We may be living in the Teachable Moment when open government takes its rightful place as a major player – the bulwark that it must be – in the local/state access arena. Images of a closed Capitol, news reports of sequestered politicos, clandestine sessions and sub-rosa text messages have combined to dawn on us little people that we may be shut out of the process. If we don’t know what’s going, we are silenced in the decision-making process.
At some level there is discussion of the need to take a look at the pillars of open government at the state level. The Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law deserve an airing, if for no other reason than that the issue of open government demands public attention. For me, the details of the law are somewhat less important than the airing itself.
For starts, it’s not the laws and regulations but oversight of those well-wrought documents that cries out for attention. Who is responsible for keeping an eye on school board meetings, backroom gatherings of county commissioners, not to mention legislative cloakroom sessions?
Even more important, what is a citizen to do if a single legislator has the power to dismiss a public employee who allows citizens to sit at the table, as in House Speaker Kurt Zeller’s arbitrary firing of the chair of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.
And what are information-seeking citizens to do when the press is laid off, bought off or just too stretched to cover the bases? Though there are options, ranging from MinnPost and Twin Cities Daily Planet to independent bloggers, some voices have been stifled– and not every concerned Minnesotan has the time, technology or skill to use the communications and information tools du jour. A quick review of several watchdog sites suggests that they have wilted on the information vine. The mainstream press itself has financial, technological and credibility challenges that limit its influence.
The good news is that it is beginning to dawn of us, the public, that we are out of the loop. We the people want to know more, not less. Contrary to popular belief, we are able to attend to, retain and act on solid information we trust.
Though misinformation and opaque government may have had their moment beyond the reach of the sun., a new dawn breaks. The challenge for the majority who care is to keep an eye on that horizon and to craft innovative strategies that take into account the financial and technological realities of the day.
The challenge demands time on task, collaboration and a clear vision of the meaning and strength of an informed democracy. It is a near certainty that issues of transparency and open government as manifest in the laws and regulations of the State of Minnesota will surface, if quietly, on the legislative agenda in 2012. May the voice of Minnesota citizens be heard in the ensuing discourse.