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.