Supreme Court: Power agencies not subject to access laws

ST. PAUL (AP) —Municipal power agencies can conduct closed meetings and keep private records because they aren’t subject to laws regulating government bodies, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
State law “allows municipal power agencies to manage their property and affairs in the same manner as a private corporation,” Justice James Gilbert wrote for the majority, which also included Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, Justices Alan Page and Edward Stringer.
The 4-2 decision set aside a ruling by the Court of Appeals, which said the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency was subject to laws governing open meetings and records.
The agency contended it sometimes needed privacy to make decisions in an increasingly competitive market. The lawyer for three newspapers fighting the closed meetings argued the agency was a government group and subject to open meetings laws and laws governing open records.
The agency was formed in 1977 by 18 southern Minnesota cities to ensure adequate, economical and reliable sources of energy.
Justices Sandra Gardebring and Paul Anderson said the agency’s records should be open.
“Cities are not required to join together to form publicly owned electrical utilities, but if they do, those publicly owned entities should not automatically be entitled to a level of secrecy in doing business that other government entities are not accorded,” the dissent said.
The Post-Bulletin of Rochester, the Owatonna People’s Press and the Sentinel of Fairmont fought to keep the meetings and records open. Their lawyer, Mark Anfinson, said he would take the matter to the Legislature next year and ask that the law be changed.
“It was a policy choice by the majority of the court because the law was simply not clear so the members of the court were basically free to choose which outcome they wanted,” he said. “And I think that choice was made on the basis of their commitment to public access and accountability.”
Anfinson, however, said the ruling was narrow and would carry no broader implications for records or meetings of other government groups.
In the lower courts, an Olmsted County district court judge ruled the agency wasn’t a public body in terms of access laws. The Court of Appeals overturned that decision on a 2-1 ruling, saying the agency is similar to a board of a school or city.