Garry Gamble

It was National Sunshine Week last week, even though the skies were overcast and it was snowing March 16 on National Freedom of Information Day, the day we traditionally – at least for the last 51 years – have celebrated the birthday of President James Madison. It is no coincidence that the diminutive – five foot four and never weighing more than 100 pounds – Madison is recognized as the philosophical father of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as he was a giant when it came to ensuring transparent government.

As the leading tribune of the Freedom of Information Act, it was his now-classic proclamation which shepherded the debate that eventually led to its passage nearly two centuries after being elected as the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress.

In 1950, the American Society of Newspaper Editors hired Harold Cross, a lawyer for the New York Herald Tribune, to scrutinize information-access laws, which eventually led to his writing a book titled, “The People’s Right to Know” (rivals “War & Peace” in length). In his tome, Mr. Cross asserts that a right of freedom of information “has been recognized in general terms since the birth of the nation by philosophers, statesmen, and legal authors . . . ” He specifically cites a quote taken from a letter Madison composed to a politician-professor named William Taylor Barry who had written Madison seeking counsel on the issue of education.

In the opening paragraph in Madison’s August 4, 1822 correspondence – penned 35 years after the constitutional ink had dried – Madison contends, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

In 1965, the Senate Judiciary Committee dusted off Madison’s quote in its report supporting the original Freedom of Information Act. And in 1966, during subsequent House debate on FOIA, Madison’s immortalized words were once again resurrected before President Lyndon Johnson signed the FOIA into law.

Fast forward to April 2010 when the U.S. Department of Justice released its “Plan for Open Government.”

The department’s explanation of the plan stated, “The Department of Justice has long had a special responsibility for open government because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Freedom of Information Act is a key tool for transparency in government. It is often through the FOIA that the public learns what the government is doing and holds the government accountable for its decisions and actions.”

All 50 states have enacted open records laws similar to the FOIA. In Minnesota, our Data Practices Act is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels. Minnesota defines public records as “all data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by any government entity regardless of its physical form, storage media or conditions of use.”

Rhonda Bletner, editor of The Mountain Press in Sevierville, Tennessee, writing in her March 16, 2017 article, “Openness, transparency and frankly, to be honest,” states, “The more accountable officeholders are, the more mindful they are of their relationship to ‘the people,’ the more transparency they can achieve.”

So, how’s the state doing?

According to a 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, Minnesota has always run in the middle of the pack when it comes to ethics and openness in state government; however, Minnesota earned a D- in 2015.

Freelance journalist Katie Nelson, writing in a November 2015 article on the subject, observed, “While Minnesota state law requires that nearly all executive branch and local government meetings are open to the public, legislative rules say meetings must be open to the public only if a quorum is present and the group intends to take action on an issue within its jurisdiction. The effect is that small groups of legislators can meet in private to discuss legislation without needing to inform the public.”

“The fact is, the work that gets done and the horse trading that goes on, always goes on behind closed doors,” said Mark Haveman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. (Note: Aaron Twait, research director for the Center will be addressing the issue of property taxes at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts, April 4, 2017 from 6 to 8 p.m. You are encouraged to attend and, hey, it’s free!)

In a recent Associated Press article appearing in the Star Tribune (March 12, 2017) entitled, “Exceptions growing to government transparency in Minnesota,” it was noted, “Minnesota law starts with the assumption that the records produced by its governments are public.” However, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, originally passed in 1974, has ballooned from 29 pages in 1982 to 176 pages today, due primarily to increased exceptions.

According to the Star Tribune story – which kicked off Sunshine Week, “The number of secrecy provisions in Minnesota’s public records law has risen to at least 660.”

Government transparency shouldn’t be a battle, citizens shouldn’t have to pry from the government’s vaults to get information. When the public wants to see what their officials are up to, they shouldn’t be met with resistance, hostility, obfuscation, or even retaliation.

In an interview conducted with Governor Mark Dayton for the article, the governor “said he is concerned that Minnesota’s open records watchdog agency isn’t doing enough to make sure people get the information to which they are entitled.”

Sunshine Week is a reminder that citizens’ participation and rights are critical to a democracy. Citizens participate, of course by voting, but also by becoming informed, debating issues, and attending community or civic meetings.

“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” Patrick Henry

Former Cook County Commissioner Garry Gamble is writing this ongoing column about the various ways government works.

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