Closed for business

City of Woodbury

When the Woodbury City Council meeting ends tonight, council members will not leave City Hall right away.

Instead, they’ll meet in a conference room adjacent to the council chamber to talk privately with City Attorney Mark Vierling about a long-running development lawsuit. It’s called an "executive session."

Council members in recent months frequently have followed their televised regular meetings with closed-door sessions (which are not televised) to discuss litigation brought by and against the city. In fact, seven of the council’s last 12 regular meetings were followed by a closed session to discuss a pending lawsuit, including the city’s appeal of a state watershed boundary decision. Since January 2009, there have been nine such meetings.

The meetings are legal; Minnesota law allows a city council to meet privately under certain conditions. Many, if not all, local governments use the closed-door sessions from time to time. Common reasons for a closed-door meeting are to discuss pending litigation, labor issues or land transactions.

The law also requires that a city council announce it is going into closed session and the reason for the meeting. It also must provide a summary of that closed-door session at the next regular council meeting. (That second requirement has frustrated reporters and open-government advocates around the state because local officials can follow the law while offering summaries that are incredibly vague, mentioning only that a meeting was held and no formal action was taken.)

Understandably, there are good reasons for closed-door sessions. However, while court records usually are public, sometimes the real story may be what’s discussed when citizens aren’t in the room.