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Judge sides with man who says Bemidji violated open meetings law by keeping employment hearing closed

A Ninth Judicial District judge has ruled in favor of a plaintiff who argued that the city of Bemidji violated Minnesota’s open meetings law when it held a hearing regarding a firefighter’s employment.

Bill Batchelder

Court documents show the Bemidji City Merit Hearing Board held a hearing for William “Bill” Batchelder in August 2022. Batchelder, owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills, was employed as a paid on-call firefighter for the city and was appealing a reprimand he received from the Bemidji Fire Department. Batchelder asked for the meeting to be open to the public, but the board kept it closed.

Bemidji resident CT Marhula and the legal team from the Upper Midwest Law Center, which says its mission is to conduct “pro-liberty litigation,” argued that the meeting should have been open to the public at Batchelder’s request, that it was not electronically recorded and that there was no public notice of the meeting. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the City of Bemidji Merit Hearing Board is not subject to open meetings laws.

However, in a decision issued July 8, Judge Annie P. Claesson-Huesby found that Marhula had presented sufficient facts regarding all three alleged violations and denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A press release from the Upper Midwest Law Center said the case would likely continue in district court, with the parameters of the open meetings law having been established in Marhula’s favor.

Batchelder told the Lakeland News he was fired from his position as a city firefighter but is appealing the decision. We emailed Bemidji City Manager Richard Spiczka on Wednesday asking for the city’s reaction to the court’s decision, but did not receive a response by press time.