The Potluck

Minneapolis legislative agenda includes tightening public records laws it deems burdensome

By: - November 17, 2023 2:49 pm

Photo courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

The city of Minneapolis’ agenda at the Legislature next year includes tightening public records laws the city deems overly burdensome on public agencies. 

City lobbyist Steve Huser recently told a Minneapolis City Council panel that city officials would like to ask lawmakers to clarify whether emails, text messages and draft documents should be classified as public or private under the open records law, which is called the Data Practices Act in Minnesota.

The city also wants to address large, time-consuming and vague requests for public data. Huser said many cities incur heavy costs — and expend a lot of time and effort — responding to large or vague data requests. He said the city would like the Legislature to allow fees to be collected to help cover those costs or clarify whether such requests can be denied.

The issues are outlined in a document about the city’s 2024 legislative agenda, but city spokesman Casper Hill said it was for discussion purposes only. “The city does not plan to draft or promote a specific bill on this,” Hill said.

Media outlets generally oppose any changes that would inhibit access to public documents, because journalists rely heavily on the law to obtain a plethora of information.

Don Gemberling, who is on the board of a pro-government transparency group called the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information but speaking for himself, said the city seems to be pursuing “retreaded issues” that have been discussed before.

“I also sense a lack of real understanding of the issues they raise and, in some cases, the way that the DPA or common sense already handles the problem,” he said in an email.

For example, if the city gets a vague records request, the common sense solution is to go back to the requestor and clarify what they’re seeking.

“The statute does not say that, nor does it need to be amended to say that,” Germberling said. “Common sense says that.”

Gemberling was struck by the fact that after the proposal was presented to City Council members, they didn’t ask a single question — which he deemed a “sad comment on democracy as it is practiced in Minneapolis.” 

Matt Ehling, another MNCOGI board member speaking for himself, said this is the kind of proposal his group has routinely opposed. For years, the League of Minnesota Cities has sought to allow cities to deny “burdensome” requests.  

But the state Supreme Court has ruled there’s no such exception in the law, after which the League dropped the issue.

“But other entities always try to call for it,” Ehling said. “We will oppose it again, as it provides the government with too robust a tool kit for denying even basic requests, if they become the arbiters of what is ‘burdensome’.”

Ehling said city officials are being disingenuous about not knowing whether emails and text messages have to be disclosed.

“The city knows very well that email, text messages, and draft documents are all government data as defined by the Data Practices Act,” Ehling said. “They also know that all of that data is public unless portions can be withheld under existing exceptions.”

By raising the issue, they’re implicitly suggesting that emails, text messages, and draft documents should be classified as non-public, which would eliminate a huge amount of government data from public access — “a non-starter that MNCOGI will strongly oppose.”

The city of Minneapolis has a decidedly mixed record on transparency issues. Independent journalist Tony Webster sued the city to get police discipline files in 2019, and eventually settled the lawsuit for $100,000. The ACLU also sued the city on behalf of MNCOGI after the city denied its request for more police disciplinary data.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.