Lake Elmo reverses recording policy just before election

The Lake Elmo City Council voted unanimously Oct. 18 to return to a policy of video recording all of its public meetings. The move follows two years of public criticism of the council which voted 3-2 after the last election to limit the number of city meetings that were available for the public to review by video recording.

The motion to change the policy was made by Councilmember Julie Fliflet, who originally led a majority of the council to limit video recording of meetings when she was first elected. Fliflet is currently running for mayor.

On Feb. 24, 2015, — about two months after a new city council was seated — Councilmember Justin Bloyer presented a policy that would formalize a city practice to record all meetings of its council, commissions and committees. In his memo to the council, Bloyer said the practice was put in place in 2013 “for the purpose of public transparency and engagement, council education and promoting public information.”

Fliflet, along with Councilmember Jill Lundgren and Councilmember  Anne Smith, voted against making the practice a policy. Fliflet then presented a motion that limited the public meetings that were recorded to include only the council, parks commission and planning commission meetings. Council workshops and committee meetings would not be recorded.

“I feel that the aim of city council workshops is to maximize informality so that discussion can be less contained,” Fliflet said.

At that time, then-city attorney Dave Snyder said the recording of meetings varies between cities, but that it is ultimately a policy decision of the council. The city council voted 3-2 — with Bloyer and Mayor Mike Pearson dissenting — to implement the policy of limiting which meetings would be recorded.

Since then, there has been public outcry against the policy, which has come up frequently during the current election cycle. Incumbents Bloyer and Pearson, as well as candidate Christine Nelson, have featured the recording policy and a perceived lack of transparency heavily in their campaign material. City council candidates Ben Roth and Brett Emmons, as well as Fliflet, have referenced transparency, but it has not been the highlight of their campaigns.

During the Oct. 17 candidate forum sponsored by The Gazette, Emmons addressed some of the public angst surrounding transparency issues.

“If there is a feeling of transparency issues, then I would agree that this is a time that you need to be more transparent, open it up and have whatever is needed to get back to the point where people are saying, ‘Now I’m watching what is happening and maybe it is not so bad after all,’” Emmons said.

During the Oct. 18 city council meeting, Fliflet referenced Emmons’ comments from the forum.

“If there is a perception of a problem with transparency, we should address it,” Fliflet said. “And I agree with that.”

Fliflet said the motion she made in 2015 was intended to help council interaction and avoid “grandstanding” with the cameras on.

“Obviously, this didn’t help. It didn’t cause us to function better,” Fliflet said.

In a motion that entirely reversed her position two years ago, Fliflet moved to record all meetings.

“I wholeheartedly believe we should go back to taping these meetings to make it easier for people to watch these meetings,” Fliflet said.

She said recording meetings would also help to alleviate issues the council has had regarding council members attending meetings and problems that occur when there is a quorum.

However, Bloyer was skeptical of Fliflet’s motivations to reverse the controversial policy three weeks before the election. The council had previously put in place a policy that would prohibit council members from putting items on the agenda during the election season, and from putting items on the agenda during the meeting. Fliflet’s motion was allowed despite both policies.

“We are going to take this after two years of hard work by the citizens of this city to demand a return to transparency,” Bloyer said. “I’m sure that it is Oct. 18 has nothing to do with it.”

Despite calling the move “electioneering,” Bloyer supported the motion.

“I’m happy to support this,” Bloyer said. “Whether it is because it is close to an election or if you truly had a change of heart.”

Residents who have been vocal opponents of the policy thanked the council for voting to return to the practice of recording meetings. Dick Weir said his business has suffered in the last two years because he has spent time going to meetings that weren’t available to be reviewed by tape.

“I’ve come to these meetings because I felt I had to come to these meetings,” Weir said.

Despite being pleased that meetings would be taped, Weir said he was confused by the timing of the vote on Oct. 18 and what had changed in the last two years.

“There was a huge outcry for taping meetings and that was all ignored,” Weir said.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]