work schedules and workload. At January's meeting, the board sought to remedy the conflict by passing a resolution barring Murray from voting on issues related to his employment and requiring an affidavit each time he is paid.

This does not adequately address the issue, Haglin said, because it could lead to gridlock.

"All those decisions will be determined by the other two supervisors," he wrote. "If there is a disagreement amongst those two supervisors, there will be a number of votes that would be one for and one against. ... Nothing can get done then."

Haglin suggested a solution would be for Murray to resign either his maintenance position or his elected role.

At Tuesday's meeting, which Haglin did not attend, Pike said residents are right to have concerns, but the board is trying to honor the wishes of the electorate who elected Murray with the knowledge of his employment.

"We've been placed in a situation where we've been charged by the electors, by the people of Oak Lawn Township, to work through this situation in the best manner that we can," she said.

Supervisor William Durham said many rural townships do not have any employees and supervisors themselves are tasked with responding to maintenance issues on township roads.

"If someone calls about a plugged culvert, who's going to go out and do it?" Durham said. "It is quite common for township supervisors to do work and get paid."


A letter from Kyle Hartnett, attorney for the Minnesota Association of Townships, echoed Durham's point, noting many townships require supervisors to fill out an affidavit each time they receive payment to resolve the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Pike said some of Haglin's concerns related to open meetings are legitimate, although some of his claims stem from an inaccurate interpretation of the law. Haglin cited a ride home given by one supervisor to another following a meeting as a violation. According to the League of Minnesota Cities, the law is broadly interpreted as applying in situations where government business is discussed. Open meeting law for the most part does not apply to social gatherings or chance encounters in the supermarket, for instance.

To assuage concerns about potential open meeting violations, Pike said she and Murray will meet at 8 a.m. every other Monday morning and the meetings will be open to the public. The board approved publishing this along with the dates of upcoming budget and audit meetings.

"We're trying to make it work," Pike said. "Are we going to make mistakes? Probably, as we learn."

Another option she said, would be to consider moving to a five-person board - an option that would add expenses for the township. Supervisors are compensated $75 per meeting and $10 per hour for any additional labor performed.

Durham said a larger board could ensure the conundrum they're currently facing would be less likely to occur.

"We're as big as some small cities in Crow Wing County," Durham said. "We're one-third as big as Unorganized Territory, and they have five commissioners that make their decisions."

Making this move would also solve the gridlock issue Haglin mentioned in his letter, although Durham said it was "a little bit of an assumption" he and Pike would be unable to reach agreement if Murray was abstaining.


"Yeah, it can happen, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it, I guess," Durham said. "I'm pretty agreeable, so I'd probably give in and go with whatever she wanted to do anyway."

Following the discussion, resident LaVerne Borg spoke during open forum, voicing support for Murray and his integrity.

"Being an employee of the township and a town board supervisor does present a challenge that many people would not handle well," Borg said. "I believe the vast majority of residents in Oak Lawn Township think Lonnie (Murray) has the character and integrity to perform both jobs at a high level of skill."

The next step for the township board could be seeking additional legal advice, as indicated by both Pike and Durham in discussion.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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