On the eve of Minnesota’s primary election, Rep. Tim Walz and Rep. Erin Murphy spoke on the phone about their commitment to transparency, should they be elected governor. Walz’s running mate, Rep. Peggy Flanagan, joined him on a call. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, who is also running for the DFL primary, did not respond.
Both Walz and Murphy spoke in favor of transparency and made commitments to consider it as part of their leadership and cabinet decisions. Murphy spoke more broadly to restoring trust in government relationships and the value of transparency to democracy. But comments by Walz and Flanagan demonstrated a deeper, more experienced passion for the mechanics of advancing policy to promote both accountability and transparency throughout their administration.
How will you make transparency a part of your administration, and will it be a factor in selecting your cabinet?
Both Walz and Murphy spoke of a variety of ways they intended to promote transparency in their administration, should they be elected governor. They also both insisted that transparency would be an important factor in selecting their cabinet—the commissioners who head state agencies—who are charged with making decisions on how to handle agency records and requests for information.
Walz said transparency was a core value he’s held closely during his time in Congress. He said he believed in giving his Cabinet the capacity they needed, but that a commitment to transparency would be a “fundamental requirement.”
Murphy agreed. “Transparency—for the good or the bad—will be a value that I insist upon in the cabinet members,” she said, speaking also about the importance of transparency in the relationship between the Legislature and the Governor’s office, as well as a desire to see bills not shoved through in the final hours of the legislative session.
“Moving negotiation out of [public] conference committees and into the governor’s office undermines people’s faith and trust in a government that is about us,” said Murphy, “That work needs to be seen by the people of Minnesota.”
Walz spoke in favor of weaving transparency through the work of his administration, rather than it being an afterthought. “I don’t care what your political ideology is, government works best when there’s sunlight on everything we do,” Walz said.
“I don’t want there to be fights getting data,” said Walz, “I don’t want freedom of information requests to be the order of the day. I see no reason that the public shouldn’t have the the easiest possible access.”
Flanagan pointed to a governing philosophy heard often on the Walz-Flanagan campaign trail, “Folks who are directly affected by policies will have a seat at the table, and I think freedom of information and transparency is a big part of that.”
“We’re also committed on the front-end side of things,” said Walz, saying that if government’s work was “more transparent and more inclusive, the need to find this stuff on the backend is reduced too.”
“It’s important to hold responsibility for what’s happening in office,” said Murphy, “Transparency, scrutiny, and the questions that come from press that covers the government is important. I’ll embed that in the cabinet. It’s just a fundamental part of our democracy.”
Walz and Flanagan shared stories of situations when they were frustrated by limited access to information within government. Walz said he was outraged during his attempts to get information from the Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA), saying he received pages of documents that—aside from the letterhead—were completely black. Walz also called “ridiculous” some of his colleagues’ objections to putting financial disclosures for members of Congress online. “I want it to be accessible with a Google search from anybody’s house,” he said.
“As someone who has served in the Legislature, sometimes it’s been frustrating to get the information we need from the administration,” said Flanagan, “It’s good government when people can trust their decision-makers and trust government.”
Walz also mentioned that his campaign published ten years of his personal tax returns on their website.
The Legislature is currently exempt from the Data Practices Act. Would you support making them subject to public records requests?
While it’s ultimately up to the Legislature to decide whether or not to subject themselves to the state’s public records law, both Walz and Murphy spoke in favor of ending the Legislature’s exemption.
Murphy said she was in favor of opening the Legislature to public scrutiny. “I do think it’s a system change, but an important one,” she said.
Walz agreed. “I don’t think [the Legislature] should be able to hide behind that [exemption],” Walz said. “I think there’s very limited exemptions,” he continued, pointing to situations like national security, “I would argue that the benefit of the doubt would be to give access to that information.”
Like the state legislature, Congress is also exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act. Walz pointed to work he did to voluntarily promote transparency in his office, such as being the first member of Congress to post earmarks online over a decade ago. The Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group, used Walz as an example of transparency done right.
Here’s a technical one: email retention policies
As Minnesota government agencies have shortened retention policies for government data—the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office automatically deleting emails after just 30 days—a bill was considered last session to require a minimum retention of three years. The bill had exemptions for certain types of emails, like spam. The bill didn’t become law.
Both Walz-Flanagan and Murphy agreed there needed to be legislation on this topic, but neither would commit to a specific minimum retention period.
“Certainly longer than 30 days,” said Flanagan, “there’s a real need for people to be able to access information. Sometimes you don’t even know until several months later. We need a uniform policy.” Flanagan committed to working with accountability advocates, and to look for policies would work across jurisdictions.
Murphy was a bit more hesitant on the details. She said a policy of deleting data after 30 days “seems short to me,” but said, “It is important that the records that guide our work be available for scrutiny,” said Murphy.