Minnesota's lawmakers and courts have always put a premium on open meetings of public bodies. They've written and supported laws that require city councils, county commissions, school boards, hospital boards and other taxing bodies to conduct their business in the bright light of public scrutiny.
Recently, a newspaper's lawsuit against a city council for violating the open-meeting laws landed before the Minnesota Supreme Court. In considering the case, justices will clarify how committed they are to the concept of open discussion nearly always trumping secrecy.
The case being argued at the Supreme Court centers around when a public board can close a meeting to get legal advice about a threatened lawsuit.
While the issue of secret meetings may seem like inside baseball to those who don't follow local politics, the negative impacts of closed government are potentially widespread. When bad decisions are made by public leaders, they intrude on daily life via the tax bills you receive, the quality of the services you use, and the leaders you trust.
As to the current case: No one argues that a lawsuit -- one that's pending, not just threatened -- requires private discussion of legal strategy. The risk lies in those cases where closing a meeting becomes an excuse real or suspected to get rid of the prying eyes of the public. Behind closed doors, anything can happen. And you can't know about it.
When is it reasonable to become suspicious that the open-meeting law is being abused?
--When a board schedules closed sessions at each and every meeting;
--When it gives identical reasons for closed sessions on an ongoing basis;
--When the status of an issue at the end of one meeting doesn't coincide with its status at the beginning of the next;
--When closed sessions are always scheduled at the end of a meeting, leaving the public with little way to monitor how long the talks lasted or ask questions to ensure the topics discussed were legally acceptable reasons for secrecy.
--When the patterns of closure defy logic. Is it logical to believe that a public board is always threatened by legal action, each and every time it meets? Are confidential personnel matters always pending? When does it just stop making sense? That's when the questions should start.
Open discussion, while perhaps uncomfortable for those who serve us, is a duty they have promised to carry out in all but the most narrow of circumstances. It's a duty elected and employed government must have the courage to fulfill. It's the law.
-- Faribault Daily News
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