Minnesota Legislature Toys with Secrecy Measures

The Minnesota House of Representatives recognized Sunshine Week 2009 with a unanimous resolution affirming constitutional rights to “freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” but media law commentators questioned the depth of that conviction, pointing to actions designed to increase secrecy earlier in the session.

Minnesota House Reluctant to Increase Media Access

The Minnesota House of Representatives initially rejected credentialing online-only journalists over concerns about an influx of requests for credentials. The House also considered placing restrictions on where journalists could shoot photos and videotape, but abandoned the proposal following scrutiny from media commentators.

In a March 15 opinion column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and professor of media ethics and the University of Minnesota, argued that the press’s job is to “inform the public,” regardless of the medium.

“This is a classic ploy by those in government who think that information is just too important to entrust to the public. It doesn’t take a law degree to figure out that this is unconstitutional. So it wasn’t surprising that both the House majority and minority leaders decided it would be prudent to reaffirm their commitment to the public’s right to know by supporting the resolution,” Kirtley wrote.

Jason Barnett, executive director of online-only TheUptake.org said that it got credentials to the Senate with “no problem.” But the House was concerned that additional cameras and reporters could catch legislators in politically embarrassing circumstances. Barnett agreed that might happen, but said it is TheUptake’s job to hold them accountable for their actions.

“So we fought them and we made a public stink,” Barnett said. Eventually House leaders relented and issued credentials to TheUptake, giving its journalists access to the house floor. Local Web site The Minnesota Independent reported March 18 that Internet and radio reporter Marty Owings also received credentials after initially being denied them.

Senate Bill Would Hide Preliminary City Budget Data

Meanwhile, a bill introduced by Sen. Mee Moua (DFL-St. Paul) Feb. 27, 2009 and backed by the League of Minnesota Cities would conceal every Minnesota mayor’s budget proposals from the public and the press until after the final proposal had been presented to the city council. The bill appeared likely to die in committee as the Bulletin went to press.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, an early supporter of the bill, publicly changed course following criticism from the local media. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported March 13, 2009 that Coleman sent a letter to the league calling the policy “misguided.”

Moua’s bill, S.F. 1121, would make “[b]udget proposals, preliminary drafts, and other preliminary documents … protected nonpublic data.” Minnesota’s Data Practices Act, Minn. Stat. Ann. 13.02, defines “protected nonpublic data” as any data “not on individuals” that is “(a) not public and (b) not accessible to the subject of the data.”

If enacted, city budget information would become public only after a final budget is presented to the city council by the mayor. Even then, only the final budget and “supporting data” would become public. Preliminary drafts and proposals not included in the final budget could remain secret.

According to the League of Minnesota Cities’ 2009 City Policies guide, the bill would encourage innovation in city budgeting. “In these challenging budget times, cities are encouraged to engage in creative problem solving and propose innovative solutions to address budget problems. Currently, preliminary budgetary documents produced by cities are public information. This results is [sic] a chilling effect on innovation and creativity,” the Nov. 20, 2008 policy guide said.

The March 13 Pioneer Press story reported that reviews of the preliminary budget data the bill would hide had led to several recent stories in the local media. Those stories included reports on St. Paul budget proposals that would close a library and several recreation centers, as well as reduce the size of the city’s fire department. If the bill were enacted, those preliminary suggestions could remain hidden from the public unless they are part of the final proposal that is presented to the city council.

Coleman’s letter to the League of Minnesota Cities said “our approach was misguided,” the Pioneer Press reported March 13. “We cannot allow this bill to become law if it comes at the cost of any perception that our residents have nothing less than the transparent, honest government they deserve,” Coleman wrote in the letter. He is Second Vice President of the league.

An exception to the Data Practices Act, Minn. Stat. Ann. 13.605, hides preliminary state budget data from the public until a final proposal has been presented to the legislature. Like Moua’s bill, the state-level exception makes the final proposal and supporting data public and allows the governor to make preliminary proposals public if it would help the process. The statute states explicitly that “preliminary drafts” are not part of the “supporting data” made public when the final proposal is presented to the legislature.

– Michael Schoepf
Silha Fellow

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on October 12, 2009 11:02 AM.

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