MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — State Sen. Scott Newman found himself on the defensive earlier this year, explaining away an e-mail that suggested he would take revenge on his election opponent’s supporters by refusing to meet with them.
If Newman’s embarrassment hadn’t been exposed by the e-mail, which was made public by the recipient, it certainly wouldn’t have come to light by checking his appointment calendar. That’s because the public has no right to see the calendars, one of the many ways in which Minnesota legislators are shielded from the state’s freedom-of-information law.
The state Data Practices Act was written with the executive branch in mind when it was crafted nearly 40 years ago, so the state’s 201 senators and representatives aren’t required to give up information such as e-mail and meeting calendars.
The AP is highlighting the public’s ability to obtain information about its governments as part of “Sunshine Week,” which began Sunday and annually marks efforts by government watchdogs to open government affairs to “sunshine” and freedom of information.
Minnesota lawmakers may choose to give up some information to the public, but the actual requirements are scattered in various state statutes and rules. For example, legislators do have to disclose phone and travel records and staff rosters and are required to report on campaign money-raising.
Without those requirements gathered in a central place, it can be challenging for a citizen to understand what they have a right to see. That in itself hinders transparency, said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
“It gets so complicated and difficult for John Q. Public to follow,” he said. “Is that a clever way of making things not as open as they should be? I think so.”
Bunting said Minnesota is one of 15 states that exempts its legislators from its open-records law.
Legislators themselves often are confused about what is and isn’t public, said Don Gemberling, who previously oversaw Minnesota governments’ compliance with the Data Practices Act and is now secretary of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, a group committed to ensuring open access to public information.
Both the House and Senate have unofficial policies of providing legislators’ travel records to the public, Senate Counsel Tom Bottern said. People can request where the legislator traveled and why, whether they rented a car, their lodging and expenses.
A rule requires a public roster of all staff members in the Legislature, including their positions and salaries.
The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board collects and reports all campaign contributions of more than $100, including how the money was spent. The board also requires information about each legislator’s finances annually, including sources of outside income, real estate, stocks and securities.
Rep. Larry Hosch, a Democrat from St. Joseph, said that when asked, he’s always provided his professional meeting calendar and e-mail between himself and other public officials.
“I’m all for transparency and openness,” Hosch said. He said he would not share personal correspondence between private individuals without their consent, nor would he provide his personal calendar, which includes his family’s doctor’s appointments.
Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican, said making everything open could discourage constituents from contacting their legislators.
“These sometimes can be women who might have a batterer in their house,” he said, “and because of the potential harm to them if it got out publicly, it could have very dire consequences.”
Mark Anfinson, an attorney who frequently handles cases for news organizations, said the Legislature has been fairly transparent in his experience. But he said because people so infrequently want information about their legislators, there’s no clear-cut answer to whether they can have it, he said.
Rich Neumeister, an open-government activist and regular presence at the Capitol, said it’s easy for the public to watch meetings, read bills and get face time with the people who wrote them. But he said something as simple as not being able to find out whom legislators are meeting with makes it difficult or impossible to know who is influencing them behind the scenes.
“We need to know how we can redress our grievances and petition the government to redress those,” Neumeister said. “We need information.”
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