Transparency good for government, media
Wednesday, October 10, 2012 6:10 AM
Whether you believe in big government or want to shrink government, I'm sure you'll agree that government should be transparent. Openness in government has always been supported by the public, which is why Minnesota and other states have laws requiring decisions be made at public meetings through an open meeting law as well as publication requirements of government business.
Newspapers have a tradition of pressing for openness in government and our newspapers carry on that tradition today, something we think is vital as government increases its influence over our daily lives.
That stance has occasionally caused us to butt heads with local government when sensitive issues surface, but the secretive process keeps the details under wraps. We have no more power than the average citizen, but often we are the only ones covering local units of government. That has given the press the role of watchdog.
Public oversight of decision-making ensures that corruption or undue influence aren't factors in the governmental process. When we raise questions, we aren't accusing people of wrongdoing. We just want all the information in the light of day so the public is informed and can judge for itself.
The open meeting laws in various states are often called sunshine laws. A 1978 Oklahoma court case gives a good explanation of why open meetings are important: "If an informed citizenry is to meaningfully participate in government or at least understand why government acts affecting their daily lives are taken, the process of decision making as well as the end results must be conducted in full view of the governed."
Although often our inquiries into openness lead to quick resolutions supported by the government unit and our newspaper, sometimes our objections end up becoming part of the new story. Such is the case in Spring Grove, where we raised questions about recent meetings of the city council that were closed to the public.
We don't have legal backgrounds, but we are a member of the Minnesota Newspaper Association and its legal hotline service. Attorney Mark Anfinson is probably the most knowledgeable expert on the open meeting law in Minnesota and when he raises questions about a process, we raise questions.
Something is happening in Spring Grove involving a city employee, presumably the police chief, but we don't know what. There are certain exceptions to the open meeting law due to data privacy, attorney-client privilege and other circumstances, but Anfinson notes that the city must explain the reasons for these exceptions, if they are to be justified by the city, and give an explanation of the actions taken, even if they are covered under the exceptions to the law.
Our prodding isn't done for us, but for you, our readers, whom, like us, may be wondering just what is really going on. And, it isn't done to attack government officials or bring them down; rather, our aim is to let the sun shine on decision-making so the public has a good understanding of what is the public's business.
This isn't the first time we have fought for transparency and it likely won't be the last.
That transparency goes both ways, though. While the media in general doesn't necessarily have a good reputation, we always try to adhere to our ethical principles and when we make an error, we do our best to correct it and let the sun shine on our mistakes no matter how hard that might be.
That's why we run a corrections column that is ready to go each week in case it is needed. We are human and mistakes happen. Sometimes they seem insignificant except to the person who felt wronged, and other times they are publicly embarrassing. We treat them the same, though, going to great lengths to correct the record.
The most recent example concerns a request by the Trail Towns Committee for the Preston City Council to see if it wanted to take a position on frac sand mining, either for or against. Our reporter worded the request to seem as if the committee was asking for the council to take a stand against frac mining.
The council did vote to remain neutral, but the wording indicated the committee was an advocate against frac mining. We are working with Preston's tourism director to make sure the record is clarified with the correct information.
It isn't something we like to do, but we are eager to make it right because we realize it is vital to the free flow of information that is necessary for an informed public.
Our goal in pressing for transparency isn't to punish a government official or a newspaper staff member that makes a mistake. Our goal is to make sure our readers are informed so they can fully and intelligently participate in the community and understand how public decisions affect their private lives.