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Will Twitter replace town hall transparency? (05/26/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Bills in the Minnesota House and Senate that would create an exception to the Open Meeting Law for social media were delayed in the Minnesota Senate and House of Representative earlier this month. The Open Meeting Law prevents a quorum (a majority) of officials on any government body from meeting or communicating by any means without public notice and public access to the meeting.

A bill authored by Duane Quam (R-Rochester) and co-authored by Steve Draskowski (R-Winona-Wabasha-Goodhue) would have created an exception for social media conversations.

The Open Meeting Law is aimed at keeping government decision making in the public eye and out of secretive back rooms or chat rooms. The House and Senate bills, proposed by the Minnesota Association of Townships (MAT), would have exempted social media communications if those forums were mentioned at a public meetings and if they were "open to public participation."

Some feared the House bill and its twin in the Senate would weaken government transparency.

"The latitude it gives public officials to communicate using social media is too broad and too undefined," said the attorney for the Minnesota Newspapers Association Mark Anfinson. "Our fear is that in its current form it would allow a fairly massive breach in the Open Meeting Law's ability to track how government bodies operate and make decisions."

Proponents argued that an exception to the Open Meeting Law to allow social media conversations between officials was crucial to bringing government into the 21st century. "It is a recognition of the truth that elected officers are using this media and to remove the anvil that's hanging over elected officials heads when they do," explained MAT attorney Eric Hedtke.

"I think it's good to be able to bring the discourse there and allow the discourses there in a public way," Drazkowski said.

Anfinson agreed that with the right controls, use of online platforms might be a great way to boost government discussion and public input, but the bills have gaping issues.

"What if you're not online?" asked Representative Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) "That's my point. We have a sizable population that does not extensively use online communication."

Whether it is older folks who grew up before the digital age, poorer citizens who cannot afford a computer, or people who just do not tweet, not everyone in America is linked in to the universe of social media. The proposed bills "would effectively exclude" those people, Anfinson said.

Drazkowski said such citizens could use computers at public libraries. Hedtke pointed out that for property owners who live far away, social media would make it easier for them to follow local government and politics.

Anfinson and Pelowski defended the value of discussing issues in the non-cyber world. "There's a different dynamic when you get a group of people in a room," Pelowksi said. "Suddenly there's an interplay to the discussion. It changes. It changes people's minds. It may even change people's vote."

Anfinson pointed out that finding every social media conversation by given officials would be difficult if not impossible for citizens. There are security concerns with online deliberations, as well, Anfinson noted. "How do we know that somebody posting a tweet is the official?"

Anfinson suggested that backers of the bill consider requiring government-maintained websites that pooled all posts by officials onto one site with posts verified by government bodies. Such sites would be "much more secure and much more reliable," he said. "That website would be subject to state open records laws. You or I would have a right to look at records from that site." MAT officials did not rally behind the idea, he said.

Nevertheless, the bills were stymied. Representative Pelowski convinced House leaders to send the House bill back to committee, arguing that it needed to be reworked. Following that decision the Senate bill was voluntarily referred back to committee as well. Pelowski's efforts helped to prevent what could have been most significant change in the Open Meeting Law in recent years. The bill will still be "live" next session, but legislators and the public will have more time to consider potential impact on transparency. 


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