This week was Sunshine Week. It was particularly sunny on Friday, but what Sunshine Week is really all about is the promotion of government transparency. If you know me at all, you know that this is a mission close to my heart — and of all the things I do as a journalist, it is the most important.
Back-room deals, shady misuse of taxpayer dollars, abuse of government power — you name it, we’ve uncovered it. We do this primarily using two important state laws; first, the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, which requires that local government bodies make decisions publicly, and that the public has access to all of the data they use in making those decisions. For instance, the School Board doesn’t get to decide to close schools or cut programs outside a public meeting, and they don’t get to do it based on secret information that we don’t get to see. The second law we use most frequently is called the Minnesota Data Practices Act. It’s a whopper of a law, but it basically says this: All government data in Minnesota is considered public unless a law specifically classifies it as private. For the most part, only certain government personnel data and information about specific kids is considered private. That means that the mayor’s emails are public information. It means that data about crime rates, drug busts, tax information and school discipline are there if you want to know about it. It means you have the right to know about the way your city and county and school district spend your money (or squirrel it away). And that is as it should be.
However, all is not always well in the world of local government transparency. We often make a request for data and have to wait while local government officials learn about the law before they give it to us. We often find mistakes are made when it comes to the Open Meeting Law. But we are here, year after year, politely reminding our government officials what they need to know to follow the law. We are not always successful, but we are persistent, and we are patient, and we are thankful that Minnesota is a state where the rules are fairly clear and courts have consistently interpreted them in favor of the public’s right to know.
I write about this topic every spring during Sunshine Week. This year, I’m going to start with something to celebrate, and finish with a challenge.
Years ago, Winona County struggled with government transparency. I was locked out of that government building many a time while important county decisions were being made, banging on the door until a late-working (saint) Bob Bambenek heroically unlocked the doors. I was kicked out of meetings that should have been public. And during an investigation into how the county had millions of taxpayer dollars tucked away for its Third Street building addition, I discovered that, for the most part, they didn’t know. Financial decisions were being made by a staff-dominated committee. That committee wasn’t taking meeting minutes or recording accurately how those decisions were made. Piecing that article together included examining chicken-scratch notes scribbled by a staff member on the margins of agendas, and there were lots of dead ends.
The county didn’t take this situation lightly. It overhauled its finance department and the way it created its budgets. And we at the Post thought we could help with the transparency angle, and suggested a few policy changes that the board ultimately, unanimously adopted — committees should take accurate meeting minutes and then make sure they are filed and maintained. Staff should be doubly certain that advisory committees, like that finance committee, are public.
What happened next, though, is the real success. I stopped getting locked out of meetings. Staff started taking seriously the law requiring a public copy of all agenda materials be in the meeting room. When we made data requests, they’d no longer wheel in thousands of duplicate prints of emails on a dolly. Instead, staff figured out a way to provide the data digitally — each email and document set up on a laptop in a little meeting room, no duplicates, with attachments and everything available. The whole tenor of our interactions with Winona County had changed. Transparency no longer seemed to be seen as a hassle, but as simply the way things work. And that is as it should be.
Now comes the challenge.
I’ve also been locked out of the Winona Area Public Schools district office while a public meeting was taking place on several occasions. I’ve spent close nearly a decade reminding WAPS staff about the Open Meeting Law requirement that all agenda materials — these days, often information about elementary school closure — be available to the public during meetings. We had hoped that we’d be able to find the same kind of success that we did with Winona County, and requested that the board consider a couple of policy adjustments that would result in fewer mistakes — mainly, just ask a district staff member to keep an eye out to ensure that a public copy of all materials given to the board about an agenda item be available during the meeting, as the law states, while the issue is being discussed.
That request, however, didn’t even reach lukewarm temperatures, and the limited conversation it generated simply further demonstrated the board members’ lack of knowledge about the requirements of the law that is supposed to govern them. Oh, that’s only happened a couple of times, they said. Maybe the dozens and dozens of handwritten notes spelling out the law and the violation I have handed to staff over the years when the agenda-materials part of the law is broken are just getting stuffed into an HVAC grate at city hall; I don’t know. But this isn’t an infrequent offense — now that I am the editor I don’t always attend School Board meetings, but it has happened at nearly every meeting I’ve gone to in the last three years. About 90 percent of the time that I walk over to that public copy of the meeting agenda, I find something missing. Years ago, during a rather heated conversation over promises made and broken about the district’s tennis courts, the board actually voted to pursue “that email plan” without ever stating what the email contained or having a copy of said email plan in the public agenda. When I approached the former chair after the meeting asking to know what on earth the board had just voted on, he was so dismissive and rude in flatly refusing to tell me that I cried the whole way home. (The School Board rarely has me in tears these days, I’m happy to report.)
Although the board did not adopt our policy suggestion, and I don’t really have the highest hopes that the district will follow in the footsteps of the county in any transparency crusades, I am happy about one thing. We will always be there. We will always do our part, even if it is endlessly scribbling agenda-materials statute reminders that simply end up clogging up the heating vents at city hall. We’ll be at every meeting, we’ll be paying attention every minute, and we’ll do our best to make sure that transparency is taken seriously when it comes to your tax dollars, your schools, and your community. In that way, we’re your representatives — and, as they say in the biz — we’re your watchdog.