A Grand Forks task force that met over the course of two months this spring didn’t make decisions about public money, policy or people. If conversational accounts and the group’s meeting minutes are accurate, the members of the Mayor’s Economic Response Advisory Group mostly discussed growing unemployment, surveys, strategic coronavirus testing and methods to boost “buy local” campaigns during the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Essentially, the group appears to have focused on an old business philosophy known as SWOT -- identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. And it appears to have acted precisely as its name suggests: As an advisory board to the city’s top executive during a crisis.
It met 17 times in two months, but did not post notice of its meetings or make its minutes public until after seven weeks of meetings.
The city believes that since it was simply an ad hoc advisory group, it was exempt from true “public” status. It wasn’t a task force as much as a simple work group, the city believes, and it was formed to talk about issues in an informal environment designed to encourage give-and-take and honest dialogue. The city decided in recent weeks, after the City Council discussed prioritizing public dollars toward initiatives that the group suggested, that the group had become a public body.
Saturday, the Herald reported on the goings-on of this group, which met regularly since mid-April. The group was assembled by then-Mayor Mike Brown.
Our issue is not with the group’s intent. In fact, we appreciate that the people selected to participate on the committee took so much of their time to seek answers and solutions as Grand Forks’ economy staggers from the effects of the ongoing pandemic. Among the meeting notes are many sound proposals and ideas about coronavirus mitigation.
However, this newspaper believes that all government committees and subcommittees fall under the state’s open records and open meetings laws. Our interpretation of the law is that they must give notice of the meetings, make the meetings open to the public and also to keep and provide minutes.
Seeking and ensuring public openness and transparency always should be part of a newspaper’s commitment to a community, so this editorial likely comes as no surprise to those in city government.
The mayor’s task force was an important part of the city’s pandemic response and its members should be commended, not scolded, for their volunteer work and many hours of effort. After all, the city will eventually allocate funds to certain ideas that emerged from the committee, perhaps verifying its worth.
It appears there are two versions of interpreting this group’s status. No need for lawyers to get involved in this gentle disagreement.
But to the city, we offer a reminder for next time: Put transparency high on the list, even during a crisis. It’s better to always err on the side of public openness.