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home : opinion : opinion February 5, 2016

5/13/2014 12:46:00 PM
Editorial Open meetings are necessary to preserve democratic government

One of the advantages of the democratic process is the potential for getting a wide range of talents and abilities applied to find solutions to problems faced by a society. One of the disadvantages is that it can take time for decisions to be made because of the range of ideas to be considered.

Totalitarian governments are much more efficient when it comes to making decisions than are democratic governments because a limited number of people are necessary to make decisions, sometimes as few as one person. However, there are likely to be fewer potential ideas considered so the quality of the decision may be lower, often significantly lower.

Here in Minnesota, we have open meeting laws that require government at every level to operate for the most part in public view. This ensures, or at least attempts to ensure, that whenever government action which will affect citizens is being considered, those members of the public who are most interested or most likely to be affected by the action will have an opportunity to express opinions, share ideas and influence the action.

Elected members of our local governments, county, township, city and school are required to hold public meetings properly noticed and open to the public before taking action. They are supposed to discuss the pros and cons of issues before them at these meetings so that members of the public know what their elected representatives are doing. They are not allowed to discuss these issues in private sessions either in person or in telephone calls or in emails.

Elected officials don't always observe these restrictions because it is much more efficient and less controversial for them to consider only their own ideas. You can often tell when this is happening because there will be votes on issues with no accompanying public discussion. You can also tell because there will be a continuing deterioration in the quality of operation of the system involved.

This year, there is an effort at the state legislature to make it even easier for elected officials to conduct public business outside the view of the public, House File 563, which would allow elected officials to hold discussion of issues on social media. While there would be a requirement not to abuse the privilege, where there is a will there is a way, and history demonstrates that too many government officials have the will to keep their conduct outside the view of the pubic they represent.

It has been my experience that officials are not usually trying to avoid open meetings in order to do something illegal or unethical (except for violating the open meeting laws) but rather because they think no one is interested anyway, so why bother with the process since no one often comes to the public meetings. In these cases, they overlook the fact that the public is represented there by the press, which is there to report on the issues.

I encourage you to contact our state legislators to express your opinion on open meetings and limitations on officials discussing issues outside those meetings.

Larry Dobson

Claremont Service

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