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Open meeting law violations alleged at candidate forum

Accusations of an open meeting law violation have been leveled by a candidate for the Brainerd School Board. Jeff Czeczok, one of five candidates for three open seats on the school board, said the state's open meeting law was violated during a re...

Accusations of an open meeting law violation have been leveled by a candidate for the Brainerd School Board.

Jeff Czeczok, one of five candidates for three open seats on the school board, said the state's open meeting law was violated during a recent candidate forum hosted by the school district's paraprofessional union.

Invited to the candidate forum were Czeczok, fellow challenger Charles Black Lance, and incumbents Bob Nystrom, Reed Campbell and Sue Kern. The problem, Czeczok said, was that school board member Tom Haglin, who is not up for re-election, also attended the forum. Though Haglin didn't participate in the forum, his presence represented a quorum of the school board for a meeting that wasn't publicly noticed, Czeczok claimed.

"My concerns are that elected officials have the responsibility of knowing," whether the gathering could violate open meeting laws, Czeczok said. "It's their job to know what's appropriate and what's inappropriate."

An opinion provided to Czeczok by the Minnesota Department of Administration points to a Minnesota Supreme Court decision in Moberg v. Independent School District 281, in which the court ruled meetings are subject to the state's open meeting law in which a quorum or more of members of a governing body discuss, decide or receive information as a group on issues relating to the official business of that governing body.

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Czeczok noted the discussion at the candidate forum focused on several school district issues, including employee pay. The Minnesota Department of Administration informed Czeczok that it appeared the candidate forum should have been noticed to the public.

Monday night, Superintendent Laine Larson told the Brainerd Dispatch the district doesn't know how many school board members will show up to events like the candidate forum.

"There's no decision making there," Larson said. "The only place decisions are made is at the board table."

Mark Anfinson, a Twin Cities attorney specializing in open meeting law, said it's impossible to say whether the open meeting law was violated. However, based on what Czeczok presented, he said he had serious concerns about the presence of a quorum at the candidate forum.

"All I can tell you with certainty is that it's close," to being a violation, Anfinson said. "It's questionable and it's troubling."

Anfinson pointed to a Minnesota Supreme Court decision in St. Cloud Newspapers v. District 742 Community Schools, which ruled, like Moberg, that the open meeting law applies where a public body receives information on issues relating to the official business of the public body.

That case, Anfinson said, indicates that the more specific the focus of the session, the more likely that the rule of St. Cloud Newspapers applies, and that's why he thinks an argument exists that a meeting just with school union members focused on their particular interests with respect to the school would cross the legal line.

"At the same time, as you can see, where exactly you draw the line is not easy to determine," Anfinson said.

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For his part, Czeczok said he is asking the school board to adjourn to Thursday's school board candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.

"I don't know why elected people can't recognize this ...," Czeczok said. "They need to start learning this, recognizing it and giving it credence. It happens a lot.

"There's a simple solution to a lot of these things. It just takes someone to pay attention."

Matt Erickson joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 2000 as a reporter, covering crime and courts and the city of Brainerd. In 2012 he was promoted to night editor and in 2014 was promoted to editor of the newspaper.
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