Public barred from 1st meeting of police chief selection committee
The public was barred from the first meeting of St. Paul's advisory panel to vet and recommend the city's next chief of police, with officials showing the door to a PiPress reporter who tried to attend.
City Attorney (and Ramsey County attorney candidate) John Choi, who co-chairs the Examining Committee for the Selection of the Police Chief, warned city hall reporter Dave Orrick that he believed the meeting might not be public. Later City Human Resources Director Angie Nalezny told Orrick the meeting was not public because it dealt with personnel matters.
"Our reading of the laws is this is a closed meeting," Nalezny said as she ushered the reporter out the door of a meeting room of the El Rio Vista Rec Center/Wellstone Community Center on the West Side shortly after the meeting began at 3 p.m. "Open meetings are committees of the City Council, this is a citizens committee."
Indeed, the 22-member panel doesn't contain any elected government officials, but it was created by an ordinance of the City Council to give recommendations to Mayor Chris Coleman on five finalists for the post.
Chief John Harrington is not seeking another term, and the City Council and Coleman have promised a transparent process. Two community meetings are planned to be public, but apparently, not regular meetings like today's.
The Minnesota Open Meetings Law appears to state that such a panel would be subject to the law. "All meetings, including executive sessions, must be open to the public ... of any committee ... of a public body ... ." The City Council is clearly a public body.
Furthermore, the Minnesota Department of Administration in 2008 concluded that a similar advisory panel, the St. Paul Port Authority's Rock Tenn Community Advisory Panel, was subject to the Open Meetings Law and its meetings should be public. Read that advisory opinion here.
Rich Neumeister, a citizen-advocate for both government transparency and privacy, said closing the meeting was "asinine."
Of course, Neumeister noted, certain personnel matters aren't public, and members of the topcop selection committee were handed confidentiality forms to sign. Normally, public bodies discuss most of their business in public and then close the meeting when the non-public stuff, which is specifically listed in the law, comes up. The Open Meetings Law states: "Before closing a meeting, a public body shall state on the record the specific grounds permitting the meeting to be closed and describe the subject to be discussed."
Discussing confidential data on candidates wasn't the purpose of today's meeting -- at least not according to the agenda, titled "Chief of Police Selection Committee 1st Organizational Meeting."
After being read the agenda, which includes "establishment of committee ground rules" and "the committee's thoughts on qualities and characteristics of the ideal chief," Neumeister said: "Based on the agenda, they're not discussing personnel matters. It should be public."
It was during Item 1(a) -- "Introduction" -- that Nalezny as booted the PiPress as Choi presided over the meeting. Eight committee members and two staffers had introduced themselves and members were going around the table when the meeting became secret -- but not before St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus introduced himself.
"I'm Dave Titus," he began, concluding his brief intro with: "Good, bad or otherwise, I've never been arrested in the last year." Perhaps Titus' remarks, which were met by a round of laughter, were a reference to St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Bobby Kasper. Kasper, who would have been the panel's 23rd member, resigned earlier this week after the PiPress confronted him about prior arrests, including suspicion of soliciting a prostitute and cheating at gambling. He wasn't convicted of either charge. Kasper didn't attend today's meeting.
The Scoop wonders what went on behind closed door's when the committee reached Item 3(a) on the agenda: "Discuss dealing with the press."
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