Transparency & Accountability in Public Testimony

February 25, 2018

Dear City Council Members:

It has come to the attention of Saint Paul STRONG (SPS) that the City Council, without public discussion, changed an important procedure regarding public testimony during open hearings. According to published reports, public testifiers before the city council are no longer required to provide their full names and addresses on the record and may instead choose to limit personal information to their first names and neighborhoods.

As you know, SPS focuses its efforts on ensuring government accountability through government processes that are as transparent and democratic as possible. In its view, this recent change of procedure is neither democratic nor transparent.

It appears that Council President Brendmoen initiated, and the rest of the Council allowed, the procedural change (a long standing procedure* that required testifiers to identify themselves at public hearings) without any input from the public.

Among the many reasons for transparency in public processes is to give the public…

  • The opportunity to give public comment on how governing bodies do the peoples’ work.

  • The ability to observe how their elected representatives are thinking and deciding matters via public discussion and decision making.

  • The capacity to hold government officials accountable to the public for their positions via recorded votes.

As such, this change in procedure should have been introduced as a resolution, subjected to public testimony, discussed by council members, and put to a vote by those members.

It is SPS’s understanding that this change came about because two people indicated that they had safety concerns about giving their names and addresses publicly. Concerns raised by two people should not be the basis for changing a long standing procedure for public comment. Like government officials, testifiers on public policies have a responsibility to be accountable for their testimony. The personal safety of individuals who have identified reasonable concerns should be addressed on a case by case basis without changing long standing procedures.

Requiring testifiers to identify themselves and provide complete addresses gives members of the public, including journalists, the opportunity to…

  • Vet the information provided in the testimony,

  • Contact testifiers for further or updated information,

  • Access information for networking and reporting purposes and, where necessary,

  • Verify the claims and bona fides of the testifiers.

Although testifiers may be required to sign-in, those sign-in sheets are often difficult to read or decipher and those watching the hearings do not have immediate access to them.

For these reasons, we urge the City Council to rescind this procedure.

Thank you for addressing our concerns.

Don Gemberling

Saint Paul STRONG

c.c. Selected media outlets

*https://www.stpaul.gov/sites/default/files/Media%20Root/City%20Council/Saint%20Paul%20City%20Council%20Welcome%20Guide_2017.pdf (page 7-8)