Loophole Exempts 1,800 MN Townships from Open Records Law

Minnesota politicians have long touted the state’s commitment to transparency in government. Yet from the very beginning the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the state version of the federal Freedom of Information Act, has exempted townships–the smallest, yet most ubiquitous form of local government by far, from the requirement to open their records to journalists and taxpayers.

Minnesota has some 1,782 townships located in rural areas in all 87 counties that provide basic functions like road maintenance and polling places, among other services. That’s more than twice as many townships as cities (853) in the state, but townships still get a pass when it comes to transparency.

Now the legendary northern Minnesota Timberjay newspaper makes the case it’s time to hold townships to the same standard as other levels of government, partly out of frustration in dealing with a St. Louis County township.

The ongoing lack of access to many records in Greenwood Township is a case study in why it’s a bad idea to exempt any branch of government from the requirements of a law, particularly one that’s designed to ensure openness and transparency. The town board’s current open defiance of requests for public records by its own citizens as well as this newspaper, should prompt lawmakers in St. Paul to revisit the exemption in the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) that applies to the state’s townships.

There were plausible reasons the smallest unit of local government was exempted in the post-Watergate days when the Data Practices Act went on the books. But the paper argues that technology has largely eliminated those concerns.

At the time, many small townships could rightfully claim that responding to a voluminous records request could be a challenge. Many clerks operated out of their homes, and few likely had ready access to copy machines (which were very expensive back then). These days, however, the vast majority of township clerks maintain most of their current records on computer, or certainly are capable of doing so.

Yet the lack of a requirement for townships to respond to public information requests has led to a standoff between Greenway Township and the Timberjay.

While most townships make reasonable efforts to comply with their residents’ requests for records, some township officials seem oblivious to the importance of transparency, and why it actually helps to increase faith in local officials, rather the other way around. After all, when a governing body keeps records and information under wraps, it’s hardly surprising that it erodes trust. People rightfully wonder what the township has to hide.
Why are residents of townships the only ones in Minnesota who have to wonder? There’s no longer any reason that residents of rural townships should be second-class citizens when it comes to public access to records. It’s time to shed some sunlight on township governance.

Shouldn’t government transparency and accountability for taxpayers should be a given regardless of their zip code?