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Lawmakers seek more remote participation in local advisory commission meetings

Balancing the public’s right to know what government is doing with greater opportunity for more people to participate is the genesis of a bill that has no easy answers.

Sponsored by Rep. Erin Koegel (DFL-Spring Lake Park), HF4413 would, in part, allow for advisory public bodies comprised entirely of appointed members — no local elected officials — to have members participate remotely for up to half the meetings in a 12-month period without being in a public place. It would also allow the public to provide testimony remotely.

“This increases our pool of people that we can tap when it comes to these advisory councils and really making sure we have people from all walks of life in our community able to participate and make recommendations to local governments, state governments and counties,” she said.

With many questions remaining, the bill was held over Tuesday by the House State and Local Government Finance and Policy Committee for possible inclusion in a later bill.

Noel Nix is director of community initiatives in the St. Paul Mayor’s Office. “We’re focused on ensuring our boards represent a broad cross-section of community from different neighborhoods, cultural backgrounds, ages, incomes, abilities, and professions. Our goal is to ensure conversation in these bodies are informed by a wide range of perspectives on the issues impacting our city.”

He said the bill would help people who want to participate but might, for example, face mobility issues or lack access to reliable transportation.

Bill concerns include the lack of face-to-face interaction with a board or commission member.

Matt Ehling, a board member at the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said his organization heard from people who, during the pandemic, would not get responses to emails or phone calls. “Yet they didn’t have the opportunity to talk to people in person either.”

A longtime open government and privacy advocate, Rich Neumeister understands the need for board or commission members to participate remotely for a health issue or family emergency. “Let’s make this the exception, not the rule,” he said.

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) and Rep. Danny Nadeau (R-Rogers) both urged better defining of an advisory public body.

“There are the advisories, there’s those that have authority and those that we delegate authority to,” Hansen said. “… We have different standards for authority versus advisory. We have a number of places where we give them the authority to spend money. That’s a little bit different than advising.”

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