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Quam's social media bill faces stiff opposition

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ST. PAUL — A Byron lawmaker is vowing to push ahead with a bill to exempt certain social media communications from the state's open meeting law amid strong opposition from the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, started working on the bill last year. His goal is to pass legislation that would allow public officials to interact with citizens on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites without fear they could run afoul of open meeting laws.

"At some point you've got to come into the 21st century, into the realities that we live in," Quam said.

But critics argue Quam's bill would end up moving important public policy discussions from the city council chamber to online venues.

"It would have converted many public meetings, at least in respect to more controversial issues, basically into ceremonial functions where members show up and vote without much need for discussion," said Mark Anfinson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

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The idea for Quam's social media bill came from the Minnesota Township Association. The organization's Executive Director Gary Pedersen said township officials want to be able to take advantage of social media to engage constituents and get more young people involved.

Township officers statewide approved a resolution in support of the effort to pass some sort of legislation exempting these social media exchanges from the open meeting law.

This session, the Minnesota Township Association and the Minnesota Newspaper Association worked to craft compromise language that would have only allowed public officials to interact with the general public on social media and not each other. But that proposal ran into stiff opposition in the Minnesota House last week. Members on both sides of the aisle said they fear this bill will hurt the public's ability to know what their elected officials are doing.

"What this potentially does is gut the open meeting law," Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, told fellow House members.

He added, "If it is a requirement to be a friend on Facebook and to have this serial round robin communication between members about a subject matter, then constituents don't know and don't get the posting of a notice or a meeting of when these conversations are happening. And that becomes, I believe, a violation of open meeting law."

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, told fellow lawmakers she also has concerns with the bill — one being that it's simply too broad.

"The intent is correct. I think we need to figure out how to appropriately use social media to open up the communication process with our constituents," she said.

In the face of legislative opposition, no vote was taken on Quam's bill and it was sent back to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee.

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Given the concern among lawmakers, Quam said he will push to pass an earlier, longer version of the bill that he said is aimed at making sure lawmakers cannot subvert the intent of the open meeting law. That bill would require social media forums that could be used by public officials, but the forum must first be identified at a public meeting and kept on file. It also states that "participation is limited to discussion only and no decision or vote is make or taken."

Quam said the hope is that a Senate version of the bill , sponsored by Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, can pass the Senate floor and the House can then take the measure up and send it to the governor.

The Byron Rochester lawmaker also said he is extremely frustrated that the Minnesota Newspaper Association opposes the earlier bill's language because he said it addresses many concerns that were previously raised. He also said he is "suspicious" of the association's push to pass the much shorter bill language, questioning whether their true goal may have been to kill the measure.

"Bottom line, if you in good faith compromise to get peace in the valley with somebody, then you would think they were actually all right and not being sneaky and underhanded," Quam said.

But Anfinson said any assertion that the association was not negotiating in good faith is "simply wrong." He said the big problem with the earlier bill's language is it does not specifically limit public officials to interacting with the general public, leading to the possibility that they could be interacting with each other online.

"It would blow a big hole in the open meeting law," Anfinson said.

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