Exceptions growing to government transparency across state of Minn.

Published 9:06 am Monday, March 13, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — Exceptions to government transparency are growing in Minnesota as lobbyists for local officials, law enforcement and businesses gain exemptions under the state’s public records law.

The number of secrecy provisions in Minnesota’s public records law has risen to at least 660, the Star Tribune reported Sunday in a story kicking off Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information.

As examples, the newspaper noted residents are not allowed to see complete disaster plans for a derailment of train cars loaded with highly flammable oil that roll through Minnesota every day. The state also keeps secret which companies have received $72 million in tax subsidies.

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State lawmakers recently blocked the public from seeing nearly all video from police body cameras. And legislators are considering proposals that could restrict access to financial records of government contractors and prevent the public from reviewing tax court proceedings.

For a decade, Minnesota health care advocates have failed to force the state to detail how much insurers profit from the $5 billion a year in taxpayer money they get to administer Medicaid and other public programs.

Buddy Robinson of the Minnesota Citizens Federation-Northeast, a Duluth advocacy group for seniors and health care access, said secrecy “still seems to reign supreme.”

In an interview, Gov. Mark Dayton said he is concerned that Minnesota’s open records watchdog agency isn’t doing enough to make sure people get the information to which they are entitled.

“There’s got to be a recourse for people,” said Dayton, a Democrat. “There’s got to be somebody who’s going to be taking this seriously.”

In the internet age, the cost of managing the surge of new information that governments agencies must collect, sort and store is cited as a reason for withholding and even destroying public records. Elected officials and agency leaders say it is too expensive and time-consuming to weed out emails, text messages and other records deemed confidential.

“The government Data Practices Act was passed long before we had email and websites and all this other electronic information,” Bloomington City Manager Jamie Verbrugge said.

Bloomington paid $45,000 last year to settle a lawsuit from a Minneapolis man for refusing to turn over records related to protests at the Mall of America. Now, Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead is joining other Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs in asking legislators to put limits on requests for public information, saying some activists use the requests to bog down the process.

Winstead said filing data requests is “a way that people who are against things can cause you issues and trouble.”

Minnesota law starts with the assumption that the records produced by its governments are public. Originally passed in 1974, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act has ballooned from 29 pages in 1982 to 176 pages today.

Every year, the Legislature adjusts the law, so much that it “begins to have all these exceptions that swallow the rule,” said state Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Civil Law and Data Practices Policy.