Citizen Prevails Over Bemidji Merit Hearing Board Members’ Motion to Dismiss in “Sunshine” Lawsuit

The Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC) recently won a decisive victory for its client against the members of the City of Bemidji Merit Hearing Board in a “Sunshine” lawsuit. Sunshine laws (here, the Minnesota Open Meeting Law) require specific businesses and government agencies to maintain transparency and disclose their activities to the public.

Case Background

In December 2023, Bemidji resident C.T. Marhula, a “community activist and public data advocate,” represented by the UMLC, filed a lawsuit against members of the City of Bemidji Merit Hearing Board (MHB) over the failure to open an employment hearing held in the summer of 2023 for firefighter William “Bill” Batchelder. Marhula alleged the members of the MHB violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) by denying Batchelder’s request to open his hearing to the public, preventing Marhula from attending.

In March 2024, the MHB members moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the MHB was not subject to the OML and that Marhula’s complaint lacked sufficient facts to prove a violation. Marhula contended that the OML clearly applied to the MHB and that the board intentionally violated the law by refusing Batchelder’s request.

Recent Victory

On July 8, the District Court denied the Bemidji MHB members’ motion to dismiss. The court found that Marhula had pleaded sufficient facts for all his allegations, including that the MHB was subject to the OML and intentionally violated that law. Having prevailed against the MHB’s motion to dismiss, this case now likely continues in the District Court, with the parameters of the OML established in Marhula’s favor.

“I want to thank the Upper Midwest Law Center for standing up for truth, transparency, and the rule of law when the city and some local media engaged in a witch-hunt and coverup. The public had a right to know about Bill Batchelder’s hearing after he asked that it be public,” said C.T. Marhula.

“Marhula’s victory on this motion is a win for the people of Bemidji and all Minnesotans. Many cities have their own merit hearing boards, and, like Mr. Batchelder, public employees subject to those boards have the right under the open meeting law to request their hearings be open to the public,” said James Dickey, UMLC Senior Counsel. “Enforcing this right is important to ensure that the work of public bodies does not remain secret, that public employees are not punished for disagreeing with public officials and bureaucrats without public scrutiny, and that citizens can learn about public proceedings in all cases. An ultimate win for Marhula would mean recognition of the rights of all public employees and upholding the “sunshine” purpose of the OML.”

Read the District Court opinion here.

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