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Court: Officials Should Lose Jobs for Open Meeting Violations

July 1, 1994

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ The mayor and two City Council members in Hibbing should be removed from office for repeatedly violating Minnesota’s open meeting law, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The law says officials shall forfeit their jobs after three violations. The officials would be the first to lose their jobs.

Lawyers for the councilmen had argued that the officials were holding legitimate private meetings that accidentally strayed into public topics and that removing them from office overturns the voters’ will.

″This is a very good public policy decision,″ said Roger Aronson, the lawyer representing Hibbing residents who sued. ″These meetings ought to be conducted in public.″

City officials whose jobs were at stake are Mayor Jim Collins and Councilmen Ray Sogard and Steve Saban.

″I’m in shock over the ruling. I did not expect that kind of ruling,″ Collins said in a telephone interview from his Hibbing home.

The mayor said he did not know what his status was, but expected that he and his attorney had time to decide if they wanted to appeal.

Sogard’s lawyer, Richard Beens, had argued that the officials acted in good faith without knowledge they were violating the law.

The court accepted that argument regarding a fourth official, Frank Modich, who had been new to the council.

″Elected officials must be allowed a reasonable period to learn their duties before they can be removed for failing to perform them,″ Justice Alan Page wrote for the court.

″To be sure, the excuse of inexperience very quickly wears thin,″ the court added. ″Public officials cannot long hide behind purported ignorance where that ignorance results in harm to the public.″

John Finnegan, president of the Minnesota Joint Media Committee, said members of the media succeeded in 1974 in strengthening the open meeting law and adding the provision about forfeiting office.

″It puts real teeth into the law, and people will think twice before they violate the law now,″ he said. ″That’s a real plus for the public.″

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