Wednesday, October 3, 2012

John R Finnegan, Champion of Open Government, Thank You

When I first started appearing at the Capitol in the late seventies I heard the name of John R Finnegan as being in the forefront in the battle for open government.  I was aware of who he was because I read the Pioneer Press/Dispatch.  But I did not meet him until some time in the early eighties in his upstairs wood paneled office in the paper's building off 4th Street.

I think it was over some issue with the St. Paul Port Authority wanting to make government data secret.  I felt intimidated to meet this man who I heard a lot about as being the giant in the good fight for open government.  As I entered his office with a tie on he very much put me at ease.  He was that kind of man.

Up until recent months I would call him for a few minute chat letting him know about what's happening on some data practices/open meeting issues.  Asked what he thought.  Mr. Finnegan had an impact on me with his directness, but also with his view that what is good for the news media is also good for the public in regards to public access, no double standards.

I collected a great number of John R Finnegan's columns which he did on data practices and open meeting laws.  They are great primers why we need open, transparent, and accountable government.

One column I dug out of my files was about an issue referred to by Don Gemberling in the Pioneer Press story about Mr. Finnegan's passing.  The issue is Senate File 873 introduced by Senator William McCutcheon in 1979.  Mr. Finnegan described it as the "Secret Police and Closed Government Act."  It was also had some powerful co authors, Sen Merriam and Sen Tennessen.

The bill if had become law would have severely limited the public data that is now accessible to the public today. The legislation stated that data in law enforcement agencies shall be available in the public interest, but on the other hand there was discretion power the same agency could have decided  to keep it from the public.

The bill was killed.  One major reason why,  Mr. Finnegan was there and able in plain language to let the public know through "The Editor's Notebook", the name of his column, what was happening.  He did this hundreds of times using the pen and paper.

In 2009, I was given the John R. Finnegan Award for my efforts over the years on information policy issues at the Legislature.  I was surprised at getting the award, but as I stated in a column in the Pioneer Press :

"I will get an award named after John Finnegan.  As I reflect on his legacy of open government and an informed public, goals that I, too, have aspired to, I'm honored."

Thank you, Mr. Finnegan.

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