At a recent meeting of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, members of the 12-person board discussed the health of Minnesota’s watersheds, outcomes of the state-funded projects it vets, invasive species research and talk of whether people asking for money should disclose if Chronic Wasting Disease has been found in deer on their property.
But while audio from the five-hour meeting was live-streamed and archived, there is no video of the event. Few of the Lessard-Sams meetings are ever videotaped, which some state lawmakers argue is a barrier to transparency — especially since the committee makes recommendations for how the state should distribute $100 million in state grants each year.
“There’s a different level of accountability when someone can see a video of you,” said state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a Roseville DFLer who sits on the council.
Becker-Finn and state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, are now pushing for video coverage of the Lessard-Sams council and the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, which also helps dole out millions in taxpayer dollars for conservation efforts.
Those efforts have run into logistical hurdles more than any ideological objections. The state House’s TV service has videotaped some of the meetings lately, but says full coverage is a strain on its budget.
Yet Becker-Finn and Hansen are looking for a way to force video coverage of the committees — perhaps by changing Minnesota law — which they say will increase trust in government and make it easier for people to follow their work. “It is 2020, it is not 1975,” Becker-Finn said. “It doesn’t seem like that big of an ask.”
What the councils do
The Lessard-Sams council was created to help direct state spending from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment sales tax passed by voters in 2008. By law, the board vets projects and comes up with recommendations to the Legislature on how to spend a third of the Legacy money. The Lessard-Sams cash is specifically earmarked to “to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game and wildlife.”
Since 2008, nearly $1 billion of Legacy money has been spent on “Outdoor Heritage” projects the council oversees. On Thursday, the council’s latest set of recommendations, roughly $137 million in projects, was introduced to a House committee.
The LCCMR has a similar task, but it recommends how to spend money from the lottery-funded Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. About $800 million was spent from the fund between 1991 and 2013, according to the committee’s 2019 report, and the latest round of spending put in front of the Legislature for approval this year is $61 million.
Both councils meet year-round and are made up of legislators, as well as citizens appointed by the governor and the House and Senate.
The case for coverage
Becker-Finn said while audio coverage of their meetings is good, video provides far greater access to their work. It’s easier to follow who is speaking with video, and it offers the possibility for remote viewers to see documents or presentations along with those at the Capitol, she said. That’s critical for a council whose work often affects land in Greater Minnesota.
The easier it is for people to follow the council, the more people will trust decisions they make, Becker-Finn said. Otherwise, some could wrongly get the impression the council “was some dudes having drinks giving money to all their buddies.”
Plus, Becker-Finn said the way officials treat each other and act can be different when they know it’s less likely the public will see what they’re saying. Hansen echoed Becker-Finn, saying if the public can’t see the work of the LCCMR, it weakens the commission.
Last fall, the two brought their case to the House Public Information Services staff. In an email to the lawmakers, the service described a four-tiered system for prioritizing television coverage. At the top was meetings or hearings of official House events, such as a regular committee hearing during the legislative session. In the second tier were commissions or groups that only have legislator members.
But the House policy said staff “as a practice” does not provide television coverage or councils with non-elected residents as members.
Barry LaGrave, the House’s Director of Public Information Services, said he was swayed by the lawmakers’ arguments, and in November, he bumped the LCCMR and Lessard-Sams council into their second tier of priority coverage.
But LaGrave said during the legislative session the environmental councils often compete with other priorities. When the Legislature isn’t in session, LaGrave said he has fewer staff, which can also be an obstacle. “It’s certainly a resource matter on our side in the House,” LaGrave said.
The recent Lessard-Sams council meeting, on Jan. 29, was not videotaped because LaGrave said his staff was conducting a series one-on-one interviews with lawmakers about their priorities for the legislative session that began this week.
The two environmental councils are not the only thing in state government that isn’t videotaped. Even some House committee meetings of only legislators aren’t televised, LaGrave noted. Becker-Finn said a basement hearing room used often in the State Office Building isn’t equipped for video coverage of meetings.
Video of Clean Water Council meetings, a group that recommends Legacy spending for projects that enhance and restore lakes, rivers and streams, is regularly streamed and archived. That council typically meets at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Legislative change ahead?
LaGrave wasn’t against the concept of video on the councils, nor were some others members on the committees. Rep. Dan Fabian, a Roseau Republican on the Lessard-Sams council, said there’s no resistance to something that could make the committee more transparent. “There’s nothing nefarious going on in those meetings or anything like that,” he said. “It’s open and transparent.”
Still, Becker-Finn and Hansen are working to ensure their meetings will always be videotaped at the Capitol. Money to help the House could potentially be used from cash reserved by the councils for administrative costs. “But if it’s going to take a statute we’ll do it,” Hansen said.
On Thursday, Becker-Finn introduced the Lessard-Sams recommendations to the Legislature in the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division. The committee also adopted an amendment that would require video streams of Lessard-Sams meetings when they are held at the Capitol, and for that footage to be publicly available after the event.
“I want the public to feel good about the decisions we’re making and part of that is seeing how we get to those decisions,” Becker-Finn said.