Editorial: Keep laws on pace with technology

Published 9:20 am Monday, April 12, 2010

Technology has made communicating with anyone any time as easy as a few key strokes or plugging in a microphone and Web cam. That convenience has raised a host of new questions about how public officials — from school board members to city administrators and police — use those tools to conduct business and how easily the public can observe what their public representatives are doing.

That’s one of the areas being visited by state lawmakers looking to make sure laws keep pace with technology advances. Two bills moving through the Legislature are updating open meeting and data-access rules.

One bill updates what constitutes “meetings” and official business. Open meeting requirements primarily focused on elected officials discussing business in a meeting room. But what if county board members exchange e-mails or discuss policy issues on a blog? Established court decisions have determined public officials can’t use technology to get around doing their work in public, and the proposed changes would codify those rulings.

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The bill would also ensure the public is able to view a copy of any printed or electronic communication given to members, and it requires government bodies to allow non-intrusive recording and photography of meetings.

Another bill would make it easier for the public, media or other groups to challenge public officials who deny them access to information. As it stands, a resident trying to get information released has to go through a lengthy and expensive process, often through the court system. By the time they win a ruling, the information they sought is often less valuable to them. The change would require a state administration law judge to make most determinations in 60 days.

Unfortunately, because of objections from some school administrators, challenges to issues related to schools would not be included in that speedy review. But parents seeking public information about their school — and often their own kids — should have the same expectation of openness and speedy review as anyone else.

Elected officials and appointed public bodies may sometimes find it more convenient to do things out of the public eye. But democracy requires intense public scrutiny, easy access to information and government accountability.

Updating the Open Meeting and Data Practices laws to meet technological changes and to make sure they meet the spirit of openness is necessary.

— The Free Press of Mankato. April 5