Dale Fenrich keeps a shotgun slug on the desk of his insurance office in Litchfield, Minn. It’s the one doctors took out of his upper leg after a hunting accident last fall, in which a friend shot him with a 12-gauge round intended for a deer.

Fenrich, who’s 58 and a Meeker County commissioner, doesn’t really need the slug to remind him of what happened in the woods in November. He can pick up the local paper, the Independent Review, and see the public fracas that has resulted from Meeker County authorities’ refusal to reveal the name of the other hunter.

“It’s just an accident,” Fenrich said last week, puzzled about the public interest in his mishap. “Boy, it’s gotten out of hand.”

Fenrich won’t say who shot him, other than to say people hunt with friends, not enemies, and that he was a firearms safety instructor. No one has suggested that the other hunter did anything wrong: The Wright County attorney’s office, which investigated, called it a “freak accident” that involved no criminal wrongdoing or negligence.

Yet it’s heartening that the Independent Review and its editor, Andrew Broman, have been skeptical about the county’s willingness to withhold the name of someone who accidentally shot a county commissioner.

“It really never was about who that guy was,” Broman said. In a rural county, few editors like to pick fights with the sheriff and prosecutor, but he didn’t want them to feel emboldened to keep more secrets. “It really did come down to an open records issue.”

Broman has doggedly requested reports from the sheriff’s office and county attorneys, posted excerpts online and produced several stories, one of them provocatively headlined, “Who shot Dale Fenrich? Officials withhold identity.”

The law requires police to release the names of people involved in any incident that merits a report. There are exemptions, however, that allow them to keep confidential the names of victims of sexual assault, crime witnesses who fear for their safety, police informants, juvenile crime witnesses and others in sensitive situations.

Most likely, the county is hiding the name of the hunter under the law’s first exemption, which allows them to protect the identity of an undercover officer. I’ve noted in a previous column how this provision can be abused to hide misconduct by creating a class of secret police.

But Broman reported that Meeker County won’t even say which of these categories apply, and the state agency that interprets the public records law says they don’t have to. That strikes me, and others of my ilk, as troubling. Government should have to tell you the reason it’s keeping stuff secret.

When I first heard about this situation last week, it called to mind then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s infamous misfire during a quail hunting trip in 2006. In that case, Cheney accidentally sprayed birdshot into the face and chest of a friend. The White House came under criticism for sitting on the story for a day.

In Meeker County, the public figure was the one on the wrong side of the shotgun barrel. It’s not Fenrich’s first time in the news. The developer and insurance salesman squeaked into office after the 2012 election ended in a tie: He and the incumbent received 1,069 votes each, but election officials determined someone had voted twice. Fenrich won after a ballot was drawn at random, the Independent Review reported.

Last year, Fenrich prevailed in his lawsuit against the city of Litchfield, which had denied him a permit to build a private campground on the west side of Lake Ripley.

Then, on Nov. 8, the opening weekend of the firearms deer season, Fenrich took to the woods with three others. He and the unidentified hunter were 75 yards apart in thick woods. The deer they were tracking took a sudden turn, shotguns fired, a slug ricocheted and Fenrich felt the slug drive deep into his leg.

It barely missed his femoral artery, he said.

I asked Fenrich whether the other hunter would have been allowed to stay anonymous if the slug had killed him.

“That only changes one part of the story,” he said. “It doesn’t change the rest.” Then he said his position on the personnel committee prevents him from expressing his opinion on the matter.

The Independent Review has expressed its opinion, editorializing last week that the county has violated Minnesota’s public records law: “In playing our watchdog role for the community, our larger concern is that the county could conceivably deny future requests using similar opaque reasoning, while leaving the public no way of knowing whether the county’s decisions are being applied in good faith under the Data Practices Act.”

It just makes it worse if the authorities go to these lengths to save a law officer from embarrassment, under the guise of protecting his safety.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.