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Good Government Demands Citizen Participation

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Among the essential characteristics that define a healthy community is active citizen participation in local government. That characteristic is complimented by local elected officials who seek out and respect citizen input to ensure their decisions are representative of the community’s will.

Not all decisions are easy to make. Some, in fact, are divisive and acrimonious. It is during these times that the quality of the elected officials are tested. Too often, those elected officials fail the test. Rather than taking the heat from citizens  and then explaining why their decision moves the community where it needs to go,  they hide behind closed doors.

How do you know when public officials are talking about issues outside of public meetings? They take important actions with no discussion or debate. You wonder, “How did they reach the financial amount for this project? How did they come to this decision? How do they all know what is going on without talking about it in a public meeting?” The answer is obvious – they discussed it outside the meetings.
Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law

When elected officials take office, they swear an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Minnesota. They swear to uphold the law and discharge faithfully the duties of their office.

Among the laws they take is an oath to uphold is the Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML). It says that all “state and local multimember governmental bodies, including committees and subcommittees, and nonprofits created by political subdivisions,” are public.

The OML defines public meetings as any meeting where a “quorum or more of the governmental body is gathered—in person or by electronic means, whether or not action is taken or contemplated.” It requires that notice be given of its public meetings.

The public “may attend and observe, and relevant materials are available to the public,” the OML states.

Minnesota’s Open Meeting law guarantees transparency so that decisions aren’t made with citizens left in the dark on how those decisions were reached. The transparency created through the law gives citizens comfort that their elected and appointed officials are looking out for their best interests.

One of the ways in which elected officials violate this law is with serial meetings. When they communicate by email, or telephone, video conferencing, or in person, with less than a quorum but rotate those who attend these meetings so that in the end all are informed outside of public view, they violate the law. Deceiving the public is at the core of such serial meetings.

Why do elected and administrative officials knowingly violate the law and seek to hide their discussions from the public? Some develop an arrogance that sets them above the average citizen as if the residents of their community can’t be trusted with the information. Some fear taking heat for their decisions, but as the saying goes, “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Some simply do it because they are on a power trip thinking their small-town position gives them liberties to abuse public rights.

What these officials are doing is creating an unhealthy community.
Healthy communities demand citizen participation

In healthy communities, citizens are aware of what is happening, and encouraged and motivated to participate, and working together to make their home a better place to live and work. This inclusion creates a sense of belonging. Living in a connected community is nurturing and rewarding. Connected communities give their citizens a sense of common purpose that binds them together to face challenges.

What happens in communities where public officials hide their discussions and deceive citizens? People are polarized and the ability to work together fractured. Citizens don’t know if their elected officials are serving their interests, or cheating them; if they are diligent, or derelict in their duties.
For the most part, citizens can trust their elected officials to be honest and upfront with them. We appreciate the openness of our local units of government, and the quality of those who serve, more so when we see the rights of citizens abused in neighboring communities.

In these COVID-19 days, are there limits on how many people can be in a meeting room at the same time. However, you can call into meetings and listen to the discussion. Some public bodies are set up for video conferencing for their meetrings.

Not everything that is discussed is exciting, far from it. But there are topics on the agenda that will set the course for this community and county for years to come. Leaders will decide how funds are spent to help businesses weather this economy shattering time, or not help. Decisions will be made that have an impact on the education our children get, the state of our roads, the quality of our law enforcement and emergency services, and how we care for the most vulnerable in our communities.

There is a danger that people will check out, pay less attention, to what their elected officials are doing as we social distance. Citizen participation in meetings was dismal before COVID-19. We fear that it will become even more disgraceful when the pandemic passes.

“American democracy makes a wager on each citizen,” Lee Hamilton, a member of the U.S. House for 34 years and a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, writes.

“The deal is simple: with freedom comes obligation, with liberty comes duty. If you and I do not fulfill our side of that wager, our democracy is doomed. You and I must also ensure that our children are equipped to fulfill the deal themselves. They are the future of democracy. We must give them both the passion and the competence to be effective. If we become a nation of spectators, we will surely fail.”

Democracy takes vigilance, a press that is healthy and citizens who participate. That formula falls apart if we don’t actively become involved.

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