Time to shed brighter light on government proceedings

by | Mar 16, 2008 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Distributed as a guest editorial by the Minnesota Newspaper Association in observance of Sunshine Week, March 16-22, 2008

Minnesotans’ everyday lives are affected by the decisions of governing bodies. A school board decides to close a school. A city council sets parameters for business incentives. A county board regulates where feedlots may be located. State legislators debate tax policy.

Yet, while public officials routinely encourage citizen participation in their decision-making, Minnesotans too often are prohibited from ringside seats when public officials are tackling sensitive decisions. Citizen redress is increasingly difficult, too. Simply put, public access laws have deteriorated in recent years – even in Minnesota, a state recognized for some of the strongest laws regarding access to meetings and government data.

The Minnesota Newspaper Association – representing the interests of all citizens – is lobbying the Legislature to change these laws. In at least one area, initial signals are encouraging.

Reminding citizens and public officials about the public’s right of access to government information is the focus of “Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know,” March 16-22. At its foundation, Sunshine Week underscores the importance of the free flow of information for an open, effective and accountable government.

Our state’s access laws may be well meaning, but – in practical terms – they fall short in functionality and enforcement. Look no further than the complaints filed in 2007 with the Minnesota Department of Administration, the state’s official arbiter when citizens are rebuffed in their attempts to bring “sunshine” to public meetings and government data. Among the cases:

  • The Hampton Town Board limited citizen access to the official journal of votes to only during the board’s monthly meetings.
  • A Minneapolis City Council committee discussed a lengthy report, but the contents were not made available until after the meeting, thus severely limiting citizen discussion.
  • The Byron School District refused to release to the Rochester Post-Bulletin information about an alleged hazing incident – namely, the team, the nature of the incident, the number of students involved and the disciplinary action.
  • The Douglas County Sheriff’s Department refused a citizen’s request for information about individuals involved in a motor vehicle accident including names and addresses.
  • Todd County denied a citizen’s inquiry as to why the County Board fired the county administrator on the basis that the former administrator might appeal the action.

In all these instances, and many more, the Department of Administration’s ruled in favor of the complainant. These opinions are a valuable asset to open government as many governing bodies take their cue and release the information. But not all do. When they don’t, a citizen’s sole recourse is to seek remedy through the courts – a process that unfortunately is often lengthy and costly.

That may change in a bill being spearheaded by the Minnesota Newspaper Association at the Legislature. The legislation would substantially increase the likelihood that attorney fees would be awarded in lawsuits brought to enforce compliance with the Data Practices Act and Open Meeting Law.

As currently drafted, the proposed bill basically provides that a court must award attorney fees to a plaintiff who substantially prevails in litigation brought under these laws, if the plaintiff first obtained a favorable advisory opinion from the state Department of Administration.

Don’t misinterpret. For the most part, citizens have broad access to public meetings and government data in Minnesota.  It’s no surprise, however, that access is suddenly restricted when public officials are faced with rendering decisions on sensitive issues that are certain to stir controversy. The final vote may well be taken in purview of the public, but citizens are often left in the dark during preliminary meetings when the most important decisions are made on contentious issues.

Yet, the determinations framing the final vote arguably demand the greatest scrutiny and the participation of all stake holders, ensuring that policy-makers have the broadest perspective when registering a final “aye” or “nay.”

Newspapers are not asking for special privileges. At their foundation, editors and reporters represent the eyes and ears of all Minnesotans. In the end, everyone – including policy-makers at all levels – will be better served by ensuring the sun shines on Minnesota government.