As simple as secrecy can be right now, in the middle of a public health emergency, with public meetings unable to be conducted in-person, Minnesotans still should be able to expect transparency from their elected officials. They still deserve open government.
This is why a list of coronavirus-era transgressions apparently being committed by the Minnesota Legislature is particularly troubling.
House committees have been meeting in small groups, which avoids triggering Minnesota’s open-meeting law, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota flagged last week. A member of each political caucus and administrative staffers are “workshopping policy proposals.” And most of their meetings aren’t being disclosed until after they happen.
In addition, the four legislative leaders agreed on the first COVID-19 relief bill before it was made public. The bill’s language wasn’t posted until the floor session to vote had begun. So lawmakers voted on a bill many of them hadn’t even read.
“Governmental transparency becomes even more essential in times of crisis like this,” the Minnesota ACLU’s Lynette Kalsnes wrote in a statement. “As the Legislature balances the crucial need to protect public health with the essential need to protect our civil liberties, these debates must play out as openly and with as much public input as possible.”
In other words, this isn’t how government is supposed to work. Ever. Not even during a pandemic. Even in unprecedented times, Minnesotans should not be asked to tolerate a sacrifice of public accountability.
And last month plenty of us appropriately spoke up and objected when the Duluth School Board didn't promptly release the names of its finalists for superintendent, as is required by state statute, and when the board attempted to ban the media and the public from recording its interviews with the finalists, a clear violation of Minnesota's open-meeting law — and probably the First Amendment. In response to the objections, including in News Tribune editorials, interviews with the superintendent finalists were streamed live online and broadcast live on cable TV and on closed-circuit TV, with in-person attendance not possible. Then, board deliberations and the selection of a new superintendent also were streamed live and made available for remote viewing in the gym.
The city of Duluth, meanwhile, invited the public last week to start attending City Council and city board and commission meetings virtually. Public comments have even been made possible at duluthmn.gov/live-meeting.
Under difficult circumstances — perhaps especially during difficult circumstances — Duluthians can continue to call on their elected officials and government bodies, just as the ACLU of Minnesota has called specifically on the Legislature, “to prioritize public accessibility and input, to ensure each meeting that should be public actually is, to hold committee hearings on Zoom, to govern in public committee meetings, to offer translation services for these meetings, and to create as many ways to welcome public input as possible before making decisions.”
Government secrecy is easy right now, but that doesn't make it right. Transparency and openness need to be the expectation.