Other Opinion: Local elected bodies finding their way in crisis
Minnesota’s leading lawyer on open meetings and open records “almost laughed out loud” back when a provision for the possibility of a pandemic was included in the state’s public-access laws. That lawyer, Mark Anfinson, recalled that in an interview last week with a News Tribune reporter.
No one is laughing now that the provision has had to be put into play for the first time in state history, with a public-health emergency closing public buildings and more. Under the provision, elected bodies can carry on with the public’s business via interactive video, conference calling, and other technology — all preferable to meetings held in person that would risk spreading the coronavirus.
But meetings and other public proceedings held in nontraditional ways can easily lead to actions conducted in secrecy or without full public disclosure, whether intentionally or accidentally. A time of crisis is just ripe for governmental missteps, oversteps, or, worse, outright abuse. So now is a prime time for a focus on governmental accountability.
Talk about terrific timing. This month we celebrated Sunshine Week, the annual national nod to transparency, open government, and shining a light — or letting in the “sunshine” — to illuminate the truth.
“All the business government does, whether in open public meetings or behind closed doors, is your business,” Community Newspaper Holdings National Editor Jim Zachary wrote from Valdosta, Georgia, for Sunshine Week. “Every last penny (the) government spends is your money. … It is your right to know every transaction, every decision, every expenditure and every deliberation. … Whether talking about the White House, the statehouse, or the county courthouse, all the documents held in government halls belong to the people, and all the business conducted by our governors is public business.
“We believe our government — your government — can only be of, by, and for the people when it is out in front of the people,” Zachary wrote in an op-ed.
In these extraordinary times, our local and state government entities, by all accounts, seem to be finding ways to maintain public access.
That’s a big part of what Sunshine Week aims to maintain and ensure. Even in the midst of a pandemic that, until now, seemed an impossibility, the public has a right to know. Our elected bodies owe it to us to operate with full transparency, even when it would be easy not to, when secrecy for unsavory gains could be a simpler option.