Each year, the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists recognizes those who fight for First Amendment rights with the chapter’s Peter S. Popovich Award.
This year, the award goes to a citizens group in Victoria, Minnesota, for their five-year effort to legally compel their City Council to open meetings, follow the law and provide public information to the public.
Ken Goulart, Larry Gubbe, Tom Funk, Alan Kildow, Sonya Braunschweig and a handful of citizens fought City Hall for basic public records like council meeting minutes and email communications. They were challenged and threatened, but they stood their ground and exercised their First Amendment right to speak out, holding the government accountable for its modus operandi of secrecy.
The group spent upwards of $20,000 of their own money, filed 21 Data Practices Act requests and spent thousands of hours researching records, filing requests for information, issuing correspondence and attending council meetings. When they were met with continued resistance from City Hall, the Victoria citizens took their battle to court and won a resounding victory with an order that showed four council members intentionally violated the Open Meeting Law 38 times.
In her ruling, Judge Janet Barke Cain said of the city officials: “The defendants express their ignorance of the OML to a degree this court finds shameful with regard to their duty to the public.”
The case will help journalists in Minnesota in that it serves as a warning to those who would flout the Open Meeting Law that violations will be taken seriously and that those who break the law will face consequences.
The group will accept the award and speak at this year’s MNSPJ Page One Awards banquet on June 14.