Editorial: Your right to know

Published 9:20 am Monday, May 3, 2010

Democracy works best when it is closely watched. Our government must conduct business in the open and make its records public, promptly and quickly. This is even more important now that the big government-watchers of the media are cutting back, and more public-spirited citizens are getting into the fray.

Open meetings and public records are not absolutes. The need to know about public business collides with an individual’s right to privacy. Even those of us in the make-it-public camp understand that. But we also know that public officials often like to keep things secret, whether or not it is called for.

This year at the Minnesota Legislature, significant changes are proposed both for the state’s Open Meeting and for Data Practices laws. We urge legislators struggling with these issues to keep the public’s right and need to know what government is doing forefront in their deliberations.

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Open meetings: A bill backed by the state Department of Administration seeks to clarify current law and bring it into line with court rulings. Among its changes are the definition of a “public body” that is subject to the law, clarifying what must happen before a public body can adjourn into a private session, and another clarification that citizens can record or photograph public meetings. The bill also states the conditions under which a public body can conduct certain meetings by telephone.

Rich Neumeister, a citizen-lobbyist who does important work watching the public’s interest on these issues, expressed concerns that the new definition of “public body” could make it harder to gain access to meetings of appointed groups or task forces, such as police commissions or search committees. Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, wants to change the bill to clarify that meetings of these groups would be open to the public.

We support the broadest possible definition of “public body” and the widest access for citizens to these meetings.

Public documents, or Data Practices: Mark Anfinson, an attorney who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association, says citizens whose requests for information are denied, and who believe the law is on their side, must now take these disputes into District Court. That costs the info-seeker time and legal fees.

This year’s bill would allow those disputes to be taken to the Office of Administrative Hearings, which would presumably lead to a quicker and cheaper decision. Some have objected to the $1,000 bond required of those seeking the data. But the money is refundable to those who win, and in any event it seems like a better deal than a lengthy court fight.

Our thanks to those who wade into these statutes, year after year, with the thankless task of finding that line between the right to know and the right to privacy.

— St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 24