Times reporter at Donnelly council meeting receives abusive treatment

Managing Editor’s note: Prior to the publication of this story, we reached out to the Donnelly City Council for comment; none was received.

By Reed Anfinson with notes of the meeting provided by Katie Erdman

At the Oct. 7 meeting of the Donnelly City Council, Stevens County Times reporter Katie Erdman requested that someone present at future city council meetings start a recorder provided by the newspaper when she cannot be present at a meeting.

The reporter would then use the recording to write stories about the actions of the council. Many small town city councils, school boards, and county boards record their meetings on their own.

Some cities, school boards, and counties stream their meetings live on the internet for citizens to watch.  They also post the videos to their websites so that citizens can watch past meetings.

Because the Donnelly City Council meets at 4 p.m. the first Saturday of the month, it is not always possible for a reporter to cover it in person. The request for someone to assist in recording the Donnelly council meetings was denied. It had also declined to assist with recording meetings in September.

September 13, Stevens County Times Co-publisher and Managing Editor Reed Anfinson wrote Ennen an email about Erdman’s request for assistance in recording the Donnelly City Council meetings. 

“Our reporter for the Donnelly City Council meetings can’t always be there at the times you meet and would like to have the meetings recorded,” he wrote. “I understand you are under no obligation to record the meetings. However, the law is clear that citizens and the press representing those citizens have the right to record them.”

Erdman says she was also told earlier that she couldn’t record the council meetings, or have someone else record them.

“Under state statute Chapter 13D, everyone has the right to attend most government-sponsored meetings in Minnesota. Additionally, the U.S. Constitution and other statutes guarantee journalists’ right to document and broadcast what they see there — whether via photos, videos or audio recordings,” Anfinson told the Donnelly council in an email.

Anfinson also said, “The citizens of Donnelly are best served when the news of what the Donnelly City Council does at its meetings is reported. Most public bodies record their meetings and make the recordings available to citizens. It would serve your constituents best, and the community, if the city recorded its meetings, but if it doesn’t, then we will exercise our right to do it.”

However, at the Oct. 7 Donnelly council meeting, Mayor Dale Ennen said that the only record of the meeting the residents of Donnelly need to see are the ones the city puts up at the city post office. Those minutes are written by the city clerk and posted after approved by the council a month later.

Erdman pointed out that those minutes are the ones legally required by state law and do not include the discussions that are the basis for the decisions the council makes.

She also told the council members that the Times is attempting to cover more of the meetings in the small towns in the county in order to keep the public informed on what is happening in their city.

As Erdman presented her case for the council to assist in recording their meetings, Council Member Jacob Eystad raised his voice and used profanity. “Why don’t you (f) go to the cities and (f) interview the legislature and find out why we can’t (f) get funds to put a sewer system in the town,” he yelled at her, she said.

Erdman told him it was not her duty to report on the actions of the state Legislature. When Eystad again began using profanity, Erdman says she left the meeting.

“I stood up, said I don’t need to listen to this and walked out,” she said. “However, when I got to my car, I thought if I leave, they win. It is what they wanted me to do so I went back in, sat down, and took notes on the meeting.”

At this point, Erdman began recording the meeting on her phone. 

At the end of the meeting, Erdman said that Mayor Ennen turned to her “and said that to answer my question, they would not help out with recording the meeting when I am not present.”

But he didn’t leave it there, Erdman said. He began attacking her writing abilities. She left the meeting rather than continue to listen to his criticisms.

Erdman told the council that she would let the Stevens County Times co-publisher and managing editor Reed Anfinson know about its treatment of her and its decision on assisting in recording its meetings.

Ennen told her, “Good, I would love to talk to him about some of the things he has written, too.”

Erdman told the Times that after the treatment she received by the Donnelly City Council she will no longer be covering its meetings. The Times will be looking for another reporter for the meetings, or someone who is willing to attend the meetings and record them.

In an advertisement placed in The Stevens County Times this week, the City of Donnelly stated: “Official proceedings of Donnelly City Council approved meeting minutes are posted at Donnelly Post Office. If not approved by the Donnelly City Council, then it is not official minutes or views of Donnelly.”

Removing aged Donnelly septic systems

With a state grant to finance the installation of a sanitary sewer system denied, the City of Donnelly will have to continue with its residents relying on their septic systems. 

In the minutes read by City Clerk Sarah Koning, it was noted that the City of Donnelly had applied for a state grant to replace the septic tanks with a sewer system. The grant for the city was denied. 

The city then sought bids for the project looking into whether or not it could do the project on its own. However, those bids came back higher than the tax base of the community could afford.

With a new system off the table, the Donnelly council changed its focus to the current septic system consisting of individual septic tanks at each property. While many of the septic systems are still in use, others have been abandoned. Homes have been removed from lots and there are abandoned homes where they are no longer being used.

A large part of the properties in the community has septic tanks that are 40 years old, or older. Tanks that are no longer being used could be deteriorating and possibly even collapsing, posing a danger to residents of the community.

Property owners of lots where there are unused septic systems were sent letters by the council asking that they remove the septic tanks or see to their demolition.

One of the residents who had received a letter from the city about removing a septic tank in the lot next door to their property, came to the Oct. 7 meeting to question who was responsible for paying for the removal of the septic tanks.

The response from the council was that it was the responsibility of the property owner address septic tanks that were no longer being used. They could opt to either remove the tank or collapse the lid and fill it in, the council said.

The council also decided to adopt a tank fee for any property that is not paying for utilities. The property owners who are paying for utilities are helping to pay the cost of the system, but the other property owners are not. Therefore the tank fee was adopted with a letter sent out. 

Clerk Koning had several names of property owners who she could not find addresses for. Mayor Ennen told her to check with the county office for those addresses.

Community Club purchase

A representative of the Donnelly Community Club met with the council to seek approval for purchasing several properties in the city.

The Community Club was interested in purchasing parcels that include the old school house, the old depot, concession stands and storage sheds. 

The representative asked for addresses for the parcels so they could be covered under its insurance policy. Mayor Dale Ennen said that they will get the parcel numbers and then contact her. She also asked about some of the damage done to the alleys when fiber optic lines were installed. Ennen stated that he will get in contact with Runestone about doing the alley repairs.

Public works report

Alec Manthei gave a public works department reported he has been doing work at the pump house and well house. The pump house needs some electrical work and the council discussed also replacing the roof. 

A heating system was discussed for ones that could be appropriate for the building and the high moisture content. Manthei was told that Hawley’s Plumbing and Heating of Benson would be coming to give a price on pipework needed at the well house. This building is normally damp, causing damage inside the building over the years.

The city received an agreement from Stevens County for City maintenance work which includes grading, snow plowing and trucking. The new agreement will be for $170 per hour for the major pieces of equipment. One of the county plows is stored in Donnelly in the city garage.

The council members decided not to give a donation this year to West Central Initiative who gave a presentation to the council earlier in the year.