This is Sunshine in Government week, an occasion to focus on the importance of oversight in safeguarding our democracy and, a time to raise concerns about threats to openness and transparency in our state and local government.
First, it's important to acknowledge some progress that's being made at the state level. In the near future, the state will unveil a comprehensive government transparency Web site, which will allow Minnesotans to finally follow their tax money on-line. The site will feature a searchable database of state spending information. State contracts and grants totaling more than $25,000 will be posted, enabling taxpayers to track their money, as well as the contractors who do business with state government.
Unfortunately, despite this progress, there is a disturbing trend at all levels of government to thwart transparency and flout the open meeting laws by handling official government business in off-the-record "workshops." Consider the following items.
At the state level, leaders are trying to make it more difficult for the media to do its job. Case in point: new proposed restrictions on media access at the state House have led to cries of "censorship" among some of the Capitol's most respected journalists. Some members of the traditional media have had their credentials revoked, others in the new media have been unable to get credentials at all, and there is talk of requiring all media to sign onerous pledges which would specify the conditions of media coverage. In the end, the bottom line is less media coverage.
Also at the State Capitol, Sen. Mee Moua of St. Paul has introduced legislation that would allow cities to withhold from the public "budget proposals, preliminary drafts, and other preliminary documents created at the direction of the mayor or governing body in the process of the development of final city budgets, that are created, collected, or maintained by a city are protected nonpublic data." St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman enthusiastically endorsed the proposed shroud of secrecy, saying that disclosing preliminary ideas "sometimes has a chilling effect on development of alternatives and cost-saving measures." To his credit, Mayor Coleman recently reversed course.
In February, the St. Louis County Board considered banning citizens from recording certain public meetings. And in the city of North St. Paul, documents obtained through a public data request show that city leaders intentionally kept an $18.5 million bonding referendum for a fiber-optics project "under the radar" for months, made public documents "hard to decipher", and withheld other key information.
In an effort to strengthen citizen oversight of government, the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota will begin a series of local government watchdog training sessions in May. The goal is to establish and support a statewide volunteer watchdog network of local residents who know their local officials and help monitor their spending and policy decisions. Volunteers can get more information on tracking local government at www.freedomfoundationofminnesota.com. In addition, the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota will be launching an online taxpayer tool later this spring, allowing citizens to compare and contrast tax and spending data among the more than 850 cities in the state.
There is an undeniable trend toward government secrecy and limited accessibility for the citizens and media. We all need to do our part to hold elected leaders accountable and, in the process, make Minnesota the true Sunshine State.
Tom Steward is the investigative director for the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, an independent, non-profit educational and research organization that advocates the principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, economic freedom, and limited government.