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Editorial: Support judicial election reform

A bill making its way through the Minnesota Legislature could help citizens open the door to the Open Meeting Law. The change is long overdue, and better representative government would result from its passage.

Currently, when people believe a governmental body has violated the law, they must file a case in district court. The process can cost tens of thousands of dollars and resolution may come a year later.

Since taking legal action isn't viable for most citizens and since the perceived offense must be substantial before many news organizations will invest the time and energy to wage a costly legal fight, actual Open Meeting Law suits are few and far between.

In the instances where lawsuits are filed and proven, each board or council member is fined a mere $300.

Officials know this, so sometime they shrug their shoulders and disregard the Open Meeting Law when following it is inconvenient. They do the same thing when citizens demand public information under the Data Practices Act. They think it's easier to conduct some government business in the shadows.

Does it happen here? Maybe. We know the law firm for one local body has suggested a potential $300 slap may be a good gamble because the probability of a lawsuit is low. Certainly not every decision receives the debate we think it should get at the board and council levels.

The burden for openness under the current law falls to the citizenry, and so do all the real risks - not the least of which is government behind closed doors.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, and Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, would shift that burden. They want to keep government open and accessible across Minnesota.

Their proposal, which had a House committee hearing Tuesday, would shift responsibility for resolving public access complaints from the court to the Office of Administrative Hearings. This state agency holds hearings before an administrative law judge.

The bill also would grant that office authority to hear claims under the Data Practices Act.

The bill addresses current law's shortcomings regarding cost and time.

A $1,000 filing fee would cover the state's costs, discourage weak or frivolous complaints, yet be affordable. If the people alleging a violation win their case, they would receive $950 back. The administrative law judge also could order government to pay the people's legal costs.

The Office of Administrative Hearings would have 60 days to rule on a case. One timetable would give the government body 10 business days to respond to a complaint, have a hearing set within 20 days and a ruling 30 days later.

Timely resolution is important. Any determination that a government acted inappropriately a year ago, for instance, means a case is essentially a matter of principle; the deal is done.

We believe that most of our local elected officials support open government. They don't always understand the legal nuances, however.

We contend that if Minnesota lawmakers adopt the changes as Pelowski and Betzold have outlined, then fewer elected officials and government administrators will risk violating the Data Practices Act or the Open Meeting Law. And we suspect fewer of them will be tempted to look the other way when someone else does.

Democracy only works when government makes decisions in the open and when citizens have access to information so they can join in the public debate that leads to the best and most informed decisions.

Minnesota lawmakers should pass this bill.