A group calling for protection of the state's open records law urged the Legislature on Monday to forbid government entities like school boards and county boards from excluding public comment in their meeting broadcasts.
Saying such practices threaten to erode the public's trust in democracy, Kevin Featherly of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) said all portions of public meetings should be broadcast.
"Information held by government agencies … is oxygen in democracy's bloodstream," he said.
The Hennepin County Board and the Roseville Area School Board in recent months have both moved to eliminate the public comment period from meeting broadcasts. Hennepin County Board Chair Marion Greene in July characterized the move as necessary to prevent the spread of misinformation and hate speech. Greene on Monday did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Roseville school spokesperson did not respond Monday to email or phone messages. Emails to the Roseville school board on Monday evening were not immediately answered.
The state's Open Meeting Law leaves it to the discretion of local boards whether to broadcast their meetings. It's only in some circumstances that the law requires broadcasts of the entire meeting, such as when a member attends via video, or during emergency periods. Most government meetings were required to be broadcast in full during the COVID-era emergency period, for example.
"When you're not in an emergency, or not using Zoom to bring a member into a meeting, they have a lot more discretion," said Matt Ehling, the legislative issues committee chair for MNCOGI. The nonprofit wants to see modifications to the state's Open Meeting Law "to prevent this kind of gamesmanship that's happening now," Ehling added.
Hennepin County resident Mary Pattock, who was invited to speak at MNCOGI's Capitol Hill news conference on Monday, said government entities owe it to the public to broadcast comments.
"I understand that to public officials that we citizens may sometimes seem like a nuisance, because, yes, we can be verbose, foolish, angry, even misleading or wrong. But public officials can be all those things, too," she said. "We call on the Legislature to stop this before it spreads."
Kofi Montzka, a Roseville schools parent, said the Roseville district was taking part in a tone-deaf trend by striking public comment from meeting broadcasts.
"We need more speech, not less," she said.
MNCOGI spokesman Don Gemberling said blocking public comment from livestreams was part of a worrying trend of government becoming less accessible. Elected officials don't answer their phones, he said. And government websites can sometimes require a visitor to reveal personal information before public data can be accessed, a violation of the state's Data Practices Act.
"It's more and more difficult for the public to find out what the government is doing," he said.