Is Open Government Important To Everyone?

Does open government matter in Minnesota’s very small towns and counties? Do citizens care? Are they satisfied with trusting their elected officials to do what is in their best interest? Do they know that their decisions will have an impact on the taxes they pay and the services they receive?

In our smallest towns, getting people to run for public office is a challenge. Too often, not only is there no contest between candidates, but incumbents have a difficult time removing themselves from public service because no one else is willing to step up. Too often, candidates have their names written in and are elected without having sought office.

Once elected, are their actions so insignificant that they matter little to the residents and taxpayers of these small cities or counties.

We’ve had a few experiences lately that suggest that in Minnesota’s smallest towns and counties, the open meetings and citizen access to information don’t matter much to those elected to public office. Mostly, it might be because no one has held these officials accountable. At times, they may feel they are above being questioned.

The Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) and the Minnesota Data Practices Act (DPA) start with the premise that citizens have a right to attend public body meetings and access the documents that inform their elected officials’ decisions.

It doesn’t matter what the size of the community is; these basic rights belong to citizens of the smallest local governments every bit as much as to citizens of the largest cities and counties.

While the laws are there to protect the public, not all elected officials see it that way.

“We don’t want you here,” our reporter was told at one small town council meeting. Another was berated by a city council for requesting assistance recording its sessions –most larger cities and counties already record their meetings without being asked. They make the recordings available to citizens.

We’ve seen a council appoint a committee to study an important assessment decision and conduct what should have been an open meeting in private without notice.

In some cases, public officials lack an understanding of the laws that govern their meetings and the documents that inform them as they study issues with an impact on their city. In other cases, their disregard for the laws that ensure citizens are informed is intentional.

We recently received a call from a person in Big Stone County about a local city council supposedly allowing a person without a commercial driver’s license to drive city equipment for which a CDL is required. He apparently would also be doing the city’s snow plowing.

If lacking a CDL, this driver opens the city to a significant lawsuit if he has an accident that injures or killes someone. The city’s insurance policy might not cover the accident since it knowingly let an unqualified person drive the truck. This decision could lead the city to bankruptcy and citizens paying much higher taxes.

Even in our smallest towns, city council members make decisions about fire coverage, emergency medical services, public works services, plowing snow, and more.

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza once said that the only kinds of public officials who were afraid to talk to the press were those who didn’t know what they were talking about and couldn’t defend their actions or those who are trying to hide something. 

We’ve been told the minutes supplied by local governments are good enough for citizens to understand what is happening.

In recent years, we have seen public bodies conduct an increasing number of what they call discussion or work sessions, special meetings at which no decisions will be made, but elected officials will have an in-depth debate about what direction they want to take.

Discussions at these meetings are fundamental to the public understanding of the reasoning behind their eventual decisions. They give insight into why they vote the way they do. They can provide the public confidence and comfort in knowing that they are being well-led, or questions in that decisions are made without sound reasoning.

Public officials at times, want to meet in private because they don’t want to take any heat from citizens. However, that responsibility goes with the job. If a public body is clear about its challenges, seeks public input, and presents the options for addressing them, citizens feel informed. They may not like the final decision, but it wasn’t made behind closed doors.

If public officials go too long without scrutiny, they become belligerent when someone does show up to report on their actions. It is an attitude that can follow them if they seek higher office.

At each step along the way, an elected official may learn the job is less stressful when the public stays out of the way. It’s not an attitude they should be learning, but one that is far too common with the loss of community newspapers and reporters.

Today, serving as a public official is increasingly difficult. People are less civil. Too many are misinformed. And too many don’t pay attention but still complain a lot.

We all should appreciate the role and burden elected officials take on when they begin serving. At the same time, those elected officials must show respect for informing citizens of their actions by allowing them inside the discussion process.

Your community newspaper’s purpose is inform citizens about what their elected leaders are doing or not doing. Good public officials recognize that the press and elected officials have a mutual interest – informed residents. 

We wish we had more time and resources to cover our rural counties’ small communities; but we don’t. We rely on the goodwill and cooperation of elected and appointed officials to help us bring you the news about your communities. We don’t always get it.