The ongoing lack of access to many records in Greenwood Township is a case study in why it’s a bad idea to exempt any branch of government from the requirements of a law, particularly one that’s designed to ensure openness and transparency. The town board’s current open defiance of requests for public records by its own citizens as well as this newspaper, should prompt lawmakers in St. Paul to revisit the exemption in the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) that applies to the state’s townships.
No one in the Minnesota Legislature would likely deny that the public should have access to most government records. That’s basic to a democratic form of government and it’s a central tenet of the MGDPA. Yet it is a basic right that continues to be denied, at least in statute, to the hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who reside in the nearly 1,800 rural townships within the state. Why shouldn’t open government be available to the mostly rural residents in Minnesota who populate those 1,800 townships?
We recognize the concern that prompted members of the Legislature to exempt townships from the MGDPA. And it certainly wasn’t because they believed that townships should have the right to keep their workings a secret.
When the MGDPA was first written, back in 1974, townships and their representatives argued that the law was too cumbersome for many townships to manage. At the time, many small townships could rightfully claim that responding to a voluminous records request could be a challenge. Many clerks operated out of their homes, and few likely had ready access to copy machines (which were very expensive back then).
These days, however, the vast majority of township clerks maintain most of their current records on computer, or certainly are capable of doing so. Which means they should no longer need to pull paper documents from a file, cart them to town to make copies, and bring them back again so someone can stop by their house and pick them up. Today, most township records are being produced electronically in the first place, which makes them easy to provide to anyone who requests them. And if someone requests documents that aren’t in electronic format, they can be easily scanned or photographed by a smart phone and emailed. All of this can now be handled remotely, meaning the local township curmudgeon doesn’t need to stop by the clerk’s house to pick up his or her records.
In the case of recent records requests to Greenwood, both from this newspaper and township residents, none could reasonably be described as overly burdensome. This newspaper’s two most recent requests involved one item, which could have, and should have, been provided promptly and without conditions. Instead, the township provided bupkis.
And if Greendwood Township were truly worried that providing access to public records would be burdensome, they certainly would not have created their Byzantine seven-step process for accessing records, a process which leaves the final decision in the hands of the town board chair, who may or may not have any knowledge or interest in the value of government transparency. The only burden in that process is to residents of the township.
The town board, amazingly, even passed an ordinance that automatically denied one of the township’s own emergency responders from accessing anything beyond the packet provided to the town board, a requirement of the Open Meeting Law. It’s a good thing the Open Meeting Law applies to townships or Greenwood residents wouldn’t have a clue what their township is doing.
While most townships make reasonable efforts to comply with their residents’ requests for records, some township officials seem oblivious to the importance of transparency, and why it actually helps to increase faith in local officials, rather the other way around. After all, when a governing body keeps records and information under wraps, it’s hardly surprising that it erodes trust. People rightfully wonder what the township has to hide.
Why are residents of townships the only ones in Minnesota who have to wonder? There’s no longer any reason that residents of rural townships should be second-class citizens when it comes to public access to records. It’s time to shed some sunlight on township governance.