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Erring on the side of openness

Published (4/29/2010)
By Patty Ostberg
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Members of the House State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections Committee listen April 27 to testimony on a bill that would make several changes to the open meeting law. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)When a school board or city council directs a group of volunteer citizens to discuss an issue as a side group, should those meetings be open to the public?

Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul) believes they should.

He successfully offered an amendment to HF2958, sponsored by Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr. (DFL-Winona) that would change the state’s open meeting law by redefining “a meeting of a public body” to include advisory groups to formal councils and boards.

The bill would also clarify timelines for when special meetings should be posted, and reiterate that public meetings can be recorded and photographed by the public.

Approved April 27 by the House State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections Committee, it now goes to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee. A companion, SF2518, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope), awaits action by the full Senate.

Advisory groups included

Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, director of the Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division, said the open meeting law is supposed to balance efficient government with transparency by allowing the public to monitor meetings. “So much of the open meeting law has been changed in the subject of case law and commissioner and attorney general’s advisory opinions, the answers aren’t that easy, and there’s a lot of public confusion about this law,” she said.

Paymar served on a city council for eight years and has been a House member since 1997. “We should shine as much light on the meetings and activities of government as we possibly can.”

Under the bill, a public body would be defined as “a governmental multimember state, regional, or local appointed or elected body with governmental powers; a committee, subcommittee, board, commission, or other subset of a body with governmental powers.” The definition would further clarify that an advisory group is one established by a public body or subset of a body that uses public resources for the group’s work.

Tom Deans, attorney for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said advisory volunteers are often parents who are busy and work in informal settings through phone calls, meeting in people’s homes or even riding together in a car. They might make a few copies of materials using public resources, he said, but subjecting them to open meeting law requirements could be severely limiting.

Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) said, “If the school board takes a formal action to request a group, appoints a group to give them advice … Why would you not have a presumption that the public gets to have input?”

“These people are not trained in open meeting law compliance,” Deans countered, adding that people might be reluctant to volunteer.

Consider the scenario where a school board meets with a select group of parents about closing schools and they bring information back to an official board meeting and make the decision with little public input, said Paymar. “I’m not saying that all of these meetings have to be recorded or televised. … I’m just saying that the public should be notified where they are and give dates.”

This tries to get at those exact advisory groups that come to an agreement and bring it to the official board or council for “rubber stamp” approval, Winkler said.

Ann Higgins, intergovernmental relations representative for the League of Minnesota Cities, said many cities rely on citizen input, especially during hard budget times. At a time most cities are reducing staff, the advisory groups would most likely need assistance from city staff if they were required to comply with open meeting law standards, she said.

Legislative responsibility

Including advisory groups in the open meeting law is something House and Senate members should consider, Paymar said. “The Legislature really needs to take a look at its own process. If the public knew how some decision-making occurred around here I think they would be aghast.”

Working under a different set of guidelines, the Legislature creates a lot of working groups that the public and press never know about, said Paymar. While the decisions that are made in them are brought to formal committees, they are only seeing half the truth, he added.

Keith Carlson, executive director of Minnesota Inter-County Association, said the changes aren’t practical at the Capitol and they aren’t for cities. “Think about if you impose those same requirements on yourselves.”

“If we really want to be advocates of open meeting, we ought to look at ourselves first,” said Rep. Morrie Lanning (R-Moorhead). If local governments conducted business the same as the Legislature, “they’d be in jail,” he said, referencing decisions made in closed caucuses and meetings.

“I could not agree with you more,” Paymar responded. “Government works better when the public is fully informed.”

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