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Appointment process for vacant seat starts over in Thomson Township

After an advisory opinion from the state, township leaders decided to reopen the application process for the vacant seat, after the appointed candidate resigned.

FILE:ThomsonTownHall
The Thomson Township Hall Izabel Johnson / 2021 File / Pine Journal
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ESKO — The Thomson Township Board of Supervisors voted Thursday, Dec. 8, to restart the application process for the vacant town board seat after an advisory opinion from the state found the board violated open meetings law.

The decision from the board comes after Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis, of the Minnesota Department of Administration, wrote an advisory opinion that the township had violated open meetings law when going into closed session to discuss applicants for its vacant board seat on Sept. 8.

State says Thomson Township violated open meetings law

Roberts-Davis' opinion, which was submitted to the board on Dec. 2, stated the board was not able to close its meeting based on state statute, as the candidates were not under the authority of the board, meaning a closed meeting was not permitted.

This is something township leaders disagree with, as township attorney David Pritchett said his interpretation is that when the candidates applied for the position, they subjected themselves to the board's authority.

The opinion also states the board did not provide any information indicating it closed a meeting to evaluate the performance of an individual subject to its authority.

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Pritchett said this is what the state's opinion stems from — that the board did not announce who the six candidates were prior to closing the meeting, but only after they had reduced the candidates from six to three.

However, while township officials disagree with the opinion, Pritchett said they should move forward at fixing the issue.

"I understand where the department arrived at its opinion. We just disagree," he said. "In this case we definitely have an opportunity to fix it, and we would like to make sure that there is no aspersions cast on the seat or the board member that occupies that seat."

Another issue Pritchett pointed out to the board was that the township did not record the closed session, giving another reason to start the process over.

Officials are in a somewhat awkward position moving forward, Pritchett said, as they appointed David Sunnarborg to the vacant seat on Dec. 1 — one day before the advisory opinion was sent to them.

For the board to move forward, Pritchett said Sunnarborg would need to resign from the position to allow the board to open it up for applications again. That would allow the board to correct the alleged violation.

"We would need to unwind the process and start the process over," he said. "That would only be an option if Dave Sunnarborg resigns his position he was appointed to one week ago."

Sunnarborg announced his resignation during the meeting, which the board accepted, before making a motion to open the application process for the seat.

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The board's next regular meeting is set for Thursday, Dec. 15, but Pritchett said that would be too soon to open and review applications for the seat.

The board's first meeting of 2023 is scheduled for Jan. 5, which is when officials intend to review applications and appoint a candidate to the seat.

Candidates will be able to fill out an application until Thursday, Dec. 15.

In order to streamline the process, the board will have prospective candidates answer the same questions that were asked of the last round of candidates during the candidate forum on Nov. 17.

Questions included more information on each person's background, their previous board experience and issues they think the township is facing, among others.

Pritchett said this track was the best the board could do given the circumstances.

"I know this board is very committed to the (open meeting) process," he said. "We want to make sure that not only we look like we are doing the right thing, but we are actually undoing something that was told to us is inaccurate."

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Dylan covers the local governments of Cloquet and Carlton County, as well as the Esko and Wrenshall school boards for the Cloquet Pine Journal.
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