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Our Opinion: Keep committee meetings open

The Brainerd School Board is taking a dangerous step on its path to restructure its committees.

The school board on Monday approved the first reading of a revision of district policy that, among other things, specifically states committee meetings would not be subject to Minnesota's open meeting law.

The reason given within the proposed policy revision is that the committees would only have two board members assigned to them and thus not a voting quorum of the whole board.

"The open meeting law does not apply to committees that are advisory only and do not have decision-making authority," the proposed revision the school board is considering states.

We strongly disagree.

As Mark Anfinson, a Twin Cities attorney specializing in open meeting law, told the Dispatch, standing committees of a public body are subject to the open meeting law, regardless of the number of committee members on the standing committee.

The committees referenced in the district's policy revision—facilities; curriculum and student activities; finance and insurance; legislative; long-range planning; and personnel—most certainly are not ad hoc, but standing committees.

While the letter of the law can be debated, the spirit of the law cannot, which leads us to question why the district and the school board are even considering such a step. Especially now, when the district is working on public buy-in on what could be the largest bond issue in its history.

There's no compelling reason to close committee meetings, especially in light of district officials' stated desire to be more transparent.

At worst the school board is considering a potentially illegal policy change. At best the change just looks bad and sends the wrong message to the public. Just because you think you can do something doesn't mean you should.

The reason we have sunshine laws—laws requiring proceedings of government agencies be open to the public—is to prevent public bodies from deciding it's easier to conduct business outside the view of the public. The school board's business, including that of the standing committees, is the public's business. It should not be conducted in secret.

School board members approved the first reading Monday without discussion. We hope the next time this issue comes up there will be discussion, and questions, from our elected representatives on the board. Specifically, they should ask themselves if barring the public from meetings is the best route to governing and maintaining the public's trust. We certainly don't think so, and hope a majority of the board members would vote against the proposed policy changes.

Open meeting laws were not enacted to inconvenience a public body, to act as an obstacle a public body must continually work to get around. They were enacted to ensure the public body's work was done in full view of the public—the good, the bad and everything in between.