Too Much Secrecy, Not Enough Accountability

This morning’s Star Tribune has a long article on the growing secrecy surrounding government activities in Minnesota:

Train cars loaded with highly flammable oil roll through Minnesota cities every day, but residents aren’t allowed to see complete disaster plans detailing the potential aftermath of a derailment.

The state has doled out $72 million in tax cuts to hundreds of Minnesota businesses but keeps secret which companies have received the subsidies.

When a contagious bird flu swept across Minnesota in 2015, state officials said they were barred from sharing the locations of the afflicted farms.

Even inspection reports about commercial dog and cat breeders cannot be publicly divulged.

Secrecy is emerging as a reflex at all levels of government in Minnesota and across the nation.

Like other states, Minnesota’s laws provide for public access to government records. But there are now so many exceptions that the rule has largely ceased to exist:

Lobbyists representing local governments, law enforcement and businesses are chipping away at Minnesota’s public records law. State legislators have added hundreds of exceptions to the public disclosure law, raising the number of secrecy provisions to at least 660.

Of course, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for secrecy. But when the exceptions swallow up the rule, what we lose is government accountability:

“What’s missing is accountability,” said Buddy Robinson of the Minnesota Citizens Federation-Northeast, a Duluth advocacy group for seniors and health care access. “Secrecy still seems to reign supreme.”

As is so often the case, Minnesotans think we are doing better than other states, but the reality is otherwise. In face, Minnesota is average or below average with regard to public access to government conduct:

The lack of recourse for citizens denied information was one reason that the Center for Public Integrity gave Minnesota a failing grade for public access to information. In a 2015 survey, the center, a Washington-based nonprofit investigative news organization, ranked Minnesota 28th among states for the accountability of its government.

This is why the Center inaugurated its Government Accountability Project in 2016. One of American Experiment’s missions is to hold our state and local governments accountable by shining a spotlight on government corruption, waste and inefficiency.