Governing a city or town of any size is a tough job. Governing transparently is even tougher, especially when making difficult decisions that are sure to gore some community oxen. The temptation is always there to keep such things under wraps as much as possible, especially when floating ideas which may never go anywhere, to avoid arousing any angry crowds of citizens. However, it often turns out that holding on to bad news only makes the public angrier when the news comes out, as not only are their leaders making a “bad” decision, they tried to “hide” it from the public. The atmosphere is even worse when the public’s ability to react and influence the decision is reduced to a token appearance at a public hearing (or less). Besides, given recent events, we should think that the “cone of silence” has developed a bad reputation, right?
Maybe not. A new bill introduced in the Senate would exempt budget information from public disclosure until the budget is presented to the City Council as a fully realized proposal. The bill language ends up being less than mandatory (budget info is made nonpublic, but governments can release it if they see a need), but using the new bill as intended certainly promises a lot more of the angry-hornet meetings described above. And while it’s been mentioned before, the street improvement district bill has its merits but as written completely reduces an individual’s right to challenge their burden to a token appearance at a public hearing. The League of Minnesota Cities writeup of the streets bill notes that the concept is modeled on the sidewalk improvement district law, which is a very short piece of legislation. A better comparison, and better model, is probably the special service and housing improvement districts in Chapter 428A, which give owners in the proposed district the ability to challenge the creation of a district and the imposition of fees. The good part of the street improvement district idea is recognizing that good streets do not just benefit those that own property directly abutting the street – perhaps this concept should be applied to an amendment of special-assessment statutes, rather than creating a new and much more closed process that looks like an end-run around long-standing local taxation law?