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Viewpoint: What's so secretive about the Jefferson School sale?

By Jim Pumarlo, Red Wing

The city of Red Wing is seeking proposals to redevelop the Friedrich Building, 10,000 square feet of space. Proposals are due June 14. Staff plans to publicize a brief summary of proposals the following week and present them to the City Council at its June 24 meeting. The public will be invited to comment prior to any council decision.

A half-mile away, on the other end of my neighborhood, the Red Wing School Board solicited proposals to redevelop the former Jefferson Elementary School, 95,000 square feet, and the accompanying square block. Proposals were opened in a closed meeting March 18 at the strong recommendation of Supt. Karsten Anderson and the district's attorney.

The distinct approaches represent a stark contrast in how city and school staff view their responsibility to citizens. The district's process also represents an overreach in interpretation and application of the Open Meeting Law. They did their best to squelch any public discussion of the proposed uses and dollar amounts of the three proposals — data classified as nonpublic under state law.

Open Meeting Law

These are the pertinent provisions of the Open Meeting Law:

• Except for a few exceptions, meetings may not be closed to discuss nonpublic data.

• Nonpublic data may be discussed at a public meeting if it is reasonably necessary to conduct the business or agenda item before the public body.

• A public body may — read: is not required to — close a meeting to discuss a building sale or purchase.

Proposals were submitted by Keller-Baartman Properties LLC, James and Jennifer Patterson, and Valley View Recovery Center. The proposal was awarded to Keller-Baartman. That's all we'd know if Anderson and legal counsel had their way. Minimal details of two of the proposals were presented in public comments at board meetings.

• Keller-Baartman is proposing a day care center. We have no idea of the capacity or scope of services. We have no idea who is the proposed operator. We know the existing green space, at minimum, is to be preserved.

• Valley Treatment Center apparently proposed a residential drug treatment center.

• The Patterson proposal remains a secret.

Negotiations between Anderson and Keller-Baartman were to be concluded within 60 days. The board authorized the superintendent May 20 to seek an extension.

Should neighbors — as well as the community at-large — have known what the proposed uses were for Jefferson School before a proposal was selected? Is the building's proposed use really a state secret?

To be clear, the attorney recommended and Anderson controlled the closed process. The School Board, despite attempts to have an open discussion of the proposals, received mixed messages. In fact, the board chair feared the process would have to start all over if proposals were discussed at an open meeting.

That's not the case had Anderson, from the beginning, told the board and the bidders exactly what information could be discussed in public. These were the messages delivered by Anderson at the School Board meetings:

Feb. 4: Resident Paul Drotos asked the board to keep an open mind on the proposal for a drug addiction recovery facility. Anderson said Drotos was "more than welcome to come back at any time to talk about the options that we will be considering."

March 4: Anderson submitted a memo following questions raised by the board about the sale process. He noted that the law allows the proposed use and dollar amount to be discussed in an open meeting if it is "reasonably necessary to conduct the business item before the body." Anderson commented, "I'm always a fan of transparency. I think it's better just to lay everything out there, but in this case with questions, the way that things are written and interpreted by different people, my suggestion is to go in closed session."

Was the information "reasonably necessary to conduct the business item before the body"? The board obviously considered the proposed uses and dollar amounts before selecting a winning proposal in its closed meeting, which therefore would seem to have been reasonably necessary to the discussion. A more basic question: Is it in the public's interest to know the proposed uses of the redevelopment of this square block? Anderson and the attorney apparently don't think so.

March 18: The proposal was awarded in closed session despite concerns raised by at least one board member. Anderson waffled, saying he was fine with opening or closing the meeting — a direct contradiction of his initial recommendation.

Anderson has repeatedly referenced that he was following the attorney's advice. Citizens will unfortunately never know the attorney's specific reasons for recommending this process. The district has authority under state law to keep this correspondence secret, and Anderson and the attorney have chosen to do so.

But shouldn't the board at least know the reasons and then decide how to proceed? From all indications, board members were not broadly given any specifics.

At the March 4 meeting, Anderson said he had been carefully analyzing the steps with the attorney, calling the potential building sale "a learning process."

Public deserves to know

Taxpayers have learned a lot, too. When facing this decision that might involve differences of opinion, Anderson will seize any opportunity to keep citizens in the dark. The proposed use of Jefferson School still must receive a conditional-use permit from the city, which fortunately requires a public hearing.

Make no mistake, a day care center may well be the best use for the former elementary school. But doesn't the public deserve the opportunity to weigh in on all the proposals before the district selects one proposal and closes the deal?

At minimum, Anderson convinced the board to snub the spirit of the law — that public business should be conducted in public view. At worst, he steered the board to skirting — and maybe even violating — the letter of the law.

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