Nick Campion: It is time to do away with city council dinner meetings
Rochester is embarking on several generational projects which will set our community’s direction for decades. Never has accessible and transparent government been more important in Rochester’s history. I believe the Rochester City Council should cease holding “Dinner Meetings” to show the community we take open government seriously.
The term “dinner meeting” refers to a meeting which take place between the City Council’s afternoon meetings which end around 5 p.m. and evening meetings that start around 7 p.m. These meetings are held at restaurants throughout Rochester and act as a less structured conversation between the council members and staff. More than 27 years ago, the Post-Bulletin published an article titled "Dinner is on the Taxpayers" which outlined the history of Rochester City Council dinner meetings. As a member of the City Council, I believe there are several reasons to be concerned with these meetings.
Dinner meetings reduce public participation, flout Minnesota’s open meeting laws and send the wrong message to our community. This tradition has been a part of Rochester’s government for more than 60 years, but dinner meetings conjure images of smoke filled back-rooms, limit our ability to engage the community and act as roadblocks to building an open government. It is time for them to go.
Dinner meetings reduce public participation. There is less public participation at the dinner meetings than at any other meeting we hold. I don’t know if secrecy is the intent, but it has become the by-product. The locations are spread throughout the City, the agendas are hard to find and seating is limited. Personally, I cherish the ability to develop a relationship with people I work with on the Council. Though these meals might help improve our efficiency, they do so at a cost to the public trust and I find that unacceptable. The arrangement and environment do not encourage public accountability and I do not want our decision making to ever appear secretive, lest it calls into question the important work we do. Though I believe every council member desires openness, the dinner meetings appear to those not already at the table to be closed. We should aspire to better.
Dinner meetings do not adhere to the spirit of open meeting laws. The intent of our open meeting laws are to make discussions and decisions by the City Council accessible to the public so voters can hold their elected officials accountable for their actions. Though our dinner meetings may meet the legal requirements to be called “open” as far as the law is concerned, the challenges with attending makes them feel closed to the public. The Minnesota State Auditor clearly recommends against our current arrangement based on Minnesota’s open meeting laws. I share the State Auditor's concerns that holding a public meeting in this fashion presents significant issues we are better off without.
Perhaps most importantly, dinner meetings send the wrong message to our community. If our goal is to build an inclusive community, how dinner meetings further this mission? The focus on the question of “can we” often obscures the more important concern “should we.” Just because we can hold dinner meetings does not mean we should. Eliminating the dinner meetings sends a clear message to our community that we are committed to openness and that we value the participation of the people we serve. A message that we are not just open by words but also by actions is a message our community needs now as we tackle serious community issues and plan the future. Failure to ensure transparency risks compromising the public’s trust in our decisions.
I stopped attending dinner meetings in May and I have decided that I will no longer be attending dinner meetings until we can address the major transparency issues they present. Dinner meetings are inaccessible which limits our public accountability. It is impossible to justify attending an open meeting that feels so closed. I know we can do better. It is time for us to have a public conversation about these meetings and determine how we want to move forward as a City. If we want to build an open government that works for the citizens of Rochester, it is time to close the book on dinner meetings.
Nick Campion represents Ward 3 on the Rochester City Council.
(Cover graphic: The Med City Beat)