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To sidestep ‘a big argument,’ Minneapolis council names sick leave study group without public discussion

So how exactly did the council cut a pool of 80 people down to the final list?

Council vice president Elizabeth Glidden: “Do I think everyone thinks this is a perfect list? No. But I think folks were willing to say, ‘This is good enough.’”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

What the Minneapolis city council did Wednesday is clear: By a unanimous vote, the full council — sitting as the committee of the whole — endorsed a list of 15 people to serve on a special work group to look at mandatory sick leave in Minneapolis for private employers.

How council members went about making that decision is less clear.

Eighty people applied to serve on what the council dubbed a “partnership group.” Under the resolution creating it, Mayor Betsy Hodges had authority to appoint two members and Council President Barbara Johnson had two appointments. The rest of the council would appoint the final 10.

But at the public meeting Wednesday, the council was presented with a slide containing the final list: 15 names broken into categories: those put forward by Hodges, those from Johnson — and those to be selected by council. 

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There was no discussion by council members of the qualifications of individual nominees or attempts to amend the list, and no other people were nominated. Members voted to send the list on to the full council, which will vote on it Friday.

How 80 names become 10

Hodges appointed Liz Doyle of TakeAction Minnesota, Jim Rowader of Target Inc. and Danny Schwartzman, owner of Common Roots Cafe and a member of the Main Street Alliance of Minnesota.

Johnson named Steve Cramer of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and Wade Luneburg of the UNITE HERE Local 17.

The final 10 names are Susie Brown of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits; Faisal Mohamud Dero, who owns Optuma Health, Inc.; Brian Elliott, of the Service Employees International Union; Dayna Frank, from the music club First Avenue; Molly Glasgow of the Twin Cities Metro Independent Business Alliance; Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation; Ron Harris of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change; Tony Lacroix-Dalluhn of Abbott Northwestern Hospital; Guillermo Alexander Lindsay, a fast-food worker; and Christopher Carl Pennock, a service industry worker. 

The latter group includes four employees, three from organized labor, five employers and three from business associations. The group has until February 24 to suggest policy proposals on mandatory sick leave and paid time off. 

So how was the list created? 

Council vice president Elizabeth Glidden, who also chairs the committee of the whole, said council leadership met to cull the names of applicants and match the remaining people to the requirement under the resolution. That is, the final group of appointees had to include employees — including low-wage employees — organized labor, employers both large and small and business groups. 

Johnson thanked her colleagues “who helped us put this slate together,” citing specifically Glidden and Council Member John Quincy.

“We worked with each other to try to come up with a balance of people and my colleagues recognize that work,” Johnson said. “It is never easy to make a group decision like this.”

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After the meeting, Glidden said the rest of the council empowered the leaders — Johnson, Glidden and DFL Caucus chair Quincy — to come up with a list of names. She said Johnson brought some suggestions from some council members and Glidden said she spoke to other members. No straw vote was held to approve the list and there was no attempt to have small meetings to get feedback from members not involved with leadership. The final list was shown to some members before the meeting to give them an opportunity to comment.

“At least with the folks I talked to, they just said, ‘Thank you,’” Glidden said of those she shared the list with. After two somewhat rancorous meetings on the issue of paid sick leave and the structure of the work group, Glidden said it was her sense that council members are in a different frame of mind now. “They want to find some points of agreement. I’ll say for myself, folks did not want to have a big argument. 

“Do I think everyone thinks this is a perfect list? No,” Glidden said. “But I think folks were willing to say, ‘This is good enough.’” 

Open meetings law unclear

The Minnesota Open Meetings Law requires that public bodies give proper notice and hold meetings in public unless there is a statutory exemption such as discussions of real estate transactions or when attorney-client privilege applies. The law applies not just to full governmental bodies, such as city councils, but also to committees, subcommittees, boards, departments or commissions of that public body. The law also requires that votes be recorded in a journal and that those journals be open to the public. 

According to an analysis of the law by the state House of Representatives research department, state courts have found that a “straw vote” taken outside a public meeting can violate the law. In the case brought by the Mankato Free Press, the court found that a straw vote to narrow the list of candidates for city administrator that was not made public violated the law, “particularly in light of the fact that the straw vote was acted on and given the same effect as an official act,” the analysis said.

Even that case did not provide clear guidance. A state commissioner of administration advisory opinion subsequently stated that a specific secret straw vote was not a violation of the law because the results of the vote were described and discussed at the public meeting.

While the law states that a public meeting is one where a quorum of a council, committee or subgroup is present — half of the members plus one — the courts have recognized ways that a meeting can violate the law even without a quorum being together in person or electronically via telephone or video conference.

Again, according to the House research analysis: “Serial meetings in groups of less than a quorum held in order to avoid open meeting law requirements may also be found to be a violation, depending on the facts of the case.”

A guide to open meetings prepared by the League of Minnesota Cities notes that the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that secret votes violate the purposes of the law “The Court of Appeals reasoned that a meeting is not ‘open’ to the public if voting is conducted in secret because it denies the public the right to observe the decision-making process, to know councilmembers’ stance on issues, and to be fully informed about the councils’ actions.”

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One who did not see the list until Wednesday’s meeting was Council Member Cam Gordon, who is technically — as the sole non-DFL member on the council — the minority leader of the council.

“I saw the list today,” said Gordon, a member of the Green Party. “It wasn’t even posted online.” Gordon compared it to how the council makes appointments to city boards and commissions. He said he is often the only council member attending interviews with staff members and helps make a recommendation to the full council. He said he isn’t sure if those meetings should be open.

“It’s a hard thing that we dance around,” Gordon said.

City Attorney Susan Segal wouldn’t comment on whether the process followed by the council was proper under the open meetings law because she wasn’t involved in meetings, and would have to check with council leaders as to the process they followed.

But Don Gemberling, an open government activist and spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said most case law would allow the actions of the council. Court cases tend to first require that a majority of the whole body be involved in a meeting before it is covered by the law. “Unless you have a majority of the council going back and forth saying we should appoint this person you probably don’t have a violation,” he said. “It’s the common way for public bodies to avoid open meetings laws.”

The official act of appointment comes at the council’s regular meeting Friday. Council Member Blong Yang gave notice that he would offer an amendment to add four alternates to the work group. He said his intent is to have extra members to further diversify the group and to accommodate regular members who might need to miss meetings of the work group.