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Limited Access to Government During Shutdown Raises Transparency Concerns

Some might question how much of the government should in fact fall under the banner of “essential services” during the coronavirus shutdown. Yet government entities at every level continue to conduct the people’s business in many respects without the scrutiny of the  people, given the restrictions that go with social distancing.

Vast sums of taxpayer dollars being allocated by politicians with little public attention have raised transparency and accountability concerns among media outlets like the St. Cloud Times.

It’s important to combat the coronavirus pandemic and protect people. But it’s also disconcerting to democracy that governments of, by and for the people are ultimately spending trillions of public dollars without any chance for the public to weigh in.

Look no farther than the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package. A handful of elected officials drafted it behind closed doors. Then the U.S. House and Senate — both of which are closed to public access — voted on it and the president signed it. That’s $2.2 trillion of your money spent with no chance for public input.

The Minnesota Legislature followed a similar plan with last week’s $330 million COVID-19 package. The Star Tribune reported it was put together in private meetings with Gov. Tim Walz’s administration and then posted online to the public 10 minutes before members of the House were set to convene and vote on the package.

Like Congress, those legislative sessions and votes came in chambers with no rank-and-file Minnesotans present.

To their credit local governments have responded by attempting to leverage tools already in place to provide taxpayers with online access to meetings, albeit with mixed results. A recent Blue Earth County Board meeting chronicled by the Mankato Free Press offers a window into the challenges.

Local governments are using technology — and working out some kinks — as they adjust to holding public meetings when the public is no longer able to attend.

On Tuesday, Blue Earth County commissioners spread out inside their board room in the Historic Court House to hold a phone-conference meeting that the public could listen in on via a GoToMeeting web system.

“We’re trying to offer a transparent government meeting in this day and age,” said Jessica Anderson, administrative specialist.

“We’re utilizing the technology the best we can, but it’s not ideal.”

The audio was tough to understand at some points, but a video version of the meeting was also recorded. Clearly the board was living up to the spirit of the open meeting law which does make allowances for extreme circumstances.

…There are caveats in the open meeting laws that allows for meetings to be held that the public can’t physically attend because of emergencies, but that strive to live up to the spirit of the law.

Those laws allow electronic meetings but require the public be able to hear all parties to the meeting.

During the start of the commissioner’s meeting, Administrator Bob Meyer reminded the board that under the emergency rules the law requires that rather than passing motions on a voice vote, all motions needed to be a roll-call vote, where each commissioner’s name is called and they vote yes or no, so that anyone listening knows how each voted.

The meetings may not be as riveting as your favorite programs on Netflix. Yet the shutdown affords citizens the opportunity to do what most of us fail to take the time to do when things are running smoothly, namely, keep an eye on what’s going down at city hall or the county board,  even if at a distance.

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