Jenkins is a small town (population 458) and its city hall reflects that. So when Clerk Krista Okerman, the city's only office worker, was in a snowmobile accident at the end of January that kept her away from the office during scheduled meeting times, the council was at a loss for how to move forward.
Clerks juggle a lot of responsibility in a city office. They prepare documents and agendas ahead of scheduled meetings, and they often also manage billing and various permit applications in some cities.
What some might not realize is that if the clerk is unavailable, the mayor and council members cannot simply meet together, email each other, call or text to create an agenda or plan steps moving forward because that would be against open meeting laws.
Council members can really only meet or communicate together if the public is made aware through proper public notice and if the public is invited to attend, with some exceptions. This means something as simple as calling the other council members to ask, “Are we still meeting?” is far more complicated when the clerk is unavailable.
“If (we) get three council members talking together, that constitutes an illegal meeting,” Jenkins Mayor Jon Lubke said. “The mayor does have the right to call an emergency meeting, but he has to do it in a certain amount of time in order to make that happen. We didn't feel this was an emergency meeting situation.”
Lubke was referring to the council's regular monthly meeting on Monday, Feb. 10, which never took place.
On top of that, for meetings without a clerk, the council would be operating without a clear agenda or any documents that the clerk would normally prepare. As a result, the Jenkins City Council has postponed two public functions since Okerman was injured. Fortunately, the city has not had any matters that could not wait.
“We've been able to do things and make things happen because all the bills are pretty much consent agenda stuff - you know, normal payroll and bills, nothing really where we needed council action to get into it,” Lubke said. “But if you go for any length of time, we're going to have to have somebody there, but you can't even appoint a temporary clerk until you have a meeting.”
Okerman also acts as the city's zoning administrator, so the city was fortunate the incident didn't occur during a time when building permits are coming in.
“In our case, we didn't have a lot going on this time of year, but if it was in the middle of summer and we had building permits,” Lubke said, "or somebody needed something done. We could be in a little bit of trouble.”
It turns out Jenkins is not the only city that hadn't fully planned for such a contingency. Backus, for example, also has one clerk who is responsible for many duties.
“Backus doesn't have a really great backup plan,” said Backus Clerk Ann Swanson. “I guess, probably what would happen at this point is that one of the council members would take the minutes for the meeting. They'd probably go ahead and meet, and then as far as getting the work done, I do have instructions on how to do procedures written down and perhaps one of the council members could come in and muddle through or they could talk to a neighboring city clerk or township clerk. We really haven't talked about it. So it is kind of a good question.”
Swanson said in the absence of the clerk, the council might need to simply meet on scheduled meeting nights and prepare an agenda as the first order of business during the regularly scheduled, public meeting. This would make the meeting longer, and more difficult; however, it would ensure the city does not break any meeting laws so long as it is done during a regularly scheduled open meeting.
The city of Pine River has both a deputy clerk and a plan for when the city clerk is on vacation; however, the city isn't fully prepared for an unexpected absence because when City Clerk Terri Dabill is absent, she prepares documents for the council ahead of time.
“Generally as a rule, if I'm going to be gone, I'll have things printed out,” Dabill said. “And the mayor can run the meeting or the acting mayor.”
In the case of an unexpected absence, Dabill said her deputy clerk would be able to perform all of her office duties, but would have a harder time preparing for meetings. She would likely depend on an old agenda to act as a template, but that contingency is not addressed in any city policy.
The League of Minnesota Cities says the solution is to have a plan in place while all is well so that a council isn't left in the wind in case of an emergency.
“If she will be in absence there should be someone who can stand in and help manage and organize meetings,” said league Research Assistant Emmanuel Emukah. “It's an unfortunate situation that happened to the clerk (in Jenkins). The city should have a policy in place for a situation like this.”
Emukah was not able to recommend a plan specifically, but it is important that councils take the time to lay out a plan before they need it, an idea Lubke seconded.
“I would say any of the small townships and stuff should at least consider what they would do,” Lubke said.
This is especially true the smaller the board of any jurisdiction is. With small townships that have only three board members, just two members meeting or talking would technically violate open meeting laws.
A formal policy would inform council members (without them breaking open meeting laws) how to proceed in the absence of the clerk. Should they meet anyway? Should they spend time in the first portion of the meeting to create an agenda? Should they seek assistance from a nearby city or township?
These are all questions a policy could answer.
Meanwhile, the Jenkins City Council expects to resume its regular meeting schedule, hopefully in March.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.