Journalism investigation shows Ag. Society as public government body, subject to open meeting, data laws

By: 
Jordan Gerard

The Houston County Agricultural Society was proven to be an open and public body of government after a nearly two-year long investigation by the Spring Grove Herald. 

What started as an investigation into the activities of two former employees – who did the premium list work that was previously done by the Herald – stemmed another question: Is the Ag Society a public body of government subject to the Open Meeting Law and Minnesota Government Data Practices Act? 

Answer: Yes. 

The Herald made an official Minnesota Government Data Practices Act request in December 2018 and February 2019, which is similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), except on a state level.

Research also showed other county agricultural societies in Minnesota are subject to the aforementioned laws. 

The Minnesota Department of Administration also handed down two opinions that opined the Dakota County Agricultural Society is subject to the Open Meeting Law and Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, and therefore by extension, the Houston County Agricultural Society should also be subject to those laws. 

However, the board’s attorney disagreed with those opinions because it did not specifically name Houston County Ag Society and did not consider the society to be a political subdivision.

But an opinion issued in 2019 did name the Houston County Agricultural Society as subject to the Open Meeting Law and Minnesota Government Data Practices Act because Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 38, gives county agricultural societies its power and responsibilities, thus making them a political subdivision subject to Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13 and 13D (the aforementioned laws in question).

Even if the body in question is a nonprofit organization, it is still subject to the proper laws. 

After much back and forth between lawyers’ letters, the Herald received minutes from 2017 and 2018 Fair Board meetings, invoices and printing company receipts last week.

The Herald also requested other materials between the Ag Society and two private contractors doing the work of the premium list, but those materials were not available or not in possession of the society. 

So what does this mean for our readers? This means that anyone can make a public data request to the Ag. Society for public materials including agendas, minutes, certain financial records and other materials and receive them in a timely manner.

If you want to see the minutes from a past meeting, you can write a letter and request the documents you seek. 

You need to cite the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act as your reasoning. Send your letter to the Fair Board at PO Box 91, Caledonia, MN 55921 or email it to houstoncountyfair@rocketmail.com

Changes made include a sign at Elsie’s Bar and Grill notifying the public of the agricultural society’s meetings, whereas before there was no information about the meetings. 

The meeting information is also posted on the board’s website under “Contact Us” at www.houstoncountyfair.com.

Meetings are held on the third Sunday of each month at 6 p.m. at the fair grounds in the fair office building (June-September) and at Elsie’s Bar and Grill in Caledonia (October-May), though dates and times are subject to change due to holidays or weather. The annual meeting is held each year in November, where officers and board members are elected.

A copy of the agenda is now available at meetings. Minutes should be easily requested after the meeting is concluded and delivered in a timely manner.

Minutes do not need approval to be viewed by the public after the meeting is concluded. 

The board can note the minutes are “preliminary” and “not final,” but cannot withhold them from the public, according to MN Dept. of Administration, opinion 94-026.

Regardless of its physical form, storage media or conditions of use all government data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by the Ag. Society should be available to the public by either physical inspection or receipt of copies, unless the data is classified as nonpublic by state statute or federal law, according to Minnesota Statutes Section 13.02, subdivision 7 and Minnesota Statutes Section 13.03.