Open government requires vigilance
March 11, 2013
by Ivan Raconteur

Freedom of information is a powerful thing, and one worth protecting.

Sadly, some elected officials and public employees openly resist attempts by the media or private citizens to access public data.

Others say they support transparency in government, but, by their actions, discourage it.

I am not suggesting public officials are always engaged in some sort of chicanery.

On the other hand, I am not suggesting public officials can always be relied upon to do the right thing, either.

The open meeting law and the Freedom of Information Act are powerful tools that can be used to keep government accountable.

Deliberations and decisions that take place in the light of day are much more likely to result in a square deal for taxpayers than those negotiated behind closed doors.

Some elected officials are responsive to their constituents, but others seem to be in business for themselves.

Far too often, politicians talk about what they want, rather than what the citizens they represent want.

The best shot citizens have to influence public policy – if, indeed, we can influence public policy at all – comes before decisions are made, not after.

Once our elected officials have made a decision, they tend to treat it as a fait accompli – as if it can’t possibly be undone.

If citizens want their voices to be heard, the time to speak out is before decisions are made, and the only way citizens will know what elected officials are discussing is if that information is kept public.

Requiring public bodies to publish notice of public meetings gives the public an opportunity to attend meetings to hear discussion or provide input on subjects that affect them.

Publishing an agenda after a meeting has occurred does not accomplish this goal.

Adding items to the agenda after it has been published also erodes transparency.

Too often, cities publish council agendas the week before a meeting, then proceed to add items to that agenda, depriving the public of the chance to know what the council will be discussing (and possibly acting on).

Whether this is done intentionally, or is simply due to a lack of organization, the result is detrimental to taxpayers.

It is up to citizens to demand accountability from their elected officials at all levels. It won’t happen by accident.

Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law (Minnesota Statutes Chapter 13D) contains a presumption that the meetings of all public bodies and their committees are open.

The list of reasons a meeting can be closed is short and very specific.

Minnesota Statute 13.03 states all government records are public unless the law specifically classifies them otherwise.

Requests for public data may be either oral or written.

Government entities may not charge a fee for simply inspecting public records or separating public from not-public data.

A public entity may charge for making copies or compiling data only if the requestor asks for copies. For 100 or fewer copies, the fee cannot exceed 25 cents per page.

Some people think newspapers and other media outlets have special powers when it comes to public information.

We may have greater opportunities to publish information once we find it, but the laws that keep public information public apply to anyone, not just journalists. Anyone can request public information from public bodies.

Freedom, including freedom of information, requires vigilance. It would be dangerous to assume that because information is public today, it will stay that way. We can’t expect the open meeting law to keep meetings open unless we actively insist that this happens.

At all levels of government, there are elected officials and public employees who seem determined to exclude the public from the process of government.

They do this in various ways.

They might schedule “workshop meetings” or “retreats” intended to discourage resident attendance.

They might illegally go into closed sessions when the topics they are discussing should clearly be discussed in open meetings.

Recently, the Open Meeting Law has been under attack by elected officials who discuss issues via e-mail exchanges, or other electronic means that deny the public access to the deliberative process.

These exchanges make it possible for discussions to take place and consensus to be reached long before an issue comes to a vote during a public meeting.

Some boards and councils have eliminated printed meeting packets, and provided laptops or iPads for elected officials.

This may save paper, but it may also make it impossible for residents to know what officials are looking at before, or even during a meeting.

If members are exchanging notes via e-mail or text messages, audience members are excluded from the dialog.

Public bodies are required to provide audience members, including journalists, copies of any document reviewed by the public body (with the exception of specific non-public data), but it is difficult to know what officials are looking at if it is all done electronically.

Sunshine Week 2013 is the week of March 10 to 16, and reminds us that the best form of government is open government. It is up to all of us to keep it that way.

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