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E-mails can violate open meeting law

Here's a wake-up call for locally elected officials who might be thinking about keeping their decisions among themselves and not the public.

Don't do it.

Besides short-circuiting the public's right to know what they're doing with taxpayer dollars, they could get into legal trouble.

Just last week, a Minnesota Administration Department opinion tightened the state's open meetings law.

Administration Commissioner Sheila M. Reger determined that the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board violated state law when a Minneapolis police official sent an e-mail to all board members about a statement he wanted to issue to the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune.

Since a quorum of the board members responded to the e-mail, Reger decided, the electronic exchange was the same as making a decision during an in-person meeting. But the public was not told in advance about the "meeting," as state law requires.

"Here, a quorum of the advisory board, in addition to receiving information, commented on and provided direction ... on a matter relating to the official business of the board," Reger wrote.

Reger also suggested that lawmakers change the law to "clarify specifically what kinds of e-mail communications are permissible" so such issues do not continue to arise.

Reger's decision was a good one. We could see how it could be tempting for an elected official to shoot off an e-mail to the other members of his or her board to get an idea of where they stand on a critical issue and why.

But that type of discussion should take place in the light of day -- at a meeting that is open to public scrutiny, not formulated through secretive means.

If elected officials have already "discussed" an issue among themselves through e-mails, text messages or what have you, a cornerstone of open debate will be chiseled away. Public meetings would become nothing more than a routine formality with officials simply parroting a yes or no vote with little or no discussion.

It's the discussion that is the lifeblood of free flowing, open-to-the-public meetings.

When elected officials respectfully debate an issue, it not only benefits them by exposing them to different points of view, but it also helps the public understand the pros and cons of a decision.

In fact, some public officials could do a better job explaining their positions on issues. Sometimes, an official will vote "no" without any explanation. Of course, it is their choice to do so but the big question of why is left hanging in the air.

We're not aware of any secretive e-mails being passed among elected officials in this area. If elected officials are doing it, they should think twice before hitting that send button. They're breaking the law - and the public's trust. -- Alexandria Echo Press