Government operates best in sunshine, not darkness

Mike KnaakEditorial, Opinion, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. Joseph0 Comments

Every March, journalists celebrate Sunshine Week.

It’s not about a Florida vacation but more importantly about the public’s right to know about what our government is doing in our name.

Government works best for all of us when it operates in sunshine, not darkness.

Journalists constantly challenge government officials for access to documents and meetings. But this effort is not about special access for journalists. All citizens have the same rights to examine the details of how government works, attend meetings and read documents.

The Minnesota Legislature is considering several bills that address open government issues and deserve your attention

More and more government business takes place via email. If HF 1185 passes it would require emails and letters be retained for three years. Three years may not be long enough for issues that develop over five or 10 years. But a consistent, three-year retention law is a good place to start.

A second bill hits closer to home. A St. Paul senator, Richard Cohen, has taken up the cause of the Wetterling family’s legal battle to keep certain investigation records private. His bill would restrict access to the types of records that have been public for decades.

The presumption of openness is the hallmark of the Data Practices Act. Unless there’s a clear and specific reason to withhold public data, it’s presumed to be open.

Under the bill, people involved in criminal investigations could request information about them be kept private if it’s irrelevant to the preparation or prosecution of the case. Cohen’s measure states inactive investigative data would be private if the person who is the subject of the data requests it, and if certain conditions are met. Currently, when an investigation is closed, the investigative file becomes public. Law enforcement would determine the relevance and weigh that request against the value of public disclosure, or decide whether releasing the information was an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

The Wetterlings want to block 168 pages of about 56,000 pages of documents about the 27-year investigation of the abduction and murder of their son. Meanwhile, there’s a court battle over opening the entire file. With expected appeals, that fight could drag on a year or more.

Opponents of the bill argue open investigative files are needed to provide oversight, evaluation and accountability of law enforcement.

Indeed, in the Wetterling case, they are many questions about how the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies pursued suspects and leads in the case.

Mark Anfinson is a lawyer representing media organizations and others pushing for public access to the Wetterling records. He told the StarTribune he has worked with Cohen in the past and said “the goal here is entirely legitimate.” But Anfinson and other open-records advocates worry unless the language is narrowly defined, law enforcement will define irrelevant information broadly and could protect info that could be important.

Making a significant change in the State Data Practices Act based on one case is a bad idea. While we are sympathetic to the Wetterlings’ privacy and the family’s tragedy, this law should not be passed unless the standard for what can be blocked is specific and set very high.

Author: Mike Knaak

Leave a Reply