In 2014, 13 Victoria residents filed suit against four people they believed had been doing backdoor deals with their money: Mayor Thomas O’Connor and City Council Members James Crowley, Lani Basa, and Thomas Strigel.
They’d seen the officials do it again and again – closing meetings without mentioning what they’d be discussing behind closed doors.
Records requests found emails between the officials, discussing property acquisitions, cost, and construction for a new city hall, public works building, and library. All to be paid for by taxpayers. And all discussed out of the public eye.
In 2016, Carver County Judge Janet Barke Cain slapped the four with a combined 38 intentional Open Meeting Law violations – six for Basa, 10 for Strigel, and 11 for both Crowley and O’Connor. The defendants claimed that they didn’t know what they’d been doing was against the law. The judge didn’t buy it.
“The Defendants profess their ignorance of the OML (Open Meetings Law) to a degree this court finds shameful with regard to their duty to the public,” Cain wrote.
The residents believed the willful violations would be enough to boot the officials from office, but Cain didn’t agree. According to Minnesota statute, forfeiture of office requires they be found to have intentionally violated the same law “in three or more actions.” Even though they each had way more than three violations, they’d only been tried for it once. Technically, this counted as just one strike.
The residents appealed. Four years after they originally sued, the case finally made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the justices voted against removal -- 38 violations or not.
Strigel, Basa, and O’Connor didn’t respond to requests for comment, Crowley declined, forwarding the request to their lawyer, Janel Dressen.
“I think that the court's decision is the right decision and the proper decision by state statute,” Dressen says.
Over the years, Basa and O’Connor have been voted out. But Tom Funk is not ready for it to be over. He was the lead plaintiff when the lawsuit began. Since then, he’s been removed from the lawsuit because he’s taken O’Connor’s post as mayor, yet he’s just as passionate as ever.
“Those violations accumulated while they were doing deals that one could argue cost the city of Victoria money,” he says. To make matters worse, once they were caught and found guilty, they voted to put their legal fees on the taxpayers’ dime.
“To me, that’s an absolute travesty of justice,” he says.
He doesn’t think the Supreme Court or Dressen are wrong. He thinks the law is. If it takes three separate lawsuits to get a cheating official out of office, and if it takes thousands of dollars and a pro bono lawyer for residents to even file one suit, then odds are they’re always going to get away with making deals behind the public’s back.
“I don’t think anyone will be removed as a result of the Open Meeting Law,” he says.
This isn’t just a Victoria problem, Funk says. It’s a Minnesota problem. This ruling shows that citizens are essentially toothless against officials who hide things from them. Funk’s going to petition the legislature to change the law, but that will take a while.
Until then, all residents can do is be vigilant, and wonder how much they don’t know.