Spend­ing on meals found to be im­proper

City Coun­cil’s monthly out­ing cost tax­pay­ers $10K, au­di­tor finds.

Star Tribune - - 2000 FT. - By MATT McKIN­NEY mckin­ney@star­tri­bune.com Matt McKin­ney • 612-217-1747

A long-stand­ing Rochester cus­tom of charg­ing the tax­pay­ers for a monthly City Coun­cil meal at a lo­cal res­tau­rant was an im­proper use of pub­lic funds and a po­ten­tial vi­o­la­tion of the state’s Open Meet­ing Law, the state au­di­tor has ruled.

The meals, which ended last fall af­ter com­plaints, to­taled about $10,000 over the past three years as the mayor, coun­cil mem­bers, city ad­min­is­tra­tor and as­sorted staff met at spots such as the Red Lob­ster and the Olive Gar­den to hash out city busi­ness.

The meals broke In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice re­port­ing rules be­cause they weren’t recorded as tax­able in­come for the coun­cil mem­bers, de­ter­mined David Ken­ney, le­gal coun­sel for the state au­di­tor. He told the city in a five-page let­ter to stop hold­ing the meet­ings and to en­sure that any other meals pro­vided to city em­ploy­ees com­ply with tax law.

The “coun­cil din­ners,” a fix­ture of city pol­i­tics that ap­par­ently goes back decades, were ques­tioned last year by Coun­cil Mem­ber Nick Cam­pion, who wrote in the lo­cal news blog The Med City Beat that he stopped at­tend­ing be­cause the meet­ings felt in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede re­luc­tantly sus­pended the meet­ings last fall and com­pared Cam­pion’s boy­cott to Na­tional Foot­ball League quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick’s protest of the na­tional an­them.

Brede, who is re­cov­er­ing from dou­ble knee surgery and work­ing half days, said Tues­day that he hasn’t had time yet to read Ken­ney’s Nov. 7 let­ter. He said he planned to read it, but also won­dered if there’s an­other way to fund the din­ners, which he called valu­able.

It ap­pears that, at least in the past, some coun­cil mem­bers may have used the din­ner meet­ings to pri­vately dis­cuss city is­sues. A 1989 Rochester Post-Bul­letin ar­ti­cle that Cam­pion found quotes a for­mer coun­cil mem­ber say­ing he uses the din­ner meet­ings to “thrash out” is­sues be­fore tak­ing them pub­lic. That would be a vi­o­la­tion of the state’s Open Meet­ing Law, which al­lows few ex­cep­tions to the rule that any gath­er­ing of the City Coun­cil be pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble.

Coun­cil Mem­ber Michael Wo­j­cik, who also be­gan boy­cotting the meals be­fore they were sus­pended, said the din­ner meet­ings were “point­less” and too of­ten felt like a pri­vate gath­er­ing. Cam­pion char­ac­ter­ized the meals as an in­no­cent process handed down from an­other time, say­ing he didn’t see them as in­dica­tive of a wider prob­lem in Rochester pol­i­tics.

“I have no in­ter­est in pur­su­ing this fur­ther,” he said. “I will say it pained me in some ways to write the note, be­cause I do un­der­stand the as­pect of ca­ma­raderie.”

Cam­pion said city of­fi­cials shouldn’t be asked to re­im­burse the city for the meals, since they were fol­low­ing staff rec­om­men­da­tions, and Brede said he’s not planning to re­im­burse the city, ei­ther.

“We’ve got big­ger fish to fry than to keep ar­gu­ing over this,” he said.

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