“The public’s business should be conducted in public.” This is how the Crystal city attorney summarized Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law to me shortly after I was elected to the Crystal City Council in 2014.
The city of Minneapolis failed to live up to that edict last week when the city’s community advisory board for the Upper Harbor Terminal barred several journalists from covering one of their meetings (“Open-meeting violation alleged at Mpls. forum,” Jan. 23, and subsequent coverage).
According to a tweet by MinnPost’s Jessica Lee, one of the reporters told not to take photos or make recordings of the meeting, one of the reasons cited by the advisory board was that some members “will not discuss issues they would’ve otherwise” if media were present in the room. That’s not surprising to me, based on my own personal experience with public officials and their behavior at public meetings when no members of the public are present.
In 2013, when I was considering running for public office, I began to attend meetings in my city to get a feel for what I would be getting myself into. Crystal, like most other cities, has regularly scheduled formal meetings, which are televised on local cable channels. But the city also has regularly scheduled meetings, called “work sessions” or “study sessions,” that are more informal, are held off-camera and are rarely attended by members of the public or the media.
These less-formal meetings are where much of the substantive discussion of an issue happens. By the time the televised meetings occur, most of the debate has already been had, and consensus on issues has often been reached.
After observing a few of these work sessions, I had a conversation with Crystal Mayor Jim Adams, who mentioned to me that he had noticed an alarming pattern in the behavior of some of his colleagues. It seemed that their tone, demeanor and attitude were quite different when these work sessions were attended by a member of the public. When the meetings were exclusively attended by staff and elected officials, members would say things that they could later deny, knowing full well there was no way to prove otherwise.
Shortly after that discussion, Mayor Adams worked with the city administration to institute audio recording and online posting of work sessions. After I was elected, we codified the practice in our council rules, which would require a supermajority of the council to change the policy.
Recording these meetings brought greater transparency to the city. Elected officials are more careful about what they say, knowing that anyone can go back and “check the tape.” This is a good thing.
Minneapolis should immediately adopt a policy of recording all public meetings and posting the audio online. When the Minnesota Legislature reconvenes, it should make this a requirement of all public meetings and all public bodies by amending the Open Meeting Law.
The cost and effort of this proposal is negligible. Nearly everyone has a device in their pocket that can record audio. The cost to post these files online is negligible.
The public’s business should be conducted in public. Minneapolis and Minnesota should follow Crystal’s lead and make sure that’s true by making it as easy as possible for the public to listen in.
Jeff Kolb was a member of the Crystal City Council from 2015 to 2018. On Twitter: @jpkolb.