It is disheartening to be continually faced with the reality that Winona County does not always comply with the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. We even went so far this winter as to send a copy of the law to each commissioner, hoping it would help them understand what is covered under the law, and why our reporters seem always to be demanding access to “county business.”
The board of commissioners chair sent a note saying she knew the law, and “at the county, we try to be as open as possible while following the laws.”
Unfortunately, try they might, but the county does not in practice always follow the law. Recently, we struggled to get information about an upcoming County Planning Commission meeting. According to the law, the media should be able to ask for a copy of the agenda and all other material accompanying the agenda that the commissioners will be getting. County government is hardly being “open” if the media is blindly trying to follow the commissioners’ discussion about material that only they have.
The law also stipulates that there should be a “public copy” of the agenda materials, including last minute data, at the meeting that any member of the public may have access to in order to better understand what is going on at the meeting. (This “public copy” should not be the copy that the County Administrator is using at the board table.) And, of course, any member of the public, especially the media, which acts as the eyes and ears of the public, must be able to attend any public meeting. So, the doors should not be locked against the public while a public meeting is being held. Elementary?
Perhaps not. Twice during Winona County Board strategic planning meetings, which often continue after the vast majority of county employees have gone home for the day, the Government Center doors were locked against the public. This leaves the media out in the cold, literally, banging on the doors in hopes of getting someone’s attention in order to attend the meeting.
At the last strategic planning meeting, the county also broke the open meeting law by not revealing the topics of discussion when they announced the meeting. The public would most assuredly have been interested in attending the meeting had they known it would feature the County Attorney addressing the board about frac sand.
Just this week, a Winona Post reporter was forced to visit the County Planning Dept. in order to ask for agenda materials for the upcoming Planning Commission meeting on Thursday. The Winona Post has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for any materials of this nature with Winona County in the past, even though that should not be necessary, given the open meeting law requirements.
When the secretary went to ask a higher up, he could be heard resisting the request for the agenda materials — “have her fill out the forms”. The reporter was in fact asked to fill out a form requesting the agenda materials, which should have automatically come to the Post by mail or email. The reporter, through determination and aggressive insistence, was finally given the materials after stating her rights.
Whether county employees like to believe it or not, their business is the public’s business. The public is vitally interested in government business because it has a direct impact on their lives. The media stands in for the public at the endless governmental meetings held to determine our fate, especially when meetings are held when the public is busy working to pay taxes to pay for the salaries and activities of county workers.
The public should be up in arms that the county tries, whether accidentally or on purpose, to thwart their access to county government and county decisions. Our laws protect the public from being shut out of government business, even thought most of us are not so naive to think that all government is done when we are watching.
It is up to the Winona County Commissioners to demand that their employees — the County Administrator and his cohorts — follow the Open Meeting Law. We are waiting.