The recent article “Townships have a records loophole” (April 5) may have left some readers with an impression that township governments arbitrarily withhold information from the public. I write to you on behalf of townships statewide to set the “record” straight regarding the sound reasons that most townships are not subject to Minnesota’s public records law, the Data Practices Act.
The township exemption from the law is not a “loophole,” as was claimed in the article. It is a decision intentionally made by the Minnesota Legislature. When the Data Practices Act was originally introduced, the Legislature debated whether townships should be included. It intentionally did not subject townships to the act because it found: Township officers are essentially volunteers; townships generally do not have full-time employees or have regular business hours; townships do not usually generate or obtain the types of data intended to be protected, and townships simply lack the number of requests that other entities receive.
This exemption has been subject to reconsideration. In 2007, the Information Policy and Analysis Division of the Minnesota Department of Administration, which oversees compliance with the Data Practices Act, explored whether the township exemption remained justifiable. After researching the issue and spending two weeks discussing it with township officials across the state, the division decided not to seek to have the exemption removed.
In training that our organization provides to township officials, it is stressed that, despite the exemption, townships should comply with reasonable requests for information. And that it is only when information requests become harassing or overly burdensome that consideration should be given to not responding. And that, then, the reasons should be articulated. City and county governments are full with stories of the Data Practices Act being used not to inform the public but to consume staff time and waste tax dollars.
Grass-roots township government is more than a self-appointed title. Townships are the only government entity in which residents have a direct say in governance. Service as an elected township officer is often done out of a sense of obligation to the community; many officials don’t even get their start by running for office but are instead “drafted” as a write-in candidate. The responsibility to their township and its grass-roots element is something that an overwhelming majority of township officers take very seriously. The insinuation that a township officer, particularly the officer identified in the article, would deny access to information simply because the request is “annoying” or the person is “disgruntled” is based on opinion and not on fact.
Gary Pedersen is executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships.