ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Fearful that the public squares of Facebook, Twitter and other Internet platforms might not always mix with Minnesota's open meeting rules, local officials pressed state lawmakers Tuesday for assurances they can sound off on social media about pending issues without breaking the law.
City and township government associations are lined up behind a bill that would exempt social media chatter from the open meeting law, regardless of whether enough members weigh in to constitute a quorum if they had been in the normal confines of city hall.
The bill debated by the House Government Operations Committee applies only to social media platforms that are "generally open to public participation." And government officials wouldn't be able to take votes via social media or substitute required public hearings for virtual ones.
"Online tools of communications are not going away," said Janalee Cooper, town clerk of tiny Bridgewater in southern Minnesota. "It's part of culture and all that we do."
Local officials say they want to embrace social media as a way to augment their communication with the public, but they sometimes hesitate because if too many elected officials get involved it could put them in violation of the state's open meeting law.
Rep. Duane Quam, R-Rochester, stressed that his bill wouldn't allow for back-channel discussions via text message or private chat rooms.
But some legislators are uneasy. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he doesn't want social media to turn into an unofficial meeting where officials signal their vote or try to sway their colleagues outside of the public gatherings where decisions are made.
Mark Anfinson, a lawyer for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said he agreed with the goals of the bill but echoed Hanson's concerns about how it might play out.
"There's too much room to allow members of a public body to deliberate, discuss and decide an issue outside of a public meeting," he said. "You don't want your council meetings, your town board meetings to be ceremonial."
Gary Pedersen, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Townships, said social media should be used to gather more public input and not as a substitute for formal actions.
"We are not trying to replace meetings," Pedersen said. "What needs to happen at the meetings still needs to happen at the meetings."
The committee set the bill aside so the government organizations and the newspaper association could try to fashion a compromise. If the committee signs off, the bill would head straight to the House floor.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.