Minnesotans like to think they live in a clean government state that is a cut above others. But it’s sometimes hard to tell because the machinery of government is too often hidden from public view.
Investigative reports of alleged sexual misconduct by officials can be withheld from the public. Financial-disclosure requirements for politicians are weaker than in other states. State open-records and open-meeting laws don’t apply to the Legislature.
In a blow to the state’s image, the Center for Public Integrity gave Minnesota F grades for public access to information and for legislative accountability. When it comes to transparency, Minnesota’s good-government reputation might be as big a myth as Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
But there’s reason for hope. A survey of candidates for the Minnesota House and statewide offices shows that many of them would vote for or otherwise support specific measures to make government more open to the public. At a time of growing mistrust in government, the responses suggest that more openness may create a path to restoring confidence in institutions and leaders.
The survey by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, working with the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, found that a large majority of the 60 candidates who responded supported seven key initiatives. They endorsed:
• Making the Legislature subject to the same open-records and open-meeting laws that apply to other governments.
• Making House and Senate ethics committee reports public.
• Prohibiting the state from requiring nondisclosure agreements in settlements of alleged sexual harassment and other misconduct.
• Making police bodycam video more accessible to the public.
• Opposing any bill restricting the current allowed use of cameras in courtrooms.
• Ordering longer preservation of government e-mails.
• Requiring officials to disclose more about their financial holdings.
Some candidates who supported all of the proposals added comments explaining their positions:
“Our government must become more transparent, it’s the only way to return from these hyper-polarized times,” wrote Bill Vikander, a DFL candidate for a House seat in the north metro. “Voters deserve the opportunity to hold their elected officials accountable for poor performance and/or bad behavior.”
“I will be a strong advocate of transparency in Minnesota,” said John Howe, the Republican challenger for secretary of state. “The more the public knows, the better government we will have in our state.”
“Elected officials are public servants who work for the people of Minnesota,” said Keith Ellison, the DFL candidate for attorney general. “Minnesota needs to increase transparency and accessibility across state government.”
In the House races, far more challengers responded to the survey than incumbents. And 80 percent of those challengers favored the proposals.
Some of the most enthusiastic support was for making the Legislature subject to the same open-meeting and open-records laws that pertain to counties, cities and school districts. No legislative candidate opposed that idea, though several replied they were undecided.
A relatively low overall response suggests that many candidates don’t assign much importance to improving government transparency.
The questions were sent in September, with a reminder in October, to candidates for the 134 seats in the Minnesota House and to the 14 candidates for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor — 286 in all. They were told that their answers would be distributed to news organizations and that nonresponses also would be reported. Online readers can see the outcome here: bit.ly/2018-mn-transparency-results.
The nonrespondents included the DFL and GOP gubernatorial candidates, Tim Walz and Jeff Johnson; DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon, and GOP attorney general candidate Doug Wardlow.
Still, the responses indicate there is strong support for greater government transparency at the Legislature and beyond.
“Government transparency must be honored across the spectrum of government agencies and boards in the same way transparency is required of elected officials,” stressed Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton.
Michael Northbird, a DFL candidate for the House in northern Minnesota, wrote: “Transparency is the cornerstone of our democracy. To fail in that is to fail our democratic institution, our states, and our country.”
Pat Doyle is a former Star Tribune reporter and a board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.