Good governments don't fear sunshine

If you’ve been paying attention to our website or talking to Band members and employees lately, you know there’s a high level of fear and mistrust of the current tribal government.

There’s one simple solution to the problem: Sunshine.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called sunlight “the best of disinfectants.” That sentiment is the foundation of what are known as “sunshine laws,” which protect the public’s right to see and know how their governments do their business — and spend taxpayers’ money.

In Minnesota, budgets, police reports, meeting minutes and court records are almost always public documents. Elected officials are required to do public business in public meetings. A quorum of county commissioners, city council members, or school board members are not allowed to do any public business outside of a public meeting.

Not all elected officials are aware of the state’s sunshine laws, and many wink and nudge their way around them, but generally speaking, when informed of their violations — usually by the press — they tend to straighten up and fly right.

There are good reasons why tribal governments have been hesitant to enact sunshine laws. They’ve been burned too many times by outsiders sticking their noses into tribal affairs. That’s no excuse, as the long and sordid history of tribal government corruption indicates.

The fact remains that good governments are always open governments. Even if officials are doing the right thing in private, it appears that they’re doing something wrong. In other words, if you’ve got nothing to hide, stop hiding.

The simple solution — sunshine — is not so simple, unfortunately. It requires that the current Band Assembly enact tribal sunshine laws, or that Band members vote them out of office.

That’s easier said than done. Without sunshine laws, elections can’t be trusted, so it can be hard for voters to replace the darkness-loving leaders with those who will let the sunshine in.

If I were a Band member, I’d pressure the government to enact laws that ensure a transparent election next summer. If the current Band Assembly members fail to pass sunshine laws by then, voters should show them the door.

The Band Assembly also needs to outlaw the free perks and “comps” that they hand out to the chosen few. Melanie Benjamin was removed from office for allegedly using Band funds for personal gain, yet Band members believe it’s common practice for tribal officials to wine and dine friends and family, to golf and jet their way around the country, and to buy votes with emergency funds they use at their discretion.

That’s bad government, and it ensures that bad government will continue because those attracted to office are too often in it for the spoils.

The Band Assembly has it in their power to pass laws that make budgets transparent, that restrict use of Band funds, that protect whistle blowers and that weed out nepotism, vendettas, threats and similar attributes common in banana republics and dictatorships.

If the current officials won’t do it, Band members need to find someone who will.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.


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