DULUTH – The granite palazzo that is Duluth’s City Hall has presided over the downtown hillside since 1929. I came here last week to see whether the building’s foundations were crumbling under the weight of public demands for information.
After climbing marble stairs to the fourth floor, I was shown to a room with a laptop computer specially prepared for me, with a digital folder containing what I had asked for in July: every data request received by the city of Duluth from Jan. 1, 2016, through the middle of this year.
Why would I ever want to look at such a thing?
Because there’s an intense battle happening right now across Minnesota over the public’s right to see the internal communications of government. Cities, counties and school districts want the right to say no to people who want to see voluminous numbers of e-mails and other records. But this debate is missing something crucial: data.
So back in July, when the Duluth city staff presented the idea of charging $35 an hour for any data request that takes more than 15 minutes, I decided to ask: How big a burden are these? Because if city officials say it’s such a massive problem, surely they can demonstrate it.
In fact, it took city staff members at least 14 hours to gather two spreadsheets and about 200 other individual requests. The city said it would cost $527 for copies. It was cheaper for me to take the bus to Duluth for a free, in-person inspection.
The two spreadsheets documented every time people asked for a police or fire report. That added up to more than 5,600 requests, most of which took probably a few minutes to retrieve and hand over.
Others were also routine: A former or current employee’s personnel file. Permits or code violations on a particular property.
Here’s how many requests were made to read e-mails sent between city officials.
Eight. In 18 months.
Hardly enough to bring government to a halt.
I walked down the hall to meet M. Alison Lutterman, the deputy city attorney who handles data requests. Lutterman told me I was asking the wrong question. It isn’t the number of data requests. It’s how much data people want.
She noted another recent voluminous request for e-mails, from a political opposition research organization getting a start on the 2018 congressional campaign. Every one has to be reviewed to make sure nothing secret or private is released, she said, so that drags out the process.
What about the benefits that come from citizens scrutinizing the operations of government? Ask the policymakers, not me, she said.
So I went to see the chief administrative officer, David Montgomery. I told him the number of requests seemed fairly puny, and certainly not enough to overwhelm the government. He didn’t disagree.
“As a city organization, we are fully supportive of transparency, of public involvement,” Montgomery said. The city has “finite resources” to deal with requests, but it doesn’t want to do anything that would create a “real impediment” to people being involved, he said.
Mandatory fees for data requests seem to be off the table, for now. So I rode home feeling more hopeful.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota League of Cities, a lobbying organization to which Duluth belongs, wants the state Supreme Court to give cities the right to reject public record requests on the grounds that they’re too much work. The brief it and other groups filed presents no data to justify its argument.
Because there isn’t any.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.