Change the Open Meeting Law to allow our public officials to discuss some issues online without fear

I’ve been digging deeper into the Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) lately, because A) my citizen engagement work with the City of Northfield (parking) and the Northfield Public Schools (technology); and B) my presentations (example here) to public officials on blogging and social media on behalf of the League of MN Cities (LMC).

It seems generally accepted under the current OML that there’s no problem with an elected official having a blog, a Facebook page, or a Twitter account when used for one-way communications.   When used as publishing platforms, these tools are no different than having an opinion column or letter to the editor published in a newspaper.

Rather, the concerns are when the interactive features of these online platforms are used: a discussion thread attached to a blog post; comments on a Facebook wall post; conversational tweets; a live web conference with audio and/or text exchanges; a live online chat. In these instances, the possibility exists that a quorum of a public body could end up participating, that this could be interpreted as a serial meeting under the OML, and if not handled properly, could be a violation.

Last week I spoke by phone with Susan Naughton, LMC staff attorney.  And yesterday, she was the main presenter for the LMC webinar: Shedding Light on the Minnesota Open Meeting Law that I attended. That page has the entire Powerpoint presentation, plus a video archive of the webinar.

Here’s slide #38 from the Powerpoint.

LMC OML slide 38

I think this is overly cautious. In her remarks to me by phone, Susan indicated that two areas of concern under the OML for the interactive use of these online platforms are A) whether they can be included in the definition of what constitutes a ‘meeting’; and B) whether they can be consider ‘open to the public.’

The good news is that since the OML places considerable emphasis on the ‘intention’ of the parties involved when a meeting is held, a local unit of government can get an opinion ahead of time from its own attorney and from the State of Minnesota’s Information Policy Analysis Department (IPAD) on the type of meeting it wishes to hold.  Doing so would show that its intention was to not circumvent the law.

After getting these supporting opinions, I think the best way to conduct an online discussion with elected/appointed officials would be to A) announce it as a ‘special meeting’ as defined by the law; B) use time constraints on the meeting, for example, 8-9 pm for a live event or two weeks for a blog discussion thread; C) conduct the meeting like a Council Work Session, avoiding decisions, votes, or expressions of intention on how one plans to vote; and D) avoid any discussion of quasi-official business such around land use, property, licenses, etc.

I’ve found Northfield City Council work sessions to generally be more engaging and enlightening because of the open discussion among the councilors.  You’re more likely to hear what they’re thinking, wondering, questioning.  Opening up that type of exchange to a wider audience via online tools would be a genuinely helpful contribution to public involvement and engagement.

More good news: during the webinar, Susan announced that a bill to amend the OML was to be introduced in the legislature this week with the involvement of the MN Association of Townships. As soon as I find out more, I’ll post it here.

What can Northfield learn at the League of MN Cities annual conference?

Griff Wigley, Ted Davis IMAG0115 IMAG0118League of MN Cities
I’m here in flood-ravaged Duluth this week for the League of Minnesota Cities annual conference.

I’m teaming up with Ted Davis, Davis Communications, and Scott Neal, Edina City Manager, to do a pre-conference workshop today on Networking and Communicating with New Media for Local Government Leaders.  On Friday, I’m moderating a discussion session on Government 2.0: New Strategies for Engaging the Public.

In between, I plan to attend as many sessions as I can and report back on some of them that I think might be of interest to Northfielders.

10:30 am update:  AARRGGHH. All pre-conference workshops cancelled today. Pretty much all roads in and out of Duluth are blocked, including I35. Eerie to see a completely empty I35 in the middle of the morning.

Ted Davis, CANCELLED! Griff Wigley, CANCELLED! I35 shutdown in Duluth, 6/20/2012 I35 shutdown in Duluth, 6/20/2012

What are the most important considerations to keep in mind when making tough choices about cities, services and funding?

Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities  Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities  Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities  Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities  Mary-Margaret Zindren, Director Communications & Strategic Initiatives, League of MN Cities
That’s the question that staff from the League of MN Cities put to a group of Northfielders last night, part of a series of "community conversations" that it’s holding around the state for its Cities, Services & Funding Initiative. Northfield City Councilor Rhonda Pownell, who sits on the League’s Board of Directors and its Board of Trustees, sent out a press release on the meeting, posted on Northfield.org.

The League’s overview:

Northfield "community conversations" with the League of MN Cities The entire approach to city services and funding needs to be rethought; a broader discussion begins NOW.

The League has launched an effort that has the potential to help shape the future of Minnesota cities—the services you provide, how those services are delivered, and how they are paid for.

Fighting for more funding for LGA, for local option sales taxes, and for more local revenue options is no longer enough. We need to shape a new way forward for Minnesota’s cities.


A similar meeting was held in St. James, MN last week and Minnesota Public Radio reporter Dave Peters wrote about it the MPR Ground Level blog in a post titled Glimmers of change emerge from St. James conversations.


CMBlog
League staffer Don Reeder has also posted to his Cities Matter blog about the project in a post titled City residents share ideas, concerns in series of community conversations.


Cities Services Funding
The League has set up a special statewide Community Conversations website where citizens can chime in.


See this video that introduces the project, featuring cartoonist David Gillette:

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