Open meeting problems

John Ramos

Chisholm Mayor Mike Jugovich smirks after publicly berating a citizen  who criticized him on Facebook
Chisholm Mayor Mike Jugovich smirks after publicly berating a citizen who criticized him on Facebook

I first became concerned about open meetings and data practices in 2008, when I began reporting on the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area for my blog The Cheerleader. Spirit Mountain executive director Renee Mattson did not appreciate my blog posts, which were critical of Spirit Mountain and the Duluth tourism industry, and she lost no opportunity to tell me so. At one point, when the board of directors approved a contract to build an alpine coaster, Mattson refused to let me see the contract, snapping, “You’re not gonna write anything positively or accurately, anyways!”

As time went on, Mattson employed a number of strategies to prevent me from getting information. For example, Mattson began sending items to board members via email, to be discussed in cyberspace and rubber-stamped at the regular board meeting without having an actual copy of the item available for anyone to look at. Another of her tactics was closing board meetings to go into “executive session” to discuss items she didn’t want me to hear—without specifying which items those were. Yet another strategy designed to avoid my scrutiny involved having the board approve budgets “in concept,” which meant they approved budgets with certain lines left blank. Mattson would later fill in the blanks in the privacy of her office. All of these maneuvers were illegal.

In 2011, due to other demands of my life, I stopped going to Spirit Mountain meetings and discontinued my blog. Ms. Mattson was undoubtedly thrilled.

In 2014, I returned to journalism with this column. I attended my first Spirit Mountain meeting after a three-year absence in April 2014, knowing they would be approving the budget for the following fiscal year. Mattson was surprised and unhappy to see me, but she had no time to hide the budget. Armed with the facts, I exposed Spirit Mountain’s awful financial condition for all to see. Two months later, Mattson resigned.

Since then, I have not encountered anyone intentionally violating the law to avoid my scrutiny (as far as I know). However, I have discovered that almost every public meeting I attend—be it city council, city commission, or Spirit Mountain board—violates some aspect of the open meeting and data practices statutes. For example, all votes of city commissions are supposed to be recorded in a journal that is available for public inspection. None of the commissions I attend—parks, urban forest, public utilities, or planning—does this. Anyone wishing to know how commissioners voted (without attending the meeting itself) must wait weeks or even months for the meeting minutes to appear on the city’s web site.

Another law that the city council and commissions frequently violate is 13D.01, Subd. 6, which states that “at least one copy of any printed materials relating to the agenda item of the meeting…shall be available in the meeting room for inspection by the public while the governing body considers their subject matter.” Often, just the agenda is available for public inspection. I have been to many meetings where councilors or commissioners have a big stack of paper in front of them, but no similar stack exists for the public to look at. By law, such documents should be available to all.

As far as I can tell, most violations occur due to ignorance or carelessness. I have three recent examples.

• Special meeting called without proper notice

According to Minnesota Statute 13D.04, special meetings (meetings that are not on a public body’s regular schedule) must be noticed three days in advance, stating “date, time, place and purpose of the meeting.” On August 9, 2016, I received notice that the city council would be holding a special meeting on August 11, two days in the future. No mention was made of the meeting’s purpose. The announcement stated that the meeting’s agenda would be posted on August 10, one day before the meeting. It was a little disconcerting to see the city actually announcing its illegal actions.

On August 11, the agenda for the special meeting still had not appeared on the city’s website. One hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, I emailed the city clerk’s office, noting the several violations of open meeting law. Minutes later, the clerk’s office responded: The meeting was canceled. This last-minute about-face confused some city councilors, who showed up expecting a special meeting.

• Voting via email

At the Urban Forest Commission meeting of August 16, 2016, commissioners discussed the Emerald Ash Borer Management Plan. A number of changes were made to the document, and commissioners decided they would put off voting on the plan until a future meeting. Dale Sellner, city buildings and grounds supervisor, informed the group that the city administration really wanted the UFC to approve the plan soon. Eventually, the group decided that they would get a final draft written up and send it out to one another to approve via email. This is not allowed. By law, votes of public bodies must be made and recorded during formal meetings.

I alerted UFC chair Christine Penney as to the law. She seemed surprised to hear about it, and eager to comply.

• Improperly closing a meeting

Not all meetings are open to the public. The statutes describe a number of situations in which meetings may be closed. In those cases, a procedure must be followed: An announcement must be made that the meeting is going to be closed, the statutory authority under which the meeting can be closed must be cited, and the purpose of the meeting must be declared.

At the city council’s agenda session of August 11, 2016, the council voted to close the meeting to discuss ongoing litigation. Under the attorney-client privilege, this is an acceptable reason to close a meeting. However, they failed to cite the statutory authority. When I pointed this out, deputy city attorney Alison Lutterman said, “Well, if you want me to take the time, I’ll look up the specific section of the open meeting law that allows you to close the meeting”—her tone implying that it was totally unreasonable of me to ask her to follow the law. I persisted, and eventually Ms. Lutterman had to leave the room to go to her office to look up the statute. So she must not look it up very often.

Undoubtedly, the city has fallen into bad habits with regard to open meeting laws because nobody ever corrected them. Now that the problem has been identified, I hope things will improve.

 

Chisholm’s bully pulpit

Late last year, the town of Chisholm, located about 75 miles north of Duluth on Minnesota’s Iron Range, made a big announcement: They wanted to become the movie capital of northern Minnesota. Jerry Seppala, a wheeler-dealer from Wayzata, had signed a lease-purchase agreement with the city for the entire 28,000-square-foot basement of City Hall, which he was going to turn into a movie and advertising production studio, complete with sound stages, green rooms, and elephant doors.

It sounded unusual, but not entirely unbelievable. The state offers generous rebates to production companies that make movies in the state, and northern Minnesota has no shortage of attractive movie locations. Seppala said he had letters of intent for $70 million worth of projects, with $20- to $30 million expected to be completed within the first year. Ironbound Studios held its first casting call in October of 2015, attracting 200 people.

Alas, the dreams came crashing down on June 30, 2016, when Seppala and two other movie financiers were indicted in New York federal court on charges that they had defrauded investors of $12 million. In a statement, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, "Rather than making movies, the defendants perpetrated an advance fee scheme, allegedly using the investors' money to pay themselves and pay other investors back." Ironbound Studios went into default on its lease, owing $14,000 in unpaid utilities and $2,000 in rent.

Aaron Brown, an Iron Range blogger and columnist, posted about the story on his blog minnesotabrown.com, asking why city officials hadn’t researched Seppala more thoroughly. “A very simple Google search…would have raised many questions about Seppala’s business model that no one in charge seemed to ask,” wrote Brown.

On August 2, 2016, Chisholm city council candidate Brandan Fiedler shared Brown’s post on his campaign Facebook page, saying that “the three city councilors [up for reelection in November] will be held accountable.”

As criticism goes, Fiedler’s comment was pretty mild stuff. Indeed, it would be surprising if a candidate for public office DIDN’T promise to hold people accountable for past mistakes. But the city council and Mayor Jugovich did not care for it at all.

At the Chisholm city council meeting of August 11, 2016, Fiedler was sitting in the audience watching the proceedings, as he often does. As someone who has run for the Chisholm city council six times and mayor once, he is well-known as a frequent attendee of public meetings. Today, he did not sign up to speak on any issue, but an hour into the meeting, out of the blue, city councilor Todd Scaia summoned Fiedler to the microphone.

“I see Mr. Fiedler in the audience tonight,” said Councilor Scaia, “and I’d just like to invite him up here to take his five minutes, because I know he’s raised some concerns about Ironbound Studios and some of the councilors here, so I encourage you to use your five minutes and tell the council your concerns so we can look into those for you.”

Fiedler, poor guy, took the bait. He obediently got up and made his way to the microphone. He spoke for less than a minute, saying he had posted Aaron Brown’s article to Facebook because he thought it made some good points about the way the city had entered into the movie studio deal. “There should have been a little more scrutiny into this,” he said, quite rightly.

Watching the video—as I have, many times now—it’s clear that Fiedler is not very comfortable standing there. He has a humble demeanor and he stumbles over his words, visibly subordinating himself to the public officials who are sitting in judgment.

Mayor Jugovich began, “Well, as I recall, Brandan, what I saw [on your Facebook page] was ‘Three city councilors will be held accountable.’”

“For the vote,” said Fiedler.

“So you wanna hold three [councilors] accountable and you wanna let three slide,” the mayor said incredulously, not bothering to consider that Fiedler might have been talking about the three councilors who were currently facing reelection. “You’re choosing.”

“Yeah,” said Fiedler.

“YEAH,” repeated the mayor, staring about the room in exaggerated disbelief. “Well, how can you do that? If you don’t like what the city council does, don’t alienate three. If you don’t like what the city council does, come at us all.”

“Okay,” said Fiedler.

Councilor Tracy Campbell jumped in. “Being that you’re running for city council, just so you know, when you do get elected someday, that you do have to work with people. And to make enemies is not the way to go about it. Being a team player is the way to go about it.”

Councilor Todd Scaia jumped in. “There’s no place for the negative politics. None. Brandan, I appreciate you having the courage to actually stand up here, but I think in this day and age we all try to hide behind social media too much. So instead of using social media from the confines of your house or your apartment, we have public participation twice a month. Come up here and tell us…instead of hiding behind Facebook or whatever else you use.”

The mayor jumped back in. “Brandan, one more thing, in case there’s any other questions about what we have going on with Ironbound Studios, we do not have dollars into this….Let me reiterate: there has been no dollars put in, and anyone who tells you is misinformed or wants to misinform you….It’s easy to hide behind a keyboard. Come and talk to us. We’ll give you the facts.”

“Okay,” said Fiedler.

Councilor Kevin Scaia (Todd Scaia’s brother) jumped in. “Mr. Fiedler, I’m just gonna ask you one question. Are you saying that this council did not do their due diligence prior to entering into agreement with Mr. Seppala and Ironbound Studios?”

Fiedler said, “That’s…well, that was what…”

Scaia cut him off. “Or are you just assuming that?”

“Well, that was what was in the article written by Aaron Brown,” said Fiedler.

“I read the article,” said Scaia, “but he’s a journalist, and that’s the media. He doesn’t have the facts, the actual facts….I can tell you for a fact that I vetted Mr. Seppala EXTREMELY thoroughly, and I discussed things with other councilors, [and] I’m privy to certain information that you’re not. And if you think that any councilor sitting up here would not have the city of Chisholm in their best interest prior to entering into that agreement, then that’s just hearsay.”

“Thank you, Brandan,” said Mayor Jugovich.

“You’re welcome,” said Fiedler, and went back to his seat.

Keep in mind, this whole kangaroo court spectacle happened because Fiedler dared to write that the city should be held accountable for a poor decision. That was all he wrote, and he was right—when it came to Ironbound Studios, the city of Chisholm flopped on their due diligence. Councilor Kevin Scaia may have done an “extremely thorough” vetting of Mr. Seppala, but that apparently didn’t include doing a Google search. When I did one myself, I found all kinds of problems, including Seppala’s bankruptcy and previous lawsuits for fraud. In 2014, a few months before he first approached the city of Chisholm, he and others were sued by a Los Angeles investor who charged they had taken $11 million and “gone on an out-of-control personal spending spree.”

In a year and a half of dealing with Seppala, nobody at the city of Chisholm noticed the problems that should have been apparent from the beginning. Or else they did notice the problems and chose to ignore them, which would be worse. But even if they were totally blameless, there is no excuse for public officials to single out and berate a citizen during a public meeting for ANY views that citizen may hold.

What made me the sickest was how thrilled and excited the mayor and city councilors were to attack Fiedler. They were practically licking their chops with anticipation. They could hardly wait for one another to finish speaking before jumping in. They addressed Fiedler as if he were a child, as if his concerns meant nothing, as if he were beneath them. And when they were done, they sat back with self-satisfied smirks, as if to say, “Well, we showed him.”

Two of Fiedler’s attackers, Tracy Campbell and Todd Scaia, are running against Fiedler in the November election, which makes their behavior even more puke-worthy. Mayor Jugovich is running for county commissioner. He has stated many times that no city money went into Ironbound Studios—but it certainly would have, if Mr. Seppala hadn’t been inconveniently indicted for fraud. The city was primed to give him all the money he needed. And, of course, the many hours of staff time that went into planning the project (though not, apparently, into doing Google searches) weren’t free.

In sum, it seems clear that Chisholm is run by thin-skinned bullies and arrogant buffoons who are incapable of owning the slightest mistake.

 

Video of the August 11 Chisholm city council meeting may be found at
youtube.com/watch?v=aJFHNj_xasc.