Editorial: The devil is in the details of government transparency

By Pioneer Press Editorial Board | Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: March 18, 2018

The recent airing of “data practices” and privacy questions involving east metro city governments is good for democracy.

The pull and tug — concerning issues in Woodbury and St. Paul — is instructive as we consider our values when it comes to government transparency and the public’s right to know how our public officials are performing.

The issue in Woodbury, as Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens summed it up, stems from concerns about public requests for large amounts of data that were consuming a lot of staff time.

In St. Paul, a new city council policy under which speakers at its public hearings introduce themselves with their name and neighborhood, rather than full street address, worried some government watchdogs and reporters.

Both merit a closer look.

In Woodbury, the data concerns made their way in January into the city’s 2018 Legislative Agenda. Officials since then have rightly walked back mention that the city “does not support expanding the current data practice statues,” and encouraged “reforming the open records law to address some of the abuses that are occurring.”

Stephens told us she will make a motion that the city council remove the matter from the agenda. There was confusion about it, she acknowledged, noting that “I want people to know where I stand, and where we stand as a city.”

“I support full transparency. I think people should have access to the information they want,” said Stephens, who also is a Republican candidate for governor.

Woodbury City Administrator Clinton Gridley, replying in response to written questions, said that no bill was introduced on the matter and that it rather was intended for conversation with area legislators.

The agenda raised questions about procedures under which those who request information inspect it, rather than pay for copies, and the scope of questions that could be asked to help clarify a data request.

Don Gemberling, a longtime state leader on freedom-of-information and privacy matters, reminds us that the free-inspection provision in the state’s Data Practices Act is “really the ultimate way to balance the playing field. That’s what the public should care about.”

In addition, the questions about procedures should remind government entities that “part of the way you can deal with this is to do a better job of how you keep your data,” said Gemberling, who also is a leader in the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, an open-government advocacy organization.

After 40 years under the law, he said, government entities should at last “become part of a culture that  says the public has a right to this stuff and whatever we can do to facilitate the exercise of that right, all the better.”

St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince addressed the Woodbury issues at a recent news conference sponsored by the coalition to highlight its legislative concerns.

In a follow-up conversation, Prince highlighted her approach to such issues: “We need to remember who we work for — that we work for the public, and when we create documents or when we work on projects … it’s the public’s data.”

“I do know that certain requests can take a lot of staff time and be pretty complicated,” she acknowledges. “I also know that there’s this kind of profile of a gadfly who just creates difficult requests to gum up the works.”

At times, requests may seem “too extensive or not reasonable, but you also have the ability under the law to phase your response, provide it in sections and within a reasonable time,” she explains.

Mayor Stephens told us she has asked city staff to meet with Gemberling to discuss “how we can make the process easier.”

In St. Paul, it’s been argued that the change in the way people identify themselves at city council meetings runs counter to transparency and adds complications for reporters working on tight deadlines.

Having those who speak before the council state their full name and neighborhood, rather than street address, remedies a barrier to participation for some residents, including women concerned about personal safety, Council President Amy Brendmoen told us. Meetings — recorded and live-streamed —are available on cable TV and online.

Gemberling, writing on behalf of the government-watchdog group Saint Paul STRONG, asserts that personal safety concerns could be addressed on a case-by-case basis without changing council procedures of long standing.

He also argues that the change should have been subject to public discussion, while Brendmoen told us the council doesn’t typically hold hearings about procedural changes.

Mention that advocates might now more easily “pack” the council chambers with supporters — people from anywhere — also has been part of the discussion.

“People can do that now,” Brendmoen told us. “We don’t check IDs.”

Meanwhile, the expectation remains that those who testify provide their name and address on a sign-in sheet maintained by the city clerk.

The new procedure has been in place for about six weeks. “We’re seeing how it works,” Brendmoen said.

While we do, it’s worth keeping track of issues — including those close to home — that could cloud the bright light of government transparency.

Transparency & Accountability in Public Testimony

February 25, 2018

Dear City Council Members:

It has come to the attention of Saint Paul STRONG (SPS) that the City Council, without public discussion, changed an important procedure regarding public testimony during open hearings. According to published reports, public testifiers before the city council are no longer required to provide their full names and addresses on the record and may instead choose to limit personal information to their first names and neighborhoods.

As you know, SPS focuses its efforts on ensuring government accountability through government processes that are as transparent and democratic as possible. In its view, this recent change of procedure is neither democratic nor transparent.

It appears that Council President Brendmoen initiated, and the rest of the Council allowed, the procedural change (a long standing procedure* that required testifiers to identify themselves at public hearings) without any input from the public.

Among the many reasons for transparency in public processes is to give the public…

  • The opportunity to give public comment on how governing bodies do the peoples’ work.

  • The ability to observe how their elected representatives are thinking and deciding matters via public discussion and decision making.

  • The capacity to hold government officials accountable to the public for their positions via recorded votes.

As such, this change in procedure should have been introduced as a resolution, subjected to public testimony, discussed by council members, and put to a vote by those members.

It is SPS’s understanding that this change came about because two people indicated that they had safety concerns about giving their names and addresses publicly. Concerns raised by two people should not be the basis for changing a long standing procedure for public comment. Like government officials, testifiers on public policies have a responsibility to be accountable for their testimony. The personal safety of individuals who have identified reasonable concerns should be addressed on a case by case basis without changing long standing procedures.

Requiring testifiers to identify themselves and provide complete addresses gives members of the public, including journalists, the opportunity to…

  • Vet the information provided in the testimony,

  • Contact testifiers for further or updated information,

  • Access information for networking and reporting purposes and, where necessary,

  • Verify the claims and bona fides of the testifiers.

Although testifiers may be required to sign-in, those sign-in sheets are often difficult to read or decipher and those watching the hearings do not have immediate access to them.

For these reasons, we urge the City Council to rescind this procedure.

Thank you for addressing our concerns.

Don Gemberling

Saint Paul STRONG

c.c. Selected media outlets

*https://www.stpaul.gov/sites/default/files/Media%20Root/City%20Council/Saint%20Paul%20City%20Council%20Welcome%20Guide_2017.pdf (page 7-8)

Pioneer Press, Letter to the Editor Published Thurs, Feb 1, 2018

It looks like the Saint Paul School District Teachers Union has now voted to go on strike beginning February 13th. All the issues raised in Thursday’s news story, relate to a lack of adequate funding. There’s however no mention of a major reason for this. From my calculation, about $9 million each year is diverted from our public schools to pay debt service, for private development attributed to tax increment financing (TIF). This is done without School Board approval. The worst part is we are committed to this debt for 25 years from the start.

There is very little the City, Ramsey County and our schools have to show for this enormous ongoing expense.

John Mannillo
Co- Chair Saint Paul STRONG

Background info: The point is that Saint Paul Schools need more funding. Calculation: $24 million paid in annual debt for TIF deals. School district receives 38% of property tax revenue. 38% of the $24 million (school portion) is diverted before they ever see this tax funding. Worse yet, they don’t have any say as far as approval. Only the City Council does at the local level.

Did sheriff live in Ramsey Co.? Activists seek probe

Minnesota Public Radio News

Issues Tim Nelson · St. Paul · Jan 4, 2018

A St. Paul citizens watchdog group is asking the county to launch an investigation into the appointment of Jack Serier as the Ramsey County sheriff last year, and is raising more questions about whether he lived in the county at the time, as required.

St. Paul STRONG is a volunteer group chaired by former mayoral and City Council candidate John Mannillo. Its members also include former Sen. David Durenberger and community activist Yusef Mgeni. The group sent a letter to the county board on Tuesday questioning Serier's eligibility to be appointed sheriff.

"That they did not validate his residency exemplifies a pattern of behavior by the RCBC [Ramsey County Board of Commissioners] that lacks transparency and public participation, which essentially allows the RCBC to do what they want to do with impunity," the letter says.

Serier was a longtime resident of Stillwater when he was working in 2016 for then-Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom, who stepped down.

• Dec. 21: Sheriff's residency at center of Ramsey County spat

"He's meeting residency in a manner that's expedient at best," said Roy Magnuson, a member of St. Paul STRONG, in an interview about Serier's appointment and tenure as sheriff.

Magnuson also said he thinks it's giving Serier a political advantage for an election to the post this fall, noting that one of the county commissioners, Victoria Reinhardt, is one of the chairs of Serier's campaign.

Ramsey County Board Chair Jim McDonough declined to reopen the question on Thursday, and told St. Paul Strong in a letter that the county won't investigate.

"This issue's been raised a couple times now and nothing's changed as far as we're concerned here," McDonough said in an interview. He said the county was satisfied that Serier was and is eligible to be sheriff, "absolutely."

It's the latest round of legal doubts raised about the Ramsey County sheriff.

The controversy started last month, when former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher first publicly questioned Serier's residence. Serier was second-in-command to Sheriff Matt Bostrom, who in 2010 challenged and beat Fletcher, who'd himself been a four-term sheriff.

Although he had been living in Stillwater, Serier says he'd signed a lease for Bostrom's Payne Avenue townhome in St. Paul as Bostrom prepared to resign and take a research position at Oxford University in England.

Fletcher continues to question the validity of that residence and Serier's eligibility, and has asked the county board to request and examine location data for Serier's county-provided cell phone to show his whereabouts in late 2016 and early 2017, as Bostrom was preparing to step down.

Fletcher also has not ruled out running for his old post, although he's serving as Vadnais Heights mayor now.

Serier said there's no question about his residence and eligibility. Last month, he made public a series of documents, including his lease for Bostrom's St. Paul home, which he and his wife have since purchased. He also released utility bills for the home that predate his appointment as sheriff by the county board last year.

"The residency matter is settled," Serier said in an interview on Thursday. "It was settled before I took office."

He also welcomed the county board's confidence in him in the letter to St. Paul STRONG.

"The process for selecting the replacement is grounded in law, but is also the county board's decision to make," Serier said. "So, whatever that process was going to be, I respect that process, and I'm proud to serve as the sheriff of the county."

Response from Ramsey County Board of Commissioners

January 4, 2018

Saint Paul STRONG Steering Committee:

Thank you for your letter of January 3 and your ongoing efforts to promote open and
transparent processes in local government. Please know that this is a goal we commonly
share and aspire to.

When Sheriff Bostrom announced his retirement on December 6,2016, the board
reviewed several potential courses of action to fill the partial term for the remaining two
years. We consulted with our County Attorney's Office and reviewed the County Charter.
We studied what other Minnesota counties have done when faced with the situation of
replacing a Sheriff - an elected official who also leads a large and critical operational
department. We held two open meetings (Dec. 13 and20,2016) where residents could
learn the law and recent history relevant to this situation right along with us and then
witness the board's deliberations as they happened. We consulted with the suburban
communities that contract directly with the Sheriff s Office for law enforcement services
as well as other community stakeholders. Residents and stakeholders were invited to
share their thoughts with commissioners throughout the process, which included an
interview of Chief Deputy Jack Serier in a public session on January 3,2017 and
concluded with his public appointment as Sheriff and swearing in on January 10.

The entirety of this process led us to the conclusion that sustaining the strong work,
reputation and relationships that our communities, county organization and board came to
value and trust during six years of the Ramsey County Sherifls Office under the
leadership of Sheriff Bostrom and his command staff was paramount. Without an option
to call a special election in2017, but secure in the knowledge that the voters of Ramsey
County have the responsibility of determining who is Sheriff through General Election on
November 6,2018, our board unanimously voted to appoint the Sheriff s Second-in-
Command for the remainder of the term. This decision we arrived at is the same as 1l of
12 other Minnesota counties in recent history. We disagree with the suggestion that Jack
Serier or any person who would have received this two-year appointment would have a
'leg-up' that was in any way greater than the will of Ramsey County voters on Election

We acknowledge and respect that members of Saint Paul STRONG and members of our
communities may disagree with the process and/or the result the Ramsey County Board
chose. However, we contest the criticism that our process of appointing a Sheriff under
these circumstances was not sufhciently transparent. I reached out to, heard from and had
good, substantive conversations with several residents and stakeholders (including
members of Saint Paul STRONG) as did other commissioners. We commturicated
invitation to our public meetings and encouraged people to contact us. The process was
covered well by local news media at each step. Although you may disagree with the
outcome, the board sought these opportunities for feedback and received significant and
valuable input.

Prior to the public interview, Jack Serier confirmed to the board in writing that he met the
legal requirements to be appointed Sheriff which include residing in Ramsey County.
What statutorily constitutes residency is not a determination for a county board to make.
The question was answered to the board's satisfaction at the time and remains so, and we
will not be investigating the matter.

As to your request to clearly state how the public can have input into commissioners'
decision-making processes: Please connect with us. Ramsey County Commissioners
welcome engagement with our constituents on any topic - whether at a public meeting,
in-person one-on-one, via phone, email - whatever is most convenient. All board
meetings are live-streamed.in real-time and video archived at www.ramseycounty.us.
Agendas of our meetings and workshops for the upcoming week are also posted online
Thursdays, and one can also subscribe to receive these notices each week via email.

As Board Chair, I appreciate and will consider your suggestion to conduct an internal
evaluation with the goal of making our decision-making process more transparent. I look
forward to continue meeting with members of Saint Paul STRONG, and I am more than
happy to engage with your full advisory board as you may like. Please contact me
anytime via email or at65l-266-8365.

Thank you again for sharing your concems and your ongoing commitment to
transparency in government.


Jim McDonough, Chair
Ramsey County Commissioner
District 6

Saint Paul STRONG's Letter to Ramsey County Board of Commissioners re: Legality of Interim Sheriff Appointment

January 2, 2018
Ramsey County Board of Commissioners
15 West Kellogg Blvd, Suite 220
Saint Paul, Minnesota, 55102

RE: Serier Residency

Dear Ramsey County Board of Commissioners:

Saint Paul STRONG (SPS) is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving
representative government in St. Paul. All of the City of St. Paul is geographically within the confines of Ramsey County. Since SPS’s goal is to improve accessible and representative government by encouraging and supporting open and transparent processes, it monitors and provides guidance to governmental
entities that affect the residents of our city.

As you are aware, SPS has followed the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners (RCBC) process for replacing Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom since it began in December 2016.

SPS first made its concerns known in December 2016, when it respectfully requested that the RCBC cease their plan to interview only one candidate, rather than having an open, competitive, and public process. At that time, Board Chair, Victoria Reinhardt said, she “appreciated” Saint Paul STRONG’s comments and noted that their candidate would be interviewed during a public forum at the
Ramsey County Courthouse. Unfortunately, the public forum did not allow members of the public to speak, ask questions of the commissioners, or have any dialogue with the candidate. The forum ended with the RCBC making the decision to appoint former Sheriff Matt Bostrom’s chosen successor, then Chief
Deputy, Jack Serier.

The RCBC’s decision to only interview and subsequently hire Serier, ignored the
principles of transparency, fairness, and inclusiveness. Furthermore, the decision
eliminated the possibility of attracting and hiring an interim sheriff from a pool of capable law enforcement professionals (including women and people of color) who could’ve applied and competed for the position; and it gave the newly appointed sheriff an upper hand by making him the incumbent for the 2018 election. The comments from some
commissioners that voters would have an opportunity to assess this appointed individual, while factually true, was politically disingenuous.

In August 2017, SPS sent a follow-up letter calling into question the RCBC process for citizen engagement.

The RCBC tells citizens that the way they have input is through individual meetings or phone calls to the commissioners. This process eliminates the opportunity for robust discussions that can lead to an improved understanding of any given issue, as well as informing the RCBC about potential unintended consequences. A democratic process that allows citizens’ comments provides more accurate information and more informed, responsible decision making.

If this is an indication of how the publically elected RCBC conducts the people’s
business, SPS has serious concerns about transparency on many issues that impact
the citizens of St. Paul/Ramsey County…

Since before Serier’s appointment as interim sheriff, there have been several ongoing, unresolved issues within the sheriff’s department that the RCBC apparently ignored during the appointment process. Those issues included staffing issues in the jail that the union described as a “state of emergency” and former Sheriff Bostrom residing in London for over a month while on the county’s payroll. It is intellectually dishonest for former Sheriff Bostrom to claim that he was meeting the
requirements of his position as sheriff, while attending school at Oxford.

Now, there are serious issues and questions about Jack Serier’s residency. Former Sheriff Bob Fletcher has presented some evidence that seems to infer that Serier did not live in Ramsey County at the time of his appointment. Instead of acting with due diligence after these questions surfaced, Chair Reinhardt and the RCBC dismissed these allegations as politically motivated and have refused to consider that the evidence presented may be true. By refusing to conduct an investigation, Chair Reinhardt either is accepting former Sheriff Bostrom’s statement that he may have made a “typo” and “didn’t proof” his email to the homeowner’s association about his home
being vacant, or “as far as the county board is concerned, we did our due diligence,” Reinhardt said. “… Jack Serier took an oath; he stated what was the truth. … There is no reason that I would have said, ‘Gee, I wonder.’ ”

The Office of the Secretary of State requires candidates for sheriff to fill out an Affidavit of
Candidacy form. This form allows county sheriff candidates to keep their addresses private.
Candidates are still required to fill out a separate Address of Residence form. The sheriff of Ramsey County is required to be a resident of Ramsey County. The very least the RCBC could have done before appointing Serier was to verify that he met the residency requirement. That they did not validate his residency exemplifies a pattern of behavior by the RCBC that lacks transparency and public participation, which essentially allows the RCBC to do what they want to do with impunity. Chair Reinhardt, along with former Sheriff Bostrom, was the catalyst for pushing Serier’s appointment through, without the benefit of a public process, when a strong pool of local residents and law enforcement leaders may have applied for the position if it had been open. Chair Reinhardt dismissed the idea that appointing Serier gave him a leg up on the 2018 election, where he will be the incumbent. And now we see that Chair Reinhardt is Serier’s campaign cochair in the upcoming election. These facts imply that there may have been some “political motivation” involved in the appointment process of Serier.

SPS does not support any candidate in this race and is not accepting former Sheriff Fletcher’s allegations about Serier’s residency as factual without further evidence. However, it is concerned about the series of events that have transpired.

Once again SPS is requesting that the RCBC should clearly state how the public can have input into the decision-making of the RCBC and also conduct internal evaluations to make its processes more accountable andtransparent. This process could begin by investigating whether or not Serier was a Ramsey County resident when he was appointed interim sheriff and if he was not, to respond appropriately to that information. In either case, the public has a right to know.

Saint Paul STRONG

Mayor-elect Carter is showing true leadership. Will our City Council?

Villager Op-Ed

December 6, 2017

by Shirley Erstad
Melvin Carter III’s election as St. Paul’s first African American mayor is historic in its own right and well worth celebrating. However, it’s more about the future of St. Paul than about Carter’s legacy. Leaders come and leaders go; it’s the impact of their leadership that makes a real difference in people’s lives.

An article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on November 29, (“Some City Hall staffers on edge as St. Paul mayor-elect sets up hiring panels”) spoke volumes between the lines. According to the article, some city department heads were “furious” that the mayor chose to form 10 hiring panels made up of community members to better inform his hiring decisions and that they learned about it in the press.

St. Paul, by charter, has a strong mayor system. The mayor appoints a deputy mayor, all city department heads except those exempted by law such as the police chief, and all deputy department heads. The mayor appoints the members of the St. Paul Planning Commission. That body takes testimony and makes recommendations to the mayor and City Council on such important and legally binding things as the city’s zoning code. There are over 30 boards and commissions that serve under the mayor. The mayor makes personnel appointment recommendations, and the City Council votes on those recommendations. In reality, almost all the folks the mayor wants to appoint are appointed.

For example, the Planning Commission has 21 seats. One third of those seats are open after January 1, 2018. If the current mayor and City Council do not fill those seats either by appointment or re-appointment before then, Mayor-elect Carter will be appointing the new
people to the Planning Commission, which is only right. It’s his administration and he’ll be judged by their work, so he should be filling those seats.

Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the mayor. Any and all appointees, if they’re doing their job right, should be approaching their tenure as a service to the public and should wake up every day knowing that they’ll be held accountable to that job description. The taxpayers pay the salaries of the mayor, the deputy mayor, the City Council, the department heads and their entire staffs. We literally pay for the decisions they make and the time they take making them. Its easy to feel as if that’s been forgotten.

Look at the upcoming vote on a resolution before the City Council on December 6. At issue is whether or not the City Council will allow the Ford site masterplan decision to be put on the ballot for the voters to decide. The resolution has 16 “whereas” and five “be it resolved” statements explaining why voters should be shut out of the process. The petition to put it on the ballot has nearly 3,000 signatures, gathered in a very short period of time.

If we really are “The Most Livable City in America” and our city leaders still embrace the idea that they serve to represent the taxpaying public, then the City Council should not adopt the resolution and its legal mumbo jumbo “whereas” and “resolved” statements to make the Ford site master plan an internal decision. Rather, our elected and appointed officials should welcome community engagement, conversation, and yes, healing around this issue.

One could argue that the Ford site decision is actually something that should be before all the voters of Ramsey County, not just St. Paul. There is over $250 million of tax increment financing (TIF) on the table. Whenever St. Paul subsidizes developers with TIF, it takes money away from the school district and the county, too. In effect, we take from our children and the poorest among us to benefit those who arguably may not need it. That’s the true Ford site discussion that our city leaders should be embracing, not attempting to squelch.

A big thank-you to our incoming mayor for reminding us of what leadership looks like. May he and those around him wake up every morning embracing what it truly means to serve.

Shirley Erstad wrote this piece as a member of the Saint Paul STRONG Steering Committee

Some City Hall staffers on edge, as St. Paul mayor-elect sets up hiring panels

Rick Cardenas, member of transparency advocacy group St. Paul STRONG, says he's applying to one of 10 panels helping Mayor-Elect Carter choose department leaders. "It's opening up a little transparency. At least he's opening it up."


St. Paul Mayor-Elect Carter’s department leaders will be chosen by 10 panels

Saint Paul STRONG
November 28, 2017

We are very excited to hear Mayor-Elect Melvin Carter's plan for having an open and transparent public process to inform his hiring of city department leadership.

“It is ambitious, but it is the way we should go about doing public hiring,” said incoming Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher on Monday. “When we think about the people who will be leading major parts of the administration, it’s important we get a broad cross-section of people who are interested in applying for those jobs. Being able to really hear the feedback about the different qualities that these people bring, that’s all going to be really helpful and important information for Mayor-Elect Carter.”

And this from Emily Weber:
“This open, transparent process marks a significant break from the insider decision-making process that too often formed transition processes in past decades. This approach to hiring will ensure that a diverse, community-centered group of voices lead in the selection of these crucial positions to guide the future of St. Paul.”

Applicants, as well as community leaders who wish to serve on the hiring panels, can email Toni Newborn, the city’s Diversity and Consulting Services Manager, at Toni.Newborn@ci.stpaul.mn.us.

Information about each position will be available online as of 9 a.m. Tuesday at https://www.governmentjobs.com/careers/stpaul.

To learn more, see:


Saint Paul STRONG
Steering Committee

Pioneer Press Guest Editorial

Gemberling, Erstad: Judge the Ford site process by openness and accountability, not just by number of meetings

By Don Gemberling and Shirley Erstad |

September 14, 2017 at 12:46 am

Saint Paul STRONG has observed the Ford Site decision-making process playing out contentiously in our city. A recitation of this process was recently the subject of an opinion piece by Council Member Chris Tolbert in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. What has not been addressed are the reasons why this is increasingly the subject of heated, adversarial debates.

It is easy to conclude, as Tolbert’s piece suggests, that the citizens of St. Paul had adequate opportunities to make their issues known. However, this process should be judged by how transparent, open, and accountable it was — whether or not citizens were given accurate, complete information and a chance to be heard — not by the number of meetings held.

Meaningful input means the opportunity to ask questions and have conversations. When a “question period” is designated as “speak to staff,” robust discussion among participants is denied. Topic boards with subjects limited to selections predetermined by the City effectively quash open debate.

While it is laudable that CM Tolbert met with citizens in their homes, consider what thatmeans. Citizens must be well enough connected to know they can request a meeting with a council member in their home, that they have a home in which they feel comfortable hosting such an event, that they are both privy to those meetings and invited. Where is accountability and transparency when intimate groups meet in homes?

Meaningful input allows for genuine participation outside city staff’s control of the process. Announcing results of a citizen input survey and then admitting that many citizen votes were not counted is not meaningful input. Processes that tend to guarantee a predetermined result, or that suggest that citizen participation is just a pretense, increase citizen frustration and cynicism.

The Zoning Committee, Planning Commission, Ford Site Task Force and all city department heads are appointed by the mayor. The Ford Site Task Force was commissioned to provide neighborhood perspective and help guide the development of the City’s plan. However, the task force was not shown plans until the public was — ensuring a done deal. The decision makers throughout the process until it reaches the City Council are all mayoral appointees.

As recently as February, 2017, the Little League fields on the Ford Site Master Plan were the city’s top priority. Now, they have been dropped from the Ford Site Master Plan completely with no explanation but a vague intimation that there is no money. Suggestions of funding sources have been put forward, yet no reason has been given about why such options have not been pursued.

Transparency and accountability are called into question when page 30 of the master plan identifies zoning districts but in the following pages, the architectural drawings show areas surrounded by parks. There is no zoning code for parks. It is disingenuous and dishonest to show drawings with parks when the planned zoning designations are for building heights of 65 feet and 75 feet for residential and commercial development. Also, the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area overlay districts have not gone through the required community process to update them to the 2016 Department of Natural Resources regulations. Until that process occurs, the current overlay districts apply. Those regulations call for maximum heights of 40 feet on the portion of the Ford Site within the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. Through that community process, because the lower building heights are more protective than the DNR minimum protection standards, the City can elect to keep those lower heights.

Transparency requires the City to inform citizens that park pictures are for display only. All materials have advertised 9 percent parkland required by the parkland dedication ordinance yet neglect to note that a fee can be paid in lieu of giving land.

Accountability requires noting that Area C, also polluted property of the Ford Motor Company, has been dropped from clean-up discussions. Area C is proposed for possible recreational uses. The pollution report (May 2017), concluded that the current level of clean-up is not acceptable to recreational standards. “Direct contact with industrial waste and direct contact with surficial soil fill, contamination risk…” Why has Area C been dropped from the conversation? If the Ford Site Master Plan is approved, what leverage does the city have to get that polluted land in the river basin cleaned up?

Increasingly, citizens are frustrated. Too many report to St. Paul STRONG that they have no meaningful and significant way to influence major developments in their neighborhoods that potentially affect their daily lives and financial futures. The Ford Site process is just one example of the distrust that grows from that political reality.

Until the leadership of our City takes steps to provide meaningful processes and transparency about how the City does business, citizens will continue to see the kind of acrimony and hostility that currently characterize the dispute about the Ford Site.

Don Gemberling and Shirley Erstad are members of the steering committee of the group Saint Paul STRONG, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan, community-led organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in Saint Paul by encouraging and supporting open and transparent public processes at City Hall, engaging and empowering resident participation, and building a stronger, more inclusive Saint Paul.”

Citizen Complaints Letter to Saint Paul City Council Members

September 8, 2017

Re: May 16, 2017 Letter

Dear Saint Paul City Council Members:

St. Paul STRONG (SPS) is a nonpartisan, community-led organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in Saint Paul by encouraging and supporting open and transparent public processes in local government, engaging and empowering resident participation, and building a stronger, more inclusive Saint Paul. This past May, SPS sent the City Council a letter regarding a fair amount of concern we have heard (and continue hearing) from residents who feel disenfranchised based on recent City activities. The concerns have been described as follows:

City staff who…

1. Neglect to provide all pertinent and accurate information related to a specific issue that affects organizations charged with decision making on projects that impact neighborhoods. (i.e. Planning Commission, District Councils, City Council, etc.).

2. Provide insufficient reports to the Saint Paul City Council on issues that impact citizens and neighborhoods.

3. Document public comments inaccurately by neglecting to use clear, concise, and consistent criteria to measure support or opposition to a given project.

As stated in our previous letter to the City Council, these gaps in data flow result in fractured public processes that inhibit meaningful discussions and informed, responsible decision-making. Given these observations and concerns about input and transparency, Saint Paul STRONG made the following recommendations to the City Council for consideration:

  1. City staff reports should include all pertinent and accurate information related to an issue/project. i


  1. Staff should establish clear, concise, and consistent criteria for categorizing public comments so that citizens understand how comments are weighted to indicate support or opposition. Then, planning commissioners, BZA members, & City Council members will get a fair representation of the neighbors' support, concerns, etc. ii


  1. In order to inform planning commissioners, Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), and City Council members on neighborhood issues, District Councils should be encouraged to report committee and board votes and an overview of various positions, in their minutes and reports to city staff.iii


SPS’s previous letter went essentially unanswered by the City Council, except for two city council members who agreed with our third recommendation regarding District Councils but neglected to pursue the recommendation in any meaningful way. One city council member suggested that SPS was asking for too much in one letter.

The purpose of this letter is that Saint Paul STRONG would like a response to all three of its recommendations, with a particular focus on recommendations #1 and #2 for which the City Council has direct control. SPS would also welcome hearing about other opportunities the City has to improve information sharing practices that ensure public input and understanding that also safeguard transparent, open processes.




Saint Paul STRONG steering committee



During a recent Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) meeting, Planning and Economic Development (PED) staff stated to the Planning Commission that the City of Saint Paul must ensure the City is in compliance with the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. PED staff neglected to report that the City can decide to enact more protective zoning.


In its report to the City Council regarding proposed traffic circles on Idaho Avenue, PED staff neglected to report that Idaho is part of the St. Paul Bikeway Plan. Conversely, PED staff included in its report that buses and emergency vehicles may turn left on the two traffic circles, making it sound like a public safety issue on Idaho Ave. Staff neglected to say that left turns for buses and emergency vehicles are allowed on all traffic circles in St. Paul.


City staff at a recent Ford Site Plan meeting misinformed the community that another auto manufacturing plant could be built without city approval, when only light industrial zoning currently exists on the site. Staff also stated that heights of 75 ft. will not exceed six stories, however 75 ft. heights for residential buildings can reach seven or eight stories.



The public comment letters that were sent to the City regarding the Snelling/St. Clair proposed new development were grouped into favorable & unfavorable categories that misrepresented the actual support and opposition to the proposed new TN3 zoning.


This same issue was frequently reported regarding the Ford site planning and rezoning. The City has consistently downplayed the level of public opposition to its plan, regularly accounting for expressions of support in its summaries of the feedback while failing to account for more numerous expressions of opposition. This gives a false picture of the situation both to decision makers and to the public and calls into question the integrity of the process.



Mac-Groveland Housing and Land Use Committee had a fairly close vote in favor of new TN3 zoning for the Snelling/St. Clair development site demonstrating how split the committee members were on the issue. In addition, some of those in favor had not attended recent committee meetings or participated in public committee discussions that might have better informed their decisions.





Interim Sheriff Appointment by Ramsey County Board of Commissioners

August 28, 2017
Ramsey County Board of Commissioners
(Via email)
15 West Kellogg Blvd, Suite 220
Saint Paul, Minnesota, 55102

Dear Ramsey County Board of Commissioners:

St. Paul STRONG (SPS) is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving
representative government in St. Paul. All of the City of St. Paul is geographically within the confines of Ramsey County.

Since our goal is to improve accessible and representative government by encouraging and supporting open and transparent processes, SPS monitors and provides guidance to governmental entities that affect the residents of its city.

While this issue occurred many months ago, SPS believes it is its responsibility to express its concerns over actions taken by the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners (RCBC) when it appointed an interim County Sheriff following the resignation of Sheriff Matt Bostrom this past January.

As you know, the RCBC chose to appoint from within, not to seek a wider field of applicants, and not to follow a tradition used in filling vacancies on the Saint Paul City Council and Saint Paul School Board. That wise practice insisted that interim appointees not seek election in the next election cycle because the interim appointment gives an unfair advantage to that individual.

Some commissioners have claimed that a subsequent election will allow the
citizenry to evaluate the appointed individual’s performance and decide whether
they are worthy of their support. Any student of politics would challenge this argument as being disingenuous because unless the officeholder has acted egregiously the incumbent almost always has the advantage.

The last time the RCBC was in a position to appoint an interim sheriff was in 1992, when then Sheriff Zacharias ended his term to assume his presidential appointment as the US Marshall. Then, the RCBC hired Pat Moen as interim sheriff under the condition that she not seek election in the next cycle. While the decision to appoint an interim sheriff from within was the prerogative of the RCBC, it does raise questions about how the RCBC invites and encourages public comment and safeguards the public trust in the actions taken by the RCBC.

The RCBC lets citizens know that the way they have input is through individual meetings or phone calls to the commissioners. This process eliminates the opportunity for robust discussions that can lead to an improved understanding of any given issue, as well as informing the RCBC about potential unintended consequences. A democratic process that allows citizens’ comments
provides more accurate information and more informed, responsible decision making. When
individual members of the SPS Steering Committee have tried to contact members of the RCBC, they have been met with silence by several commissioners.

While the RCBC provided numerous explanations for their decision, the public should realize that when the newly appointed sheriff has appeared at several of the Saint Paul partisan precinct caucuses after his appointment, the action of the RCBC is viewed as putting its collective thumb on the scale and weighing in a year early on the next election cycle for County Sheriff.

If this is an indication of how the publicly elected RCBC conducts the people’s business, SPS has serious concerns about transparency on many issues that impact the citizens of St. Paul/Ramsey County, including investing significant taxpayer dollars on many economic development projects in Ramsey County. We believe that the RCBC should clearly state how the public can have input into the decision-making of the RCBC and also conduct internal evaluations to make its processes more
accountable and transparent.

Saint Paul STRONG steering committee
cc: Local Media Outlets

How much does the DFL's endorsement matter for St. Paul mayoral candidates this year?


By Peter Callaghan

April 18, 2017

At the DFL-sponsored forum of St. Paul mayoral candidates at Concordia University last week, it was the big question, the one everybody was waiting for:

“Will you suspend your campaign if someone other than you is endorsed by the DFL?” MPR reporter Tim Nelson asked the four Democratic candidates. 

How the candidates answered that question, after all, could influence how much support a candidate could get among those attending DFL caucuses and ward conventions that begin this Saturday, April 22.

“Undecided,” said former school board member Tom Goldstein.

“Yes,” responded Melvin Carter III, the former council member from Ward 1.

“Yes,” said Dai Thao, the current council members from Ward 1.

“No,” said former Ward 3 council member Pat Harris.

At an event sponsored by the DFL, the “correct” answer is always yes. But the query and the responses spoke to a much larger issue for the party — and the city: How much does it matter anymore?

An unlikely decision

The DFL dominates St. Paul politics. The current mayor and all seven council members are all members of the party, and an endorsement in the open mayor’s race would likely do much to boost a candidate in a crowded field of six candidates, especially since — based on last week’s debate before the party faithful — a voter might need dental floss to find any separation between the candidates on many of the issues.

So there is some risk to a candidate who doesn't agree to abide by the endorsement process. It could cost them the support of DFLers who think the party should pick the nominee — that DFL candidates should abide by the local party's wishes. 

But in a city where the DFL dominates, a solo endorsement in a crowded field could also, in effect, turn over the choice of the next mayor to the relatively small number of DFL activists who attend the party's caucuses and city convention. That’s what happened in 2015, when a group of St. Paul Board of Education incumbents — all of whom had agreed not to run in the general election without the party's stamp of approval — were denied the DFL endorsement in favor of other candidates.

That's unlikely to happen this year. Under St. Paul DFL rules, a candidate needs to get the votes of 60 percent of delegates at the city convention to secure the endorsement. But with four of the six announced mayoral candidates in St. Paul seeking the DFL endorsement, and all four of those running rigorous campaigns, it will be difficult for any one of them to reach the 60 percent threshold. And with no endorsement, all four candidates would be free to continue to the November election without repercussions from miffed DFL activists.

Even Carter and Thao, both of whom promised to get out of the race should someone else get the endorsement, would be off the hook. And there will be at least two other candidates on the November ballot regardless of the DFL actions. Elizabeth Dickinson is running as a Green Party member, and Tom Holden is running as an Independent.

'Non-partisan' elections?

St. Paul city elections are non-partisan, at least according to the city charter. And because St. Paul, like Minneapolis, uses ranked-choice voting, there is no primary election, so all candidates who file for mayor will appear on the ballot together — without party label.

Even when St. Paul still had a primary and general election, however, the primary was ostensibly non-partisan, with the two top vote-getters advancing to the general election in November.

That hasn't stopped political parties from becoming an unofficial overlay on city elections. “Under the First Amendment, they are free to associate with whatever party they want to and they are free to seek the endorsement and the support of political parties,” said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections manager, which manages St. Paul city and school elections.

So the parties are free to support or oppose whichever candidate they want to — and to pressure non-endorsed candidates not to file with Mansky’s office once filing starts, on August 1.

At the candidate forum last week, while encouraging people to attend the party's precinct and ward meetings, St. Paul DFL Chair Libby Kantner compared the DFL endorsement to an organic certification on produce at the grocery store: a label that some shoppers use to choose among products. “Our endorsed candidates will have those certified organic marking,” she said. “And you can choose who gets that certification.”

Kantner said the St. Paul DFL has tried to make the endorsement process easier and more accessible. All precinct and ward meetings will be held on weekends, starting Saturday. And the precinct caucuses are being held on the same day and at the same site as ward conventions.

She said that while St. Paul elections are nonpartisan, the party “believes every election is an opportunity to stand up for our values. “The DFL endorsement process helps voters learn which candidate best represents the value of local Democrats.”  

How RCV affects endorsements

Should someone win the DFL endorsement for St. Paul mayor, they would qualify for party support in the form of access to voter lists, help with volunteer recruitment and campaign materials. The last time there was a contested mayoral election, in 2005, the DFL-endorsed Chris Coleman defeated incumbent Randy Kelly by more than 35 points, in an election in which more than 59,000 votes were cast. (The last time there was an open seat in a St. Paul mayor's race was 2001.)

But with both St. Paul and Minneapolis having switched to a ranked-choice voting, some argue the endorsement simply doesn't matter as much anymore. When Minneapolis mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds announced last month that she would not take part in the Minneapolis DFL endorsement process, for example, she cited RCV as one reason for her decision. “In the advent of ranked-choice voting, there is simply no need for a DFL endorsement process anymore,” she said. “[RCV] is much more democratic, it’s open to the voices of the people and you get to choose from the best candidates, not just those who won the DFL beauty contest.”

Under RCV, voters rank the candidates who are their first, second and third choice. If nobody on the ballot gets a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate who receives the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and his or her second-choice votes are applied to the remaining candidates — a process that's repeated until there's a winner.

The St. Paul DFL has a mixed record on RCV. Kantner said the local party endorsed the concept in 2007 but did not endorse it in 2009, when it appeared on the ballot and was passed by St. Paul voters. (An endorsement of RCV has been part of the state DFL platform since 2012.)

Kantner said her board is split on RCV. “I assume there will be resolutions both for and against introduced at precinct caucuses,” she said.

She said those opposed to RCV feel that it weakens the role of the DFL, but the party is not behind an effort to place RCV on the ballot again for the purpose of repealing it.

Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota, agrees, saying the repeal effort appears to be the work of DFL activist and St. Paul Charter Commissioner Chuck Repke. The move, which has been criticized by groups such as St. Paul STRONG for lack of transparency, has caught the attention of the St. Paul City City Council, which will discuss the issue Wednesday.

Massey said RCV “has played into the narrative of the weakening endorsement, but is not propelling it.

“The stakes are too high to endorse with strong competing interests in the city for the top office,” Massey continued. “The divisions are within the DFL party label, not between DFL and GOP or other parties.”


Take the politics out of City Attorney's Office

By John Mannillo and Shirley Erstad

The Villager Op-Ed

April 12, 2017

“The City Attorney said so,” is often the response that we, the public, get from City Hall when we are confounded by some process, procedure, or final action that otherwise makes no credible sense. When we seek to understand a council vote or mayoral decision shrouded in mystery, “it’s the opinion of the City Attorney” is a great strategy to stop conversation and controversy. However, eventually one realizes these are not legal imperatives but political decisions providing politicians with political cover.

There's no need to take our word for this when it’s clearly laid out on the city’s website: “The mission of the Saint Paul City Attorney's Office is to deliver outstanding legal services to the city by providing sound legal advice and superior legal representation to city officials to help them achieve their goals.” Saint Paul’s City Attorney is not elected, but appointed by the mayor. He or she serves at the pleasure of the mayor, supervising a large group of other attorneys.

The city’s mishandling of the right-of-way maintenance program is a good example. In 2011, the City Attorney refused to settle an appeal by two Lowertown churches that believed their right-of-way assessments were disproportionately higher than most downtown buildings. The churches sought to settle the appeal for a fraction of the final award. Given the city’s intransigence, the only recourse for the churches was to file a lawsuit.

Rather than weigh the potential cost of a long, drawn out lawsuit that the city was not guaranteed to win, the mayor and City Attorney chose to fight the case over six years in five different court rooms, culminating before the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruling didn’t just impact the churches; it deemed Saint Paul’s right-of-way maintenance program to be illegal.

This process was hard enough on the plaintiffs which were fortunate to be represented by pro bono counsel. The case was devastating for the City of Saint Paul. Using taxpayer resources, the City Attorney took the case against the churches through appeal after appeal. A case that could have been settled in 2011 for $30,000 resulted in a $32 million budget gap and drastic cut in services to taxpayers in 2017.

Such examples are all too common. In 2015, Saint Paul taxpayers were forced to pay an $800,000 settlement to a private restaurant at the city-owned Como Lakeside Pavilion. Here again, the mayor and City Attorney allowed a contract dispute to turn into a six-figure lawsuit, at the taxpayers’ expense.

Recently, when asked for the annual report showing funds collected and expenditures made under the city's Parkland Dedication Ordinance, city officials once again hid behind the City Attorney. Even though a 2015 report had been generated listing collected fees, the City Attorney advised that this report didn’t need to be issued until after expenditures had been made. How can anyone evaluate the ordinance if information will only be released after decisions have been made? This so-called legal opinion is not in keeping with an ordinance calling for an annual report to ensure transparency and accountability.

The collection of Parkland Dedication funds is triggered by development projects, including the Major League Soccer stadium in the Midway area and the redevelopment of the Ford site in Highland Park. State law requires that these funds be collected when permits are issued. Why would the city make the legal determination that this information need not be shared with the public?

The above examples appear to be political strategies proposed by the mayor and carried out by the City Attorney, but there's something deeply wrong with the process. When pushed for an explanation, city officials will admit the City Attorney's Office represents the mayor and City Council, not the public.

Saint Paul STRONG recommends that we look for solutions that address this issue of political manipulation wrapped in legal justifications. Perhaps one solution is to create an elected City Attorney to represent and advise the public. The Ramsey County Attorney is an elected official that voters are able to evaluate and vote into and out of office.

What we have now may be good for elected officials and city staff, but too often has encouraged poor policy decisions. Saint Paul deserves better. Holding our elected officials more accountable is a good way to increase public confidence.

John Mannillo is the spokesperson and Shirley Erstad a Steering Committee Member of Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting citizen participation and open and transparent public processes at City Hall.

Star Tribune: Governing Goes Off the Record

Secrecy Rules, first in an occasional series

March 12, 2017


<John Mannillo, with the government watchdog group St. Paul STRONG, said he thinks the drive to delete records is more about limiting scrutiny.

Mannillo said internal e-mails led to embarrassing revelations about the city’s actions before a landslide that killed two children at Lilydale Regional Park in 2013 and its mishandling of a park restaurant concession that ended up costing the city $800,000.

“They don’t want to tell people anything because they’re afraid of looking bad,” Mannillo said.>


In governor's race, St. Paul's Coleman takes on mayoral jinx

Excerpt from story in Star Tribune

Sunday, March 5, 2017

"Financially, we're in tough shape," said John Mannillo, spokesman for the open government advocacy group Saint Paul STRONG. The group formed during Coleman's tenure and frequently criticizes the mayor's administration for a lack of transparency.

See article: http://m.startribune.com/in-governor-s-race-st-paul-s-coleman-takes-on-mayoral-jinx/415406404/

Testimony at State Capitol: email deletions bill February 28, 2017

John Mannillo's testimony on behalf of Saint Paul STRONG today regarding limiting email deletions in favor of a bill introduced (HF 1185) at the Capitol. Thank you to Don Gemberling, from our Steering Committee, for helping organize the effort and to Tom Erickson, a supporter of Saint Paul STRONG, for their help and testimony. The bill passed and now moves on to another committee in the House. John's comments:

“I am John Mannillo. I speak for Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan group of citizens, who believe the welfare of our communities is based on transparency and accountability of our Government. Our elected officials and the departments they oversee, too often give us reason to distrust their actions and motivations. In Saint Paul, the policy to delete email communications after 180 days, may be its most blatant example for lack of transparency and has resulted in loss of public trust. Without trust, most any action taken by government will be suspect. Unfortunately, this has been proven to be the case.

By allowing any City employee to unilaterally delete any email communication, with only minimal training, we are allowing truth to be buried and history to be erased. There will always be questions as to whether our elected officials are more concerned with their short term political future, rather than that of long term good public policy. How will they be accountable? We should never enable the potential abuse of our trust.”

John Mannillo

Saint Paul STRONG, Spokesperson

February 28, 2017

St. Paul Charter Commission: Lack of public process on Ranked Choice Voting

Saint Paul STRONG


February 25, 2017

It has been brought to our attention that members of the Saint Paul Charter Commission will be discussing a ballot measure proposal that would set in motion the repeal of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) at the Charter Review Committee meeting this Monday, February 27, 4:30pm at City Hall Room 220 . While Saint Paul STRONG doesn't take a position on RCV, we are concerned about the lack of public process on this issue.

Here are some important process questions to consider:

When was the meeting set? How was it noticed? Is there a public hearing?

And this leads us to other questions:

Who appoints the Charter Commission? Are commissioners appointed by the Ramsey County Chief Judge with no city involvement?

How long have commissioners been serving on the commission? Are there no term limits?

Who staffs the commission?

How does a person apply?

Here is the list of commissioners:

  • Rich Kramer (Chair)

  • Debbi Montgomery

  • Kathi Donnelly-Cohen

  • Bridget Faricy

  • Amy Filice

  • George Johnson

  • John Kirr

  • Joyce Maddox

  • David Maeda

  • Gladys Morton

  • Virginia Rybin

  • Brian Alton

  • Chuck Repke

  • Rick Varco

Background info:
Putting RCV on the ballot was done by a citizen group working for two years and gathering thousands of petitions to get it on the ballot. And now, with virtually no public notice, the Charter Commission seems poised to put the question to undo RCV on the November 2017 ballot.

John Mannillo, Saint Paul STRONG spokesperson

651 292-8306

Saint Paul STRONG, as a group, does not take positions on any issues. We are a nonpartisan community-led organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in Saint Paul by encouraging and supporting open and transparent public processes at City Hall, engaging and empowering resident participation, and building a stronger, more inclusive Saint Paul.




Email Deletions & School Board open-meeting practices

Editorial: Opt for more information and more access

By Pioneer Press Editorial Board

February 19, 2017

Some questionable government-data and open-meeting practices in our hometown are in line for corrective action at the Capitol.

St. Paul residents should welcome the scrutiny.

Their city government has an email retention policy, launched in 2015, under which messages in employees’ inboxes are automatically deleted after six months (unless the emails are placed in other folders, where they will be retained for three years). Government watchdogs raise good questions about what’s retained, what’s lost and how the decisions might weaken government transparency and accountability.

Their school board last year sought and won an advisory opinion allowing it to close some meetings. It should be noted that the board ultimately did not exercise that option under the opinion, but the issue is germane. The opinion from the state’s Department of Administration, which advises public bodies under Minnesota’s open meeting law, said the board could hold closed meetings to improve trust, relationships, communications and collaborative problem-solving among its members. Not the public’s business? That’s a stretch.

“We’re lucky to have people who are paying attention to this stuff,” said Matt Ehling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, an open-government organization.

Proposals to address the issues have bipartisan support, and lawmakers should smooth their path to passage.

Included is a bill from Rep. Peggy Scott, an Andover Republican and House Civil Law Committee chair, that “has the right elements,” Ehling told us. With government units implementing varied policies, it calls for standardization with a minimum three-year retention period, and clarifies what’s defined as “correspondence” to include emails, as well as letters, other documents and records.

In recent years, we’ve see such entities as the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office and the city of St. Paul “start squeezing down the amount of time that they’re retaining emails,” said Ehling. Once that happens, “when you make records requests, you’re going to run up against the fact that things have been thrown out.”

The sheriff’s office, for example, is retaining emails for only 30 days “before they do an auto-delete,” he said, “and that’s just not long enough for people to be able to identify an issue and go back and ask for public information about government operations.”

“We’ve seen that trend accelerating,” said Ehling, who chairs his organization’s legislative issues committee.

The concern with policies like St. Paul’s, he said, includes material in the “transitory” category of emails that are bound for deletion. The city’s policy is saying, “Don’t worry about it; let it auto-delete. You don’t have to hold on to that.”

What worries open-records advocates, however, is that there’s “a lot of discretion in there for stuff to fall through the cracks,” Ehling said. “What we’re trying to do is urge that more specificity be brought to that.”

There’s recognition that not everything should be kept forever, Ehling acknowledges, but Scott’s bill seeks to replace vagueness and discretion about what can be disposed of with “better definition.”

The open-meeting measure — from Rep. Jeff Howe, a Rockville Republican — would address an interpretation of the law under which the school-board opinion was rendered. It allows closed meetings for “a public body’s training and planning sessions” and the board was instructed to avoid any issues specific to its official business during the sessions.

Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul, ranking Democrat on the Civil Law Committee, told us he was surprised by the closed-meeting opinion. “That’s certainly not how we expect this to work,” he said. “You can have all the team-building exercises you want. This isn’t an H.R. department… This is the school board. That absolutely should be public.”

The bill is an appropriate fix, he told us.

Its language defines “meeting” as a gathering of a quorum or more of members at which they “discuss, decide or receive information as a group.”

School board meetings are clearly the public’s business. So is the trend by government units’ toward automatic deletion of emails.

The Pioneer Press’ Frederick Melo summed up the conundrum between public officials who defend the practice as necessary housekeeping versus the concerns of government watchdogs, journalists and archivists. He asked: “In the electronic age, how much information is too much information for government to sort and share with taxpayers? When does erasing messages — even seemingly casual ones — violate the public’s right to know?”

We opt for more information and more access. Lawmakers should, too.