Editor's Notes: Accountability requires transparency


(7/8/2020)

by Sarah Squires, editor-in-chief, Winona Post

 

I was sitting at my desk, sorting emails or proofreading obituaries — an editor’s life isn’t always glamorous — when I got the call. It was Chris Rogers, our news editor. “The EDA just kicked me out of a meeting,” he told me. If this were a reality show, that’s when the cameras would kick on: When the government breaks the law, that’s when editors get busy.

Chris and I conferred for a minute about why, exactly, county officials thought they could meet in private (read about it on today’s front page), and I got to work.

I immediately composed an email to the full County Board, the county administrator, the county attorney. Our attorney. In this instance, it’s not a gray area of the law; it doesn’t require a bunch of legal research. The statute clearly states that government bodies can’t meet in secret to discuss non-public data — like the loan application they felt they needed to protect. I highlighted that part of the statute, and explained the way this situation is supposed to be handled, legally speaking. I got on my phone and started calling.

I began learning the basics of government transparency laws as a young buck reporter, but now I’m a wizened editor, I’ve attended annual legal trainings for the last decade and a half on state and national court cases and updates, and government transparency is my bailiwick. So I knew, the county EDA was in the wrong when it shooed Chris out of that meeting, and I knew it was important to get things in writing, on the record.

I didn’t get a reply until well after that meeting was over, until I’d had the chance to recall all the times — illegally — the door has been slammed in my face over the years. The administrators told me they deferred to the county attorney, and then, our county attorney, Karin, and I discussed the legal issues at play.

We consulted with the Minnesota Department of Administration, the state agency tasks with helping ensure local governments abide by transparency laws, and that agency crafted a letter to the county detailing why it couldn’t close the door on the public. Karin Sonneman has since rethought her position on the requirements of the Open Meeting Law, and will advise the county EDA that it may not meet privately to discuss loans any longer. (And perhaps it should discuss those loans, and the more than $900,000 sitting in the bank unused during a public health and financial crisis, loudly and clearly, so local businesses that really need it will take note.)

I am thankful for Karin’s change of heart, and her willingness to explore these issues the way courts have routinely instructed local governments to do: to err strongly on the side of the public’s right to know. We’re lucky in Minnesota for that.

It’s somewhat odd how often the Post has had to act as the public’s watchdog when it comes to government transparency over the years — after all, our main local governments are the city, the county, and school district. But time and time again, I’ve had to explain, to plead, and explain again: You can’t kick us out of meetings just because you don’t want us in the room. The number of times I’ve printed out the entire Open Meeting Law and highlighted a relevant section ... well, it gets exhausting.

More recently, and perhaps more importantly, Winona Area Public Schools has the impression it can kick us all out of its meetings. It violated the OML in having its Diversity and Equity Committee — the very entity tasked with dealing with the racism the district purports it wants to combat, and be accountable for — meet without public notice. When challenged, district administrators attempted to assert its committees could meet in private — despite the fact that the OML, in its first opening lines, before it even gets complicated, states plainly: Committees and subcommittees must be open to the public.

Ironically, that committee spent the lion’s share of its time talking about how it can’t do its work without transparency and accountability, about how the public needs to be invited to the table. We tried to point this out, and offer a friendly remedy: WAPS needs to codify the basics of the OML into its existing policy, so it’s easier for all its staff to understand how district business must be conducted. But unlike Karin, willing to look into the law and all the state’s advisory guidance, WAPS has dug its heels in and apparently thinks it can slam the door on the public when it comes to the real work: Addressing racism, dealing with its curriculum, how it trains its staff, how it is accountable to its own budget.

So, we’ve put out one fire, and we’re onto the next. We’ve asked that our policy request be on an upcoming School Board agenda, and in the coming weeks, we’ll be writing more about this. We’ll be talking to local lawmakers about transparency, and we’ll be inviting you to the table to discuss the way you want your local government, funded by your money, to operate. We’re hoping that, like Karin, our school district leaders will care enough to embrace not just the bare minimum transparency requirements, but the spirit of the law: To be accountable, to be true public servants, government business needs to be done in the light of day.

 

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