Open meeting vs social media in the Minnesota legislature

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I am a big fan of open meeting laws. I am a big fan of social media. I’m not sure what to make of the legislation to say social media communication is not considered meetings under the open meetings law (HF653). Here’s the proposed bill…

A bill for an act
1.2 relating to open meeting law; providing that certain communications on social
1.3 media are not meetings under the law;amending Minnesota Statutes 2012,
1.4 section 13D.01, subdivision 2.
1.5BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA:
1.6 Section 1. Minnesota Statutes 2012, section 13D.01, subdivision 2, is amended to read:
1.7 Subd. 2. Exceptions. This chapter does not apply:
1.8(1) to meetings of the commissioner of corrections;
1.9(2) to a state agency, board, or commission when it is exercising quasi-judicial
1.10 functions involving disciplinary proceedings; or
1.11(3) to participation in social media forums by a member of a public body otherwise
1.12 subject to this chapter, whether or not a quorum of the public body is participating, when
1.13 participation is intended to augment traditional communication methods. The social
1.14 media forum must be generally open to public participation. Simultaneous or serial
1.15 participation by a quorum or more of members of a public body otherwise subject to this
1.16 chapter in a forum or section of a forum that the members know is not open to general
1.17 public participation is not exempt under this paragraph. Participation in a social media
1.18 forum shall not replace any required public meeting or hearing and no vote of any entity
1.19 otherwise subject to this section shall be taken by means of a social media forum. “Social
1.20 media” means forms of Web-based and mobile technologies for communication, such as
1.21 Web sites for social networking and microblogging, through which users participate in
1.22 online communities to share information, ideas, messages, and other content; or
1.23(4) as otherwise expressly provided by statute.

I’m also a big fan of transparency and encouraging civic engagement. It seems to me as if this is an invitation (or at least permission granted) to talk about public issues on a public forum. As it stands, participation in discussions at open meetings is limited to people in the room during the meeting. Sometimes the door may be open to remote participation – but time is still a barrier. To participate, most citizens would need to take time off work, or get a babysitter, possibly travel to the St Paul. Those are some big barriers.

Inviting conversation online and not in real time makes sense to me. Especially with the caveats listed about:

  • Forum must be public
  • No votes will be accepted via social media

I was a little surprised to read about opposition to the bill in the Post Bulletin…

But critics argue Quam’s bill [HF653] would end up moving important public policy discussions from the city council chamber to online venues.

“It would have converted many public meetings, at least in respect to more controversial issues, basically into ceremonial functions where members show up and vote without much need for discussion,” said Mark Anfinson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

I’ve been to lots of public meetings. They usually include a lot of legislative aides and lobbyists. It occurs to me that conversations are happening outside the open meetings. I don’t think these meetings include a quorum necessarily, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the conversations, I just think that moving some of the conversation online would help policymakers hear from a wider group of citizens who might get more engaged if it didn’t require time off work, travel and babysitters. (What it would require is ubiquitous access to broadband!)

Some folks seem to be worried about the details…

“What this potentially does is gut the open meeting law,” Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, told fellow House members.

He added, “If it is a requirement to be a friend on Facebook and to have this serial round robin communication between members about a subject matter, then constituents don’t know and don’t get the posting of a notice or a meeting of when these conversations are happening. And that becomes, I believe, a violation of open meeting law.”

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, told fellow lawmakers she also has concerns with the bill — one being that it’s simply too broad.

“The intent is correct. I think we need to figure out how to appropriately use social media to open up the communication process with our constituents,” she said.

I do understand that concern – but there are ways around it. First, time might not be such an issue. These are ongoing discussions. That’s the beauty as far an encouraging greater engagement! Second, how are people hearing about meetings now? Maybe it’s time to start including links to online conversations at the same time. The conversations are happening (in places like E-Democracy Forums, which are public) this just may be a time to connect the existing conversations with policymakers and invite more people to join in.