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Minnesota Opinion: Don't silence public at public meetings in Minnesota

From the editorial: (This is another step away from true government transparency, similar to the Kandiyohi County Board's public notice decision in January to eliminate its public notice distribution to nearly 70% of the county's households. County board chair Roger Ibdieke says the county's public notices are available on its website. A Tribune reader commented on Wednesday, "My understanding is that public notices are available on the kcmn.us website. However, I was unable to find them.")

Editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis draws on the importance of open government.
Editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis draws on the importance of open government.
Adam Zyglis / Cagle Cartoons
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Minnesotans concerned that government is becoming less accessible and less open can join the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information in sounding an alarm.

Minnesota Opinion editorial
Minnesota Opinion editorial
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In mid-January, the coalition for open government summoned reporters after both the Hennepin County Board and Roseville Area School Board eliminated public-comment periods from broadcasts of their meetings. Two is a coincidence, it’s said; three will be a trend. In this instance, it’ll be a troubling trend.

(This is another step away from true government transparency, similar to the Kandiyohi County Board's public notice decision in January to eliminate its public notice distribution to nearly 70% of the county's households. County board chair Roger Ibdieke says the county's public notices are available on its website. A Tribune reader commented on Wednesday, "My understanding is that public notices are available on the kcmn.us website. However, I was unable to find them.")

The elected officials said they were attempting to protect the public from misinformation. But censoring and silencing the public so others can’t hear what’s being said is the wrong way to go about that. The antidote for bad information is more information. Even when public meetings sometimes get heated or controversial, everyone deserves to be heard.

Hennepin County Board and Roseville Area School Board members can reverse course on their no doubt well-intentioned but still quite-misguided decision. And other public elected bodies — including those in Duluth and the Northland which sometimes seem so eager to follow their colleagues in the Twin Cities metro — can resist any urge to make a similar move.

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“If I were a public body, I sure as heck wouldn’t think it’s a good idea,” Minneapolis lawyer Mark Anfinson, an expert on the First Amendment and Minnesota’s open meeting law, said in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune Editorial Board. “This has raised some alarms, and rightly so. … If nothing else, (broadcasting the public-comments portions of meetings) is symbolically important. It’s saying, ‘We’re listening to our constituents’.”

Not broadcasting, and even not holding, public-comment periods isn’t a violation of the open meeting law. The law requires only that public bodies meet in public. Most city councils, school boards, and others, however, allow time for community members to offer their views with others able to hear. It’s become the accepted norm. Government bodies can continue the practice, while also continuing to insist on civility.

Likewise, those brave enough to stand up to be heard can remember their responsibility to present accurate information that contributes to the important public dialogues we need to be having in order to effectively address our challenges. Like (newspaper opinion) pages, our shared goal needs to be an open and healthy exchange of viewpoints and information — and with the ability to disagree with respect. Elected officials and the public both play important roles in ensuring that our democracy is working and operating as it should.

As a Roseville parent said at a recemt press conference, according to a Star Tribune report, striking public comments from meeting broadcasts is “tone deaf.”

A spokesperson for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information went a step further and said it was a sign of government becoming less accessible. Government should be striving to become more accessible.

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Troublingly, though, also this month , while red flags were being waved in the Twin Cities over public comments being hidden from public view, the Duluth City Council was voting to ask the Legislature to change Minnesota’s open-meetings law so public meetings could be held entirely online. The law already allows virtual meetings as long as the public and all board or commission members can see and hear one another via the technology and as long as at least one member of the board or commission is physically present at the meeting location, among other reasonable safeguards. The current law ensures adequate member and public participation — while also protecting against public bodies, doing the public’s work, operating entirely in the anonymity found online. Public officials ought to expect to be held accountable directly and in person, without the ability to hide behind easy-to-darken and easy-to-mute computer or smartphone screens.

A bedrock principle of representative government is the ability of anyone who wants to, to be heard and to be an active participant in their government’s doings. The public needs to be able to question, challenge, and help guide the decisions of elected and other officials.

Using technology to widen the gap between government decision-makers and community members, or to make sure no one hears what others are saying, works against that bedrock principle. Any attempt to use technology that way demands to be resisted. In Minnesota right now are two opportunities to do just that.

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This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the viewpoint of the Duluth News Tribune Editorial Board. Send feedback to: opinion@wctrib.com.

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