Transparency matters


(2/1/2017)

As a journalist, it’s my job to be an expert and advocate when it comes to government transparency. I read case law like a lawyer, I watch the Capitol like a hawk, and I spend a lot of my time reminding local governments about their obligations when it comes to open and accessible government data and meetings of political bodies. While local government administrators and politicians have a host of other duties and laws that must be followed, I also believe that it is their job to have a working understanding of the key transparency laws under which they must operate, but sadly, I find this is often not the case. Thus, part of my job has been explaining the rules, then explaining them again. And again. And again.

Two sets of statutes make up the bulk of transparency requirements for Minnesota local government units. One is known as the Open Meeting Law (OML), the other, the Data Practices Act (DPA). While they each have their own complexities (the DPA is quite long), their essential points are this: meetings of local government bodies must be open to the public, and all government data is considered public unless it is specifically classified as private by statute. Minnesota is a pretty open state, which helps us watchdogs keep the monkey business out of the government circus, and these laws provide for access to all sorts of things. We get to watch when the School Board interviews candidates for the role of superintendent. We can request politicians’ and government workers’ emails and see what they’ve been saying about just about anything (they often don’t really like this one; I often come across insults about myself and colleagues when reviewing such emails, but I’m very forgiving), we can examine police reports and court records and tax databases. We do this work for you, because your average Joe doesn’t have time to sit down at the county office building and read ten thousand emails just to make sure things are being handled properly. We review far more data than we end up reporting, and that’s our job. This is why they call us the Fourth Estate — the three branches of government keep one another in check, and we keep an eye on them all. 

These laws only matter if they are followed. We’ve often found ourselves having to argue about fairly straightforward state law, had to provide detailed descriptions of case law going back decades, and still walked away denied access to data and political decision-making that should be clearly public, clearly accessible. Over the years, we’ve also had some transparency victories — Winona County became the first county in the state to provide access to copies of data for free; the county also adopted policies that went above and beyond open meeting requirements in the OML. The city decided to let us in the door for public Port Authority sub-committee meetings (as required by state law). We celebrate when our local politicians and government leaders embrace transparency, and we appreciate when they search for answers about transparency requirements they aren’t familiar with. And oftentimes, we challenge them to do more.

Recently, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board attended a training session led by a representative from the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA). Several questions about the OML and DPA were aired and answered. In particular, WAPS Board members and staff wanted to know when, technically speaking, the media and public must have access to board meeting agenda material. Technically speaking, WAPS doesn’t have to actually provide these things until the meeting is actually taking place, though they must let us know that the board is going to meet. The law requires that at least one public copy of all agenda material be available during the board meeting, along with any handouts or information provided by staff to the board relating to an agenda item. 

WAPS usually makes the agenda available to the public when it provides it to the board — several days in advance of a meeting. But for many years, it has had trouble recalling the law requiring all staff materials given to the board also be made available to the public during the meeting. Nearly every meeting I have attended in recent years has included at least one handout that wasn’t made available to the media or the public, and I have a routine. First, I sigh. Then, I scrawl a handwritten note that begins like this: “Pursuant to the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, I would like to immediately view XYZ ...” and I hand it off to whatever administrator I can without disturbing the meeting too much. (If you can imagine how difficult it would be to follow, for instance, a detailed budget discussion without having the spreadsheets and numbers in front of you, you understand why this requirement exists.)

During the WAPS meeting, the MSBA representative referred to another district client with the same round of questions: Must we give the local newspaper the agenda before the meeting? He said that local paper liked to write editorials about school issues before meetings. That is at the heart of the issue — whether journalists want to editorialize on an issue before a vote, or whether they simply want to write a “preview” article letting members of the public know what’s ahead, it’s because those community journalists know what issues are important to their readers. Sometimes it’s critical to get that information out so that folks have the opportunity to call their local representative and let them know their thoughts. Before a vote is taken, before an issue is settled. Maybe some politicians would rather not get that feedback, would rather details be made available after an issue is settled, but that works against the very principles of government transparency, and it does a disservice to taxpayers and community members. 

That’s why we are hoping that WAPS will take a stance as a leader in transparency and amend its policies about meeting agendas and related materials. We would like the policy to specifically include language requiring members of the public access to agendas and related materials four days before the meeting — not just available to board members. And we ask that WAPS appoint a designee to serve as a watchdog during meetings to ensure that handouts and supplemental materials are always made available during the meeting to the public — as is required by law, so that this isn’t overlooked again. We are formally requesting that this be an item on the next board agenda, and earnestly hope that WAPS leaders aren’t merely interested in the minimum requirements of transparency laws, but focused on a true public partnership that brings the full community to the government table, where all public business will be handled in the light of day.