Star Tribune Editor: A Legislature, behind closed doors?

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2012 - 4:32 PM

That's not right. But that's what the One Minnesota conference was.

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Photo: Nancy Ohanian, Tribune Media Services

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On Wednesday, the entire Legislature gathered at the University of Minnesota to discuss the challenges facing this great state. Then, legislators closed the door and said that the public could not listen in to hear their thoughts and concerns.

Really?

Let's consider a parallel. Imagine, just imagine, if Congress took a day, met at Georgetown University and invited the great thinkers of the country to weigh in on the nation's problems, then said the public couldn't attend.

It would be unthinkable. It would be a slap in the face to everything this government of the people, by the people and for the people stood for.

At the One Minnesota conference, we had officials elected and paid by the public meeting at a university supported by the public and hearing from a number of state leaders such as the president of the University of Minnesota, whose salary is paid for with public dollars.

I cannot think of any topic that was discussed that could not or should not have been open to the public.

As this was brought to my attention, I asked the lawyers who often represent the Star Tribune on freedom-of-information issues to intervene or explain why this was legal.

The response was relatively simple: The Legislature has one rule for the other governing bodies in this state and a separate rule for itself. Minnesota's open-meetings law requires other governing bodies such as city councils and county boards to hold all meetings, formal or informal, in the open.

The reasons for this are clear; it is so that the public can understand why and how its business is being conducted. Even advisory meetings, where no action is taken, must be open.

In a 1983 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling, the prevailing justices wrote a long and thoughtful defense of this open-meetings law, concluding that the Legislature "clearly intended that all meetings of public agencies be open, with rare and carefully restrained exception."

They also concluded that conferences were, in fact, meetings.

However, meetings of the Legislature are governed by a separate statute. That law requires legislative meetings to be open, but also provides that only the Legislature can provide for remedies and that no court or administrative agency can enforce the law or impose penalties.

The Senate and House also have their own rules, which apply only when a quorum is present and "action is taken."

Thus, a purely informational session such as the One Minnesota conference where no action was taken might be construed to not meet the legal definition the Legislature set for itself; that's a distinction no other governing body in this state could claim.

That led John Borger, one of our legal advisors, to conclude: "The One Minnesota meeting at the U certainly violates the spirit of openness, but the Legislature might determine for itself that it's not a strict violation of the law. The Legislature might justify closing One Minnesota because 'all we're doing is listening.' But what else are they doing at the State of the State?"

The fact that the law may not have been broken in its most literal sense doesn't make this right. Neither does the fact that it's been done this way before.

Now, I believe that our elected officials are good, decent people who have the best interests of the state at heart. Good, decent people sometimes make the wrong decisions.

I can also imagine some circumstances in which a handful of elected officials might need to discuss sensitive matters, such as state or national security issues, behind closed doors. In fact, the open-meetings laws provide for those and other special circumstances.

This is not what was going on here.

Legislators and other state leaders wanted to be able to talk frankly about such issues as growing jobs, redesigning government and the needs of higher education without the discomfort of the public or press listening in.

However, that's a discomfort they must bear in support of a far more important principal: Open government.

So next year, when our state leaders get together again for One Minnesota, they have an obligation to correct a wrong. They should open the door and let a little sunshine in.

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Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor.

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