Local and State Government Under Fire for Lack of Transparency
There’s been a slew of examples in recent months of local and state government bodies going to extremes to avoid public scrutiny and accountability. The more notorious incidents include a Minneapolis planning committee currently seeking $20 million in state bonding that bars reporters and cameras from meetings, destroyed records at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, a gag rule on city councilors in St. Cloud and the deletion by TPT of a videotaped panel discussion with First Lady Gwen Walz under pressure from a top aide to Gov. Walz.
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There’s also an issue for reporters trying to pry information out of Duluth City Hall, according to the Duluth Monitor, an online citizen watchdog.
Ever since Mayor Emily Larson took office, she has spoken about her administration’s commitment to openness and transparency. Recently, however, she has begun placing roadblocks in the way of reporters.
The first roadblock appeared about a year ago, shortly after Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman was hired. Prior to that time, reporters could call city employees directly to get questions answered—an efficient and transparent process which yielded valuable information for the public.
Following the arrival of Schuchman, the city instituted a gatekeeper policy, whereby all media inquiries have to be directed to the communications office. ..A process that once took a few minutes now sometimes takes days—and often yields poorer results.
Larson takes her clampdown on information-gathering to the max, even prohibiting city employees from responding to reporters with questions at public meetings on her policies. No questions allowed, as Duluth Monitor reporter John Ramos discovered the hard way a few days ago.
When the meeting adjourned, I approached Mr. Johnson with my questions—only to be told that he was not allowed to answer them, because I had to run them through the communications office first.
I was astonished. Here was the guy I needed to talk to, standing right in front of me, with his slide show still up on the screen. If Johnson simply answered my questions, I would be able to get valuable information out to the public within a day.
Alas, it was not to be. As I persisted, Public Works Director Jim Benning and Chief Engineer Eric Shaffer came over to help Johnson stonewall me.
“It’s city policy,” said Shaffer. “It’s not his decision.”
“So he can’t answer a single question right now?” I demanded.
“It’s city policy.”
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Afterward, Ramos put in a request to interview Larson to ask how the mayor’s draconian communications policy squares with her pledge of transparency. The Duluth City Hall communications office turned around his request uncharacteristically fast–no.