Friday, April 25, 2008

MN COGI on Minnpost

Earlier this week a post on this MnCOGI blog responded to a thoughtful post in Minnpost written by a unique team that included Marcia Avner, public policy director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Dane Smith president of the Growth & Justice think tank; and Ray Waldron, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Theirs was an impassioned rejection of the proverbial slash and burn “no new taxes” fallacy and a call for people of good will to get a grip on the public good. Mine was a reminder that those people depend on a transparent government and access to timely, accurate, reliable information by and about their government -- from the feds down to the local township and school system. Thanks to Susan Albright, MinnPost published that response today.

The good news -- a virtual sheaf of emails this afternoon affirms that lots of Minnesotans and MinnPost readers depend on and care deeply about the issue.

The goal of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MnCOGI) is to shed light on the reality that a solid base of information is the absolute sine qua non of a democracy. The pillars that support that base are threatened by a host of forces -- the arrogance of government behind closed doors, concentration of media, instant dissemination of misinformation, classroom focus on testing over critical thinking skills. Add your bete noir to the Litany of Threats..

Hope lies in collaboration among those who shape the conversations and the decision-making mores of the public -- teachers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, librarians, researchers, lawyers, religious leaders, these and countless other people of good will who seek the truth, speak the truth, and help others to understand and ultimately shape a decent, caring, informed, even wise electorate that lessens fear and embraces freedom.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Minnesota needs to invest in and nourish the common good

Today’s MinnPost (4-22-08) carries a noteworthy commentary by a quartet of community leaders who, with a common voice, remind us that Minnesotans and our leaders “need to invest smartly in education, job training, transportation and human capital. To do this we need to think again, as the generation before us did, as well-rounded citizens willing to invest in and nourish the common good.

The vocal foursome includes Marcia Avner, public policy director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Dane Smith president of the Growth & Justice think tank; and Ray Waldron, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. When these folks speak in unison, it behooves one to listen.

What is implicit in their comments is a base of common knowledge shared by those “well-rounded citizens willing to invest in and nourish the common good.”

In this information age that base of common knowledge is at terrible risk. Today Rupert Murdock picked up another NYC newspaper while his managing editor tendered his resignation at the WSJ. Today the mainstream print media in the Twin Cities languish as owners sacrifice journalistic standards to stockholders’ fiscal demands. Today our community’s professional journalists work in tandem with citizen journalists to cover, interpret, and share with a changing public a range of news and views and understandings of a world - and neighborhoods - in flux. Today those outside the digital loop resort to the only sources of information they can afford - a mix of radio and TV owned and ruled by a dwindling circle who know only too well the power of information.

The life-giving force of this community of well-rounded citizens committed to the common good is the free flow of reliable, timely, relevant information -- cogent analysis of the decision-making process, accurate data on the impact of public policy and the living conditions of Minnesotans, serious research on the goods and products that build a robust economy, a communal eye on the flow of power and money and influence.

Minnesotans care about transparency in government, access to information and the threats. The commitment to understand and nourish the common good demands individual and collective time and mental energy. These four leaders remind us of another essential nutrient of the common good: “As citizens, we need to make room for elected leaders to do what many of them know to be right for Minnesota.”

Information blossoms as knowledge and ideas that exist to be shared and invested. Something to ponder as we celebrate statehood and honor our heritage of “well rounded Minnesotans willing to invest in and nourish the common good”.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nothing to read in Cuba, Part Two

(Note: I didn't realize this essay would require posting in two parts - read the post below first! Robbie LaFleur)

Poverty in Cuba is crushing. The infrastructure of Havana and the small towns through which we traveled was in depressingly disastrous shape. We visited a group of elderly people in a ‘home church’ in Havana. They can’t afford the modest bus fare to get to the Cathedral. They support one another spiritually and in other ways. Our group was moved by these parishioners and wanted to make a donation. When asked about their greatest needs, they said basic pain killers, like Ibuprofen. Remarkably, they could not tell us what a large bottle would cost. The pills are so expensive that no one buys more than a few at a time.

I have the highest respect, admiration and love for the people I met in Cuba. Their warmth and hospitality humbled us each day. And I respect the Cuban government’s long-term dedication to health care and literacy. But lack of freedom of movement and lack of access to information are other forms of poverty, and create a situation that makes people guarded and cautious. The harshest government criticism I ever heard was the often-repeated phrase, “These are hard times for Cuba.” (Compare that to Minnesota bloggers talking about the Legislature!)

As a librarian for the Legislature, I spend a great deal of time promoting government transparency. Legislative staff members from many offices work tirelessly to find more ways to get legislative information online and to reach citizens. As a board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, I work with a group devoted to citizen access to information. We present an annual “Freedom of Information” award. Through the lens of my experience, I was amazed at information isolation of Cubans.

So I commend the Minnesota House of Representatives. Trade and open borders are incredibly important in helping the people of Cuba. Why should Cuba be singled out for onerous trade restrictions? When a Cuban bishop visited the Twin Cities last fall he asked, “What about human rights issues in China?” Rep. Heidgerken echoed that sentiment on the floor of the House, noting “I have a bigger issue with China than Cuba.”

Significantly freer trade could not help but improve access to information for Cubans. Think of the amount of personal business we now do via the Web. How long can the Cuban government continue to restrict Web access and also offer increased business opportunities?

Some recent articles on Cuba are optimistic in tone. The March 3 issue of Business Week featured “After the Smoke Clears,” predicting economic growth potential in spite of current difficult conditions for Cubans. I hope that’s true! On the other hand, current government repression of opposition groups is detailed in the May, 2008, issue of Harper’s, “The Battle of Ideas: Searching for the Opposition in Post-Fidel Cuba.”

So thanks to all the Minnesota legislators who support greater trade between Minnesota and Cuba. Rep. Kahn said that by passing the resolution, Minnesota is sending the message that it wants to open up “economic, intellectual and social” communications with Cuba. But in addition to farm products, I hope that when travel opens up that we can send LOTS of Minnesotans with plasterboard and paint!

Robbie LaFleur (

Nothing to read in Cuba, Part One

It was heartening to see the passage of the resolution supporting trade in Cuba in the Minnesota House of Representatives on April 17, 86-9. (More information from MPR and the House of Representatives Session Daily) Several members have visited Cuba. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, author of the resolution, is a tireless advocate for more open trade. Rep. Erhardt visited five years ago. Representatives Magnus and Juhnke visited just this month with a trade delegation from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Their personal experiences strengthened their resolve to improve trade with Cuba – to do what we can to help Cubans.

I visited Cuba for ten days in January with a group from St. Mark’s Cathedral, sent to strengthen relationships with Cubans generally, and in particular, the Episcopalian Diocese. The trip was definitely life-changing. I went with a very open mind – after all, isn’t health care available to all? Isn’t there an extremely high level of literacy? I came back with a degree of anger I had not anticipated. Does it matter if there is a high level of literacy if there is nothing to read? Perhaps librarians are used to a high level of information saturation, but don’t we all enjoy access to hundreds of newspapers and websites online? Americans drown in books and magazines. Cubans do not. Before we left for Cuba, our group members stocked up on useful items to give as gifts – shampoo, soap, aspirin, etc. Only one person, Ellen, chose the category of Spanish-language reading materials; she brought a Spanish language women’s magazine. After checking out the clothes and make-up tips in Siempre Mujer over Cuban rum one evening, we left it in the dorm lounge area in the cathedral where we were staying. There were no other reading materials around. Later, after midnight, I walked through the lounge area and found the Dean of the cathedral sitting by a reading lamp, engrossed in the magazine. The next morning the church cleaning woman was poring over the magazine. Later she found Ellen and hugged her warmly. “Gracias! I love you.”

Does it matter if there is a high level of literacy if access to information is cruelly restricted? Web access is not allowed. Even clergy in Havana have to go to a tourist hotel and purchase Internet time to search the Web. I believe it was $4.00 for a few minutes. Keep in mind that average salaries are around $20/month. We stayed with a family in a small village in the countryside. The eldest daughter was beginning her college at a regional university, where she planned to become a lawyer and was studying human rights. Is it possible get a well-rounded legal education without unfettered access to the Web?

E-mail is allowed, but perhaps not trusted. After Raul Castro gained more power recently a friend sent the text of relevant New York Times and Los Angeles Times articles to a Cuban colleague. His response was pretty immediate, but guarded. “Are you doing well? How is your family? ”

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Journalism That Matters MInnesota Gathering

Here's another great 21st century journalism conference coming to Minnesota on June 4-6. Here's a quick blurb from their flyer and a link for more info

One of the first national gatherings for local, online citizen journalists and entrepreneurs,
sometimes called "placebloggers." Designed for existing and prospective journalists and entrepreneurs. Learn more...

Mark Glaser on Net Neutrality

Some of us have possibly put our brains in neutral to avoid information overflow on the topic of Net Neutrality. I found the recent post by Mark Glaser in Free Press to be extremely helpful as a digest and succinct interpretation of the complex issues surrounding this polarizing issue. The author includes a basic list of resources for keeping abreast of the topic. Check it out.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Links from Sunshine State

State Sunshine and Open Records did a great job gathering links this week and we just wanted to share them: Tuesday links round-up.

Media Reform conference set for Minneapolis June 6-8

The Media Reform conference set for Minneapolis June 6-8 is great in and of itself. Even more, it is the catalyst for a number of related gatherings, including a presentation by Patrice McDermott of Open the Government sponsored by the Minnesota Coalition on Government. Details on that TBA

Meantime, I’ve just learned of another really interesting pre-conference, aimed at the “New Pamphleteers” identified as Entrepreneurs Who Combine Journalism, Democracy, Place and Blogs” The conference, open to citizen journalists and those who care about informed citizen journalism, will be June 4-6 at the U of M Journalism Center. Planners have arranged a very attractive package deal for anyone registering for the pre-conference and the Media Reform conference itself. Details and registration

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Our First COGI-tation

The other night we had the first of our “COGI-tations” presentations. We are off to a great start. Legislative Auditor James Nobles spoke -- he spoke with authority, clarity of purpose and commitment to the people of Minnesota. It was the most informative and refreshing presentation I have heard in a very long time.

The work of the Legislative Auditor is non-partisan and essential to good government. His work involves fiscal auditing as well as inspection and evaluation of state government in its many manifestations. For the first time ever I understand now that the elected state auditor audits local government while the legislative auditor is responsible to but not for the Legislature. His purview is state government agencies, commissions and all those instrumentalities that operate with state funds -- everything from charter schools to nonprofits that operate with state funds.

Nobles offered on the one hand an articulate intro to state government organization and processes. More than this, his commitment to the highest quality public service and the importance of good government was both refreshing and inspiring. For the moment at least, I have renewed faith in the democracy at work.

Our first COGI-tation, co-sponsored by Common Cause Minnesota, set a high standard I hope we can uphold.

Notes on the Newseum

Not that I was invited or anything but I’m still celebrating vicariously the opening of the spectacular Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Our Nation’s Capital. It’s a fitting testimonial to our assumed commitment to the First Amendment as a fundamental upon which all else rests. I know the real estate cost a lot, but it’s a small price to pay if the suits actually peer out of their limos and think for even one split second about the principle.

The Newseum reminds us of the essential role of investigative journalism, a free press and transparency in government - and it does so from a vantage point smack between the White House and the Capitol with a first-hand view of a string of bureaucracies.

Print and electronic media - the traditional mainstream - are in chaos. And we the people know what we’re missing. Some 10,000+ of us showed up to visit the Museum on Day One. Read all about it in today’s Washington Post. Or you might want to know who WAS invited…

Friday, April 11, 2008

Minnesota News Council

A chance to learn makes a good day - and that was my day today. Recently I was named to the Minnesota News Council and today was orientation, a real learning experience for this “public” member of this 24 member advisory group, a newspaper reader among journalists, listening in on the conversation of professionals at their best.

The Minnesota News Council, created in 1970, is a nonprofit organization supported entirely by voluntary contributions from media organizations, businesses and individuals. The purposes of the MNC are to present complaints about accuracy and fairness to news organizations, to hold public hearings re. unresolved complaints, and to conduct public forums to foster trust in journalism.

Our orientation involved a mock hearing. The scenario offered this newbie a chance to see the group process at work and to listen in on the keen questions and observations of my new colleagues.

I need to learn more about news councils in other states. I know Minnesota’s is the oldest, but that’s about all I know now. I learned it’s modeled on a British prototype. In a litigious environment, when everyone waits to hear the “verdict”, it’s a unique forum for open dialogue sans finger pointing and financial settlements.

I find myself mulling it over in my mind -- the process, the perspectives, the purpose of the Minnesota News Council. A first blush, it seems to me an altogether intelligent and constructive venue for giving the people a voice and the press a chance to engage in honest dialogue with their subjects and their readers. I’m eager to learn more and, in time, to plunk my own oar in the deliberative waters.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cogi-tations Meeting with Jim Nobles

Last night (April 8) Jim Nobles spoke about his work as the Minnesota Legislative Auditor. His conversation with our group was thoughtful and inspiring. He talked about the mission of the office as good government. In a democracy elections are important, but good government also requires effective mechanisms in place, which includes an oversight office like the OLA. He felt privileged, "It's rare to be free of the pull of partisan politics and find objective facts." Their mission is to strengthen government accountability.

When asked how he ensures that the reports and writing of the staff are objective and free of bias, he mentioned two points. One way to defeat bias is with an absolute commitment to
accuracy. He also has many people review all the reports, and even his half-page memos.

He talked about a point he wants to make to policymakers who are committed to cutting budgets and making government smaller. Even if large cuts are made, "At the end of the day, Minnesota government will still be really big, really complicated, and really important."
Like it or not, government delivers important functions, and they are complex processes, as complex as the systems in large corporations. It is the role of legislators to keep pressure on government to work well, and to expect high performance of agencies.

Robbie LaFleur

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Keynote Address: “The Light at the End of the Tunnel: the Outlook for FOI.”

Keynote Address: “The Light at the End of the Tunnel: the Outlook for FOI.”
Presented by Jane E. Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota.

Delivered at the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information “Freedom of Information Day & Award Ceremony,” March 14, 2008, Minneapolis Central Library.

With higher temperatures and March sunshine, it really seems like our long Minnesota winter is coming to a close. This brings us a sense of optimism, and hope.

And it’s a metaphor for the future of freedom of information. I believe it is no coincidence that James Madison, drafter of the First Amendment, was born on March 16.

This year, for the first time in a long time, there seems to be a real prospect that transparency in government could be restored.

On the last day of 2007, President Bush signed the OPEN Government Act, making important procedural changes to strengthen the effectiveness of the Federal Freedom of Information Act. There are new penalties for agencies that drag their feet in replying to requests for records – or to put it in a more positive way, new incentives to encourage agencies to comply with the law in a timely fashion.

There is enhanced Congressional oversight – an essential to the proper functioning of FOIA, no matter who is in the White House and no matter which party is in the majority – because when the legislature fails to keep an eye on the executive branch, Freedom of Information is always at risk.

There is a new definition of “representative of the news media” – which is important, not because the press does or should have greater rights of access to government records than the rest of us, but because Congress recognizes that those who gather information in order to disseminate it to the widest possible audience deserve to receive fee breaks to make it possible for them to do so.

There are even new “public liaisons” for each agency, and a new FOI ombudsman to run interference between requesters and the government.

The bi-partisan team of Sen. Patrick Leahy and John Cornyn have joined forces again to introduce a new bill that will require members of Congress who introduce proposed legislation to create new exemptions to FOIA to “explicitly and clearly” state just that – in other words, to put a stop to the practice of burying stealth exemptions in complex bills.

These are all exciting and encouraging developments.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Eight years of government secrecy is not going to go away overnight. The rallying cry of 9/11 was the pretext for policies amounting to an information blackout on an unprecedented scale: secret intelligence, secret prisons, secret torture, secret trials, and secret surveillance – all in the name of protecting national security.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: secrecy does not equal security. In fact, it almost invariably undermines it.

We know that the current administration in Washington is hostile to the very idea of the public’s right to know. It is ironic that, less than a month after signing the OPEN Government Act, President Bush directed that the funding for that FOI ombudsman should be shifted from the independent National Archives and into the Department of Justice – a Department that, at least since October 2001, has demonstrated over and over again its contempt for open government and the public’s right to know.

This is the same Department that, instead of enforcing the FOIA, has zealously pursued leakers – people who have chosen to circumvent restrictive policies to make information to the public – and threatened those who receive leaks with prosecution under the Espionage laws.
This is the same Department that has condoned using sweeping subpoenas to try to force journalists to reveal their confidential sources – and not surprisingly, has obstinately opposed the enactment of a federal reporter’s shield law to protect journalists from the prospect of lengthy imprisonment or crippling monetary fines for simply doing their jobs.

Some will argue that the restrictions and secrecy were necessary. Others contend that they were purely opportunistic. Right or wrong, for better or worse, the tenure of this administration is coming to an end. Later this year, a national election will determine who will decide the future of FOI. Those who care about open government are hoping that the candidates will commit themselves to an agenda that will reject the directives, policies, and practices that have turned the executive branch into a virtual bunker of impenetrable secrecy, and reopen it to public scrutiny.

It is always risky to speculate about how a particular candidate will address these issues once he or she is in office. On the hustings, no candidate is against open government. Words like “accountability” and “transparency” may pepper their speeches. And, as they utter them, they may even believe them.

But I’ve observed government long enough to know that even the best intentions are often unfulfilled once an administration assumes office. Openness and accountability sound terrific in the abstract. But maintaining the commitment in the midst of the turmoil of political Washington is the challenge.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic. A new generation of voters, who are accustomed to taking and sharing information through the Internet, will not settle, I predict, for business as usual. The old techniques of obfuscation and concealment simply won’t wash with young people who seek out the answers for themselves and who demand transparency from those who govern them.

That said, I do remain concerned about some things.

I worry that the judiciary, which for more than 75 years has maintained an almost unbroken tradition of expanding and enhancing the rights of freedom of speech, and of the press, is retrenching, rethinking, and in many cases, restricting those rights. Whether it is the failure to recognize a First Amendment-based reporters privilege, or a reluctance to allow meaningful access to digitized records because of theoretical concerns about security or privacy, or the continued refusal to expand the right of the public to observe judicial proceeding by allowing cameras into our courts – it all adds up to a net loss for the public’s right to know.

I worry that legitimate concerns about security at the upcoming Republican and Democratic National Conventions will prompt our law enforcement officials to extend and expand their surveillance activities in overly zealous and inappropriate ways that will intimidate and chill the rights of citizens to engage in peaceful protest.

And I worry that just at a time when my fellow citizens need in-depth news reporting – the news that is essential to making informed decisions – economic challenges will result in shrinking the resources that are necessary to support the kind of outstanding investigative reporting that we are honoring today.

You may share these worries. You may have others.

But however substantial and genuine these worries may be, I remain optimistic, because I recognize that those of us gathered here today, and many others like us around the state and around the nation, will not tolerate another decade of secrecy, predicated on fear.
So much of the secrecy that exists today was based on panic. It was justified as necessary to address threats on a scale that most of us found unfathomable – and terrifying. It shook our nation to the core.

But it is past time to get back to our first principles. It is past time to recognize that this nation is strong, that it was conceived in revolution, but born to live as a country bounded by the rule of law.

It is my hope that our return to these principles – our return to sanity – is already underway.
Our long journey through the dark tunnel of secrecy is coming to an end. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Thank you.