Secrecy reigns at State Capitol

As a deal to end the shutdown is finalized, public-access advocates are citing state open-meeting laws.

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The State Capitol has been closed to the public, and meetings to finalize the state budget have been as well. Above, a worker replaced protective plastic coverings on desks.

Photo: Leah Mills, Star Tribune

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Five days after DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders struck a tentative deal to end Minnesota's government shutdown, nearly all of the talks to finalize a budget proposal have taken place in private, blocking out the public and raising questions about whether legislators and the administration are violating the law.

Public-access advocates and some legislators have complained that having the State Capitol closed to the public, while meetings inside were being conducted in private, has at the very least stretched the spirit of the state's open-meeting laws. The scenario also led some DFLers to criticize fellow Democrat Dayton -- who as a U.S. senator won a 2003 award for supporting open government -- for acquiescing to the arrangement as administration officials meet with GOP leaders.

Late Monday, the governor's office announced that the Capitol will be reopened at 9 a.m. Tuesday. A news release said "the Governor ordered the doors opened to allow public access and transparency as the Legislature prepares to reconvene to pass a budget." The statement did not address whether meetings that have been closed would now be open.

Meanwhile, the first inklings of a final budget that would end the 19-day-old shutdown trickled out Monday, when Republicans and Dayton released appropriations bills dealing with transportation, the environment, Legacy amendment funding, and public safety and the judiciary.

Still, there were few clues as to where the overall talks sat. Dayton plans to call a special session once negotiators work out details of a $35 billion two-year budget.

Before the announcement Monday night from the governor's office, Senate GOP spokesman Michael Brodkorb said that Republicans would welcome opening the Capitol but that the decision rested with Dayton.

At one point over the weekend, a group of DFL and Republican legislators could be seen through a set of doors negotiating a state bonding bill in a Capitol meeting room. But when a reporter entered the room, work immediately stopped, and the reporter was told the meeting was not open to the public.

"I don't think you can explain it to the public. It's bad government," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville. "It befuddles me as to why Gov. Dayton would agree to it."

Murky territory

Minnesota law states that legislative meetings are open to the public and says that "a meeting occurs when a quorum is present and action is taken regarding a matter within the jurisdiction of the body." Because the meetings that have been occurring behind closed doors do not involve formal committees, critics acknowledge it is almost impossible to tell whether the gatherings are legal or not.

"They're probably violating their own statute that they passed, but they're the only ones that can slap themselves on the wrist and don't appear to be caring about it," said Paul Hannah, an attorney specializing in public access and open-government laws. "It's pretty much whatever they say goes."

Some public access supporters have criticized the news corps, accusing it of not pushing hard enough for more openness, and say it has been compromised because many reporters have been allowed into the Capitol. The building has been closed since July 1, when the shutdown began, with barricades in front of most doorways and security officials checking names.

"I wish the media was just a little more outraged about this," said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, a public advocacy group. Because many local reporters have been given a "little bit of access, [they] have not been as critical."

His group asked a Ramsey County judge late Monday afternoon to order the Capitol reopened and issued a tweet that said "VICTORY!" after the later word from the governor's office that the building would be opened.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said that once the Legislature convenes, he will reintroduce a proposal to make many informal meetings between legislators open to the public. The move -- which has been thwarted in the past -- would include meetings between the Senate majority leader and House speaker in which they set state budget financial targets or negotiate the state budget.

Although public access advocates and the media complain annually about end-of-session negotiations that are done in private at the Legislature, the shutdown has taken the complaints to a new level.

The unusual scenario also has led to some unusual events.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, the Senate's longtime expert on health and human services issues, was told to leave a meeting where Republicans and Dayton administration officials were discussing the final health and human services legislative proposal, a major budget bill. "The governor's office called and said '[Senate Majority Leader] Amy Koch wants you out of the room,'" Bakk said. "Linda doesn't know why. But she's incredibly knowledgeable."

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, was critical of the non-public nature of the Capitol meetings. "Finally the real work of actually writing the state budget is happening, and it's happening behind closed doors," he said. "It's a pretty pathetic process for spending $35.4 billion."

Pat Anderson, a Republican National Committee member, agreed. "It's very frustrating," said Anderson, a lobbyist for Canterbury Park and its proposal to add video slot machines. She said she and other lobbyists have been forced to meet with legislators away from the State Capitol at restaurants and borrowed conference rooms. "It's all phone calls and meetings outside the Capitol," Anderson said.

Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this article.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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