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EDITORIAL

Greenwood ordinance

Township takes an extraordinary step to avoid accountability

Posted 5/20/20

In a democracy, we expect transparency in government. Unfortunately, sometimes those elected to public office would rather avoid the accountability that comes with public scrutiny. That’s what …

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EDITORIAL

Greenwood ordinance

Township takes an extraordinary step to avoid accountability

Posted

In a democracy, we expect transparency in government. Unfortunately, sometimes those elected to public office would rather avoid the accountability that comes with public scrutiny. That’s what we’re seeing today in Greenwood Township, where the town board is taking steps to enact an ordinance that is clearly at odds with the basic principles of openness in government.
Throughout Minnesota, a presumption of openness and access is built into our public records laws. As the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) makes clear in its preamble, the law “establishes a presumption that government data are public,” unless a specific law says otherwise.
The Greenwood Town Board has turned this presumption on its head by enacting an ordinance that classifies most township records as “nonpublic” and that establishes an onerous process designed to strip the township clerk of her lawful responsibilities regarding the release of public information.
The ordinance, number 2020-2, does allow the public access to township ordinances and resolutions, board minutes and agenda packets. But all other township records would be classified as nonpublic and their release could only be allowed upon the approval of the town board chair.
The four-page ordinance establishes no criteria for how a board chair should decide if or when a township record should be provided to a member of the public. Without such criteria, a town board chair can release information to his or her allies, while denying it to those the chair deems unfriendly. Without criteria, every decision by the town chair regarding the release of government records is, by its very nature, arbitrary and capricious.
This is, without question, a response to the case of Jeff Maus, who has been a thorn in the side of township officials for some time. The town board passed a motion last year to deny Maus access to even basic township records, but the state Commissioner of Administration ruled in favor of Maus in a complaint he filed in response. So now, the town board is enacting an ordinance that seeks to limit access to township records for all members of the public.
While the Legislature opted to exempt townships from the MGDPA, it did so because the act is highly prescriptive, and legislators feared that many townships wouldn’t have the personnel or budget resources to comply in all cases. But that doesn’t relieve townships of the responsibility to operate open government. Courts have ruled many times in the past that other tenets of our legal system, including the Minnesota and U.S. Constitutions, create an assumption that the people have a right to inspect the work of the government they elect. In addition, while some townships may lack the resources to respond to data requests, Greenwood can hardly make such a claim.
What’s more, the enactment of an ordinance has to be supported by some legal authority and have a rational basis that is explicitly spelled out. In this case, if the township desired to create a detailed process for handling public records requests, it should have turned to the provisions of the MGDPA as guidance. Instead, the ordinance expressly violates the terms of the MGDPA in several ways, including requiring the town clerk to charge the public for his or her time in responding to any request that involves more than 15 minutes. Under the MGDPA, public bodies cannot charge for their time to respond when the requester is seeking fewer than 100 pages of documents, or when the requester is seeking only the right to view, or inspect, the documents.
Whether the MGDPA applies to townships or not, it is inappropriate for Greenwood to violate the provisions of that act when adopting their own ordinance.
Finally, this ordinance appears directed also at the township clerk, who has been a frequent target of the town board. Under this ordinance, the clerk could be charged criminally if she releases any township record, other than those few items deemed “public,” without the approval of the town board chair. It puts the clerk in a difficult position given that town clerks are expected to provide exactly the kind of information that the town board now wants to restrict.
Sadly, this is what happens when public officials enact laws and ordinances for the wrong reasons. The Greenwood board should rethink this ordinance and adopt a new one that reaffirms the township’s commitment to transparency. Greenwood residents should expect nothing less.

Comments

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John Bassing

Marshall,

Greenwood Township once again is using it’s statutory exemption to keep public information from the public. As you describe, the exemption was written into law to protect small townships with limited resources, from complying. It is clear that some townships, including Greenwood, simply use the exemption as a defiance of the Data Practices Act. Time for the legislature to tighten the law to eliminate the offenders like Greenwood.

The board has continually attempted to intimidate and harass the Clerk. Most recently, they installed surveillance cameras to watch her at work, they attempted to restrict citizens from her office, placed an option on the ballot to eliminate her position as elected, and now threaten her with fines or imprisonment. Marshall, your opinion is spot on but it will cost you. I don’t think the Timberjay will be the newspaper of record in Greenwood anytime soon.

2 days ago
Barbara Lofquist

Great editorial Marshall, and good post John. I plan to ask Fort Knox for a 'request for public information'. I want to know how much of our money had been spent (wasted) on attorney's fees by Carmen DeLuca and Mike Ralston to bully, harass, and intimidate the clerk. Do they not realize that Sue is their equal? She is an elected official, not their employee. This ridiculousness is about power and control over a woman. She received more votes than either of them ever has. The cameras are surveillance cameras, and have nothing to do with security. A security system would have a keypad to enter the building, and disarm the system, and it would be armed again when the worker(s) leave. There would also be a panic button or 2, monitored by a security service that contacts the police. Mike Ralston's fairy tale about ' worker's safety is ridiculous. If anyone were attacked on the job, no one would come to their aid. The cameras would not be running 24/7 to spy on Sue, or Pam. This is an invasion of privacy, and more than a little bit creepy. Rather like having a peeping Tom. I admire Sue's ability to put up with their nonsense. Many of us wouldn't. It would be great if those that support privacy, and oppose bullying would contact the board members and express your dissatisfaction with their draconian actions.

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