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For years, St. Anthony city leaders have ventured beyond their business-as-usual surroundings in City Hall to spend a night away in a comfortable hotel for an annual gathering described as a “goal-setting session.”

The overnight, out-of-town setting, they say, helps minimize distractions and promotes crucial camaraderie, but it has raised some citizen concerns.

At the gathering, City Council members and staff cement priorities for the coming year on everything from street projects to race and equity initiatives.

Taxpayers foot the bill, which includes hotel, food and room rental costs, as well as money spent on a facilitator hired to guide the sessions. Last year, retreat costs totaled nearly $9,600. Expenses for the gathering held this week at a Marriott hotel in Brooklyn Park are expected to be about the same.

“The money you spend here pays dividends,” said Mayor Jerry Faust.

But some residents are ­questioning the location of the meeting, which they describe as costly and inconvenient for the public to attend. Some say it’s another strike against a city that has grappled with a string of high-profile controversies in recent years, including the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile by one of its police officers and the closure last summer of Lowry Grove, the suburb’s only mobile home park.

Resident Nancy Robinett said the gathering was not well-publicized, prompting her to request details from the city.

“I didn’t even know it existed, and then I had to work to find it out and then work to even get it published,” said Robinett, who has previously run for City Council and is a founding member of the grass-roots group St. Anthony Villagers for Community Action. “It is just really wrong to be so unwelcoming to public observation.”

City officials say the out-of-town format of the annual retreat goes back decades. Faust, who was first elected to the City Council in 1996, said it’s the first he’s heard of objections about it.

“The reasons we do it are valid,” Faust said. “We have to go out of town if we’re going to get out of City Hall,” where “you’re besieged by the day-to-day activities.”

Former Mayor Dennis Cavanaugh, whose City Council tenure stretched from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, said the sessions were productive for brainstorming and helped city leaders communicate better. Citizen observers were far and few between, and Cavanaugh suspects it’s because they didn’t know about the gathering in the first place.

Still, he added: “There’s no reason it couldn’t be held here.”

Open meeting law concerns

Among neighboring cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, St. Anthony is alone in holding an annual planning session overnight.

From Blaine to Columbia Heights to Robbinsdale, many hold annual retreats at City Hall or other city-owned buildings, like the police department, library or a fire station.

Some city officials say it used be a common practice to go out of town for goal-setting retreats, a ritual that’s fallen out of favor because of public scrutiny over costs and concerns about transparency.

“I think most cities are getting away from that because it tends to get too expensive,” said Greg Lee, Anoka’s city manager. “It just kind of looks bad.”

In St. Anthony, residents have raised questions about the open meeting law because the gathering is held beyond city limits.

Jay Lindgren, St. Anthony’s city attorney, said there’s a distinction between regular meetings where a public body is “making regular decisions and taking actions” and special meetings.

“This is a properly called special meeting, and there is not a legal requirement that it be held within the city limits,” Lindgren said. “This is a facilitated planning and team-building exercise that’s better served by being held in a conference center environment.”

But Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association with expertise in the state’s open meeting law, said a 1967 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling suggests otherwise.

“What a public body calls a particular gathering is meaningless under the open meeting law,” Anfinson said. “If the purpose of the law is to enable local citizens to attend the meetings of their governing public bodies, the meetings … shouldn’t be held at distant points that are inconvenient or hard to get to.”

On Thursday, city leaders closed two sets of heavy double doors in a Marriott conference room about 20 minutes away from St. Anthony City Hall and formulated a road map to guide city business over the next 12 months.

Two members of the public, including Robinett, sat on chairs on the room’s periphery while about 30 people sat around a conference table, sketching ideas on oversized Post-it notes and hearing presentations from city staff and guests on topics ranging from housing to finance to police initiatives.

“The time we spend here is really important,” Faust said to open the session. “If we wouldn’t have had this teamwork and this camaraderie and this trust in each other, we would have never made it through the [Castile] shooting.”

The buffet-style lunch of roast pork loin, meatloaf and fried chicken arrived right on time, giving city leaders a break between the morning and afternoon sessions. With cloth napkins in laps, they chatted about subjects both professional and personal — a key aim of the two-day sessions.

“You find out people’s likes and dislikes and get to understand them as individuals,” Faust said.

After nearly eight hours of presentations and discussion, city officials broke for dinner at the hotel restaurant. They say the overnight format helps curb attendance drop-off on the second day and keeps them in a creative environment. Last year, about a dozen people stayed overnight.

Out of the gathering comes the city’s annual strategic plan with action steps, published on the city website.

“This is hard work,” Faust said. “At the end of the day and a half, you’re mentally exhausted.”

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751