Lack of transparency in government is not new, but it should not be normal — especially in the midst of a public health emergency.
During times of crisis, governments often exert broader powers, and make decisions with haste. Precisely because of this, the importance of government transparency during the COVID-19 outbreak is heightened.
That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU-MN) is partnering with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) to reach out to the public and civic organizations to raise awareness about the importance of openness in government. To this end, we’re also co-hosting a free open-records webinar on May 28.
When the Minnesota Legislature, like many other state and local governing bodies, adjourned temporarily because of the COVID-19 crisis, its leaders said that they would respond to the pandemic as needed. The Legislature did respond, reconvening twice over the course of a month to vote on COVID-19 legislation covering several important provisions to address the ongoing health crisis.
However, in doing so, legislators took their work behind closed doors.
They met in small subsets and “working groups” outside the public eye. At least until mid-April, legislation that reached the floor of each chamber only did so with the full agreement of legislative leadership, and without a single public committee hearing.
The general public didn’t get a chance to review bills before the vote, and neither did the full Legislature.
While the changing landscape caused by COVID-19 posed real challenges, this is no way to conduct business – especially not the public’s business. In a representative democracy, the public should have access to lawmakers’ deliberations in order to provide input, and to understand how consequential decisions are made.
Concerns about legislative transparency are nothing new. In recent years, the Minnesota Legislature has had recurring problems with its end-of-session deliberations. Last year, for example, the resolution of major policy and spending bills largely occurred behind closed doors in the last few days of session. The era of COVID-19 just exacerbated this trend, and pulled the veil of legislative secrecy over the body of the session itself.
But there is hope. After initial COVID-19 response bills were assembled in private, a few transparency-minded legislators from both sides of the aisle advocated for the passage of rules to ensure that future remote committee meetings would be open to public view, and would provide opportunities for public testimony. In recent weeks, the Legislature also passed measures requiring that local governing bodies who conduct meetings using remote technology must log their votes via roll call, in order to ensure clarity for the audience watching at home.
During these uncertain times, government openness and accountability are essential. The ACLU-MN and MNCOGI urge citizens and civic organizations to contact lawmakers at all levels of government to keep these matters at the forefront of public discussion. We need you to make your voices heard through letters-to-the-editor, social media, phone calls and attendance at Zoom hearings.
You can help hold government accountable by learning more about how to use open records laws. The free joint webinar by the ACLU-MN and MNCOGI is May 28 at 6 p.m. RSVP with your name and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With governmental decisions affecting all facets of our lives, this is not the time for any of us to remain silent.
John Gordon is executive director of ACLU of Minnesota. Gary Hill is chair of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI).