The following article appeared in the February 11, 2008, issue of the Southwest Journal. Unfortunately, there are a couple of inaccuracies–the Data Practices personnel is only part time (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and does not get a full time salary as indicated. Nor does she get a benefits package. The current arrangement is costing the Park Board approximately $42,000 which is one-half of the stated and incorrect $88,686. Mary was provided with inaccurate information. Also we question the figure of 160 data requests over a four month period. Otherwise, the article successfully tackles a challenging topic.

Park Board paper wars

Some residents say park officials are slow to respond to public information requests

In the late 1970s, Minnesota legislators passed a law that allows residents to obtain any and all public information from the government with three simple words: Data Practices Act (DPA). From copies of financial documents to memos and proposals, the vast majority of information is out there, open to any set of curious eyes.

Unfortunately, collecting data from the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB) — one of the city’s independent boards — isn’t always easy.

Citing the DPA, interested parties can anonymously or openly issue requests for certain documents or make standing requests in which they regularly receive information about a topic as the data is created. The Park Board is required to provide the information — in whatever form it is requested unless that form is impossible to produce — as quickly as possible. And, if the data is confusing, the MPRB must explain it to the requestor in a way that is

Some residents claim the Park Board takes far too long to fulfill requests for information. They say that, despite repeated requests to multiple employees, they’ve waited months to get copies of documents such as project proposals, images and emails. And sometimes when requesters do finally get the information, it’s old news, having already gone before the commissioners.

Park Board officials, meanwhile, claim they’re being overloaded with requests by a handful of people who only want to hurt the system, not help it.

What’s the big hold up?

In late January of 2006, Lisa Hondros, a Nicollet Island resident and member of Friends of the Riverfront, a group that has fought against the proposed DeLaSalle High School athletic complex, requested from the Park Board copies of all sketches and documents related to potential development plans at Parade Stadium, 400 Kenwood Pkwy. The group was worried that MPRB Superintendent Jon Gurban was planning to build new facilities and fields without board approval.

A few days later, Director of Planning Judd Rietkerk sent her a single concept drawing of the field that included a realigned road and baseball, soccer and practice fields — not far off from its current state of two fields and the original parkway.

In March, Hondros met an illustrator who showed her several renderings of Parade he’d drawn in 2005 that included an event center, grandstands and a sports training facility — precisely the kind of development about which Hondros was worried. She resubmitted her request to the Park Board, noting that she knew additional drawings existed. Two weeks later, she was allowed to come to MPRB headquarters and view the rest of the pictures, but staff did not respond to her request for electronic copies.

“It’s the rare time that they give anything right away,” said Hondros. “For the most part, you just have to ask and ask and ask. They keep waiting for you to give up and go away.”

Rietkerk couldn’t recall the incident but said that giving a DPA request to a staff person, rather than the Park Board’s designated DPA officer, won’t always result in a fulfilled request. But it wasn’t until June of 2007 that the board hired full-time DPA Coordinator Beth Broich to handle the requests. Before then, General Manager Don Siggelkow, who handles operations and recreation, was in charge of processing DPA requests.

Friends of the Riverfront also ran into trouble getting information from the Park Board after issuing a standing request to review documents regarding parking on Nicollet Island. Hondros said they simply wanted to understand parking on the island, from special event parking to arrangements between DeLaSalle High School and the MPRB. The group submitted its request in June of 2006 and got no response, so they continued to resubmit the request every few months for two years.

Finally, Edna Brazatis, a member of Friends of the Riverfront, received an e-mail from the Park Board’s attorney informing her that the MPRB had provided her with all the available documents relating to her request, though Brazatis claims never to have received anything.

According to Siggelkow, the DPA officer is at the mercy of busy Park Board employees who don’t have a lot of time to search through their files. “You only can give what you receive, and I don’t go into people’s files,” he said. “You simply submit the request and then you respond and give what you have.”

From August to November 2007, the Park Board received 160 DPA requests — 36 of which were standing requests lasting six months.

According to Broich’s supervisor, Karen Robinson, project information, correspondence related to given topics, legal and staff costs, and budget numbers are among the most commonly requested documents.

“In general it takes two weeks [to fulfill the requests],” Robinson explained. “I think we’re fairly responsive.”

Unfortunately, commissioner meetings take place roughly every two weeks, so if a resident requests information about a topic discussed in a meeting at the beginning of the month, he or she may still be waiting for the data during the second meeting. And by then, commissioners may have already voted on the topic.

Elizabeth Wielinski, co-founder of MPRB watchdog group Park Watch, has submitted numerous DPA requests to government agencies around the metro area and says that getting information from the city or county is a far easier task.

“I didn’t limit myself to the Park Board,” she said. “When I contact [the city or county], you sent out requests for information, they get back to you right away. If they’ve got electronic data, they send it to you right away.”

Craig Steiner, Minneapolis’ records manager and the city’s sole DPA officer, said that on average, DPA requests for the city only take a few hours to two days to fulfill. He receives about 100 applications a year — often from people wanting City Council actions, police information, or inspections data — and a handful of large requests that can take up to several months to process.

Getting information from the Park Board isn’t only a problem for the public. On more than one occasion, Arlene Fried, co-founder of Park Watch, says she’s given important documents to commissioners that they didn’t already have, such as data about a $290,000 parkway realignment project at Parade Stadium.

“We do need to do a better job of communicating with each other, with our constituents,” said Southeast Commissioner Scott Vreeland, who admits he has received Park Board documents from members of the public in the past.

Former Southwest Commissioner Vivian Mason, who left office in 2005, said that “getting information, even as a commissioner, from staff was very, very difficult.”

She remembered that when Gurban was elected in 2004, he directed staff to notify him of all e-mails from commissioners requesting information. “That was very alarming,” she said.

According to Gurban, he was trying to manage the organization by keeping everyone in the loop about what was going on. “I think the staff, quite frankly, appreciates it,” he explained. “It prevents a divide-and-conquer sort of thing.”

An ongoing battle

Controversy over the Park Board’s slow response to data requests has been brewing for months. Some commissioners feel that spending $88,686 for the salary, benefits and operating costs of having a DPA coordinator is unnecessary.

“I’d much rather have our resources be out in the community, benefiting the community, than a resource that’s responding to three or four people,” said Gurban, referring to members of groups like Park Watch and Friends of the Riverfront. “Who elected them to say this is a good thing, bad thing, whatever?”

Southwest Commissioner Bob Fine agrees that the number of DPA requests is burdensome. “What bothers me is they’re going after one agency and costing us a lot of money. There is no group like this going after the schools or the library,” he said. “They just have an incentive to try and hurt the system.”

Mark Anfinson, a media attorney who specializes in the DPA, said that in rare cases, members of the public have used the law as harassment, issuing oodles of requests in an attempt to overburden the government agency.

“[But] the Data Practices Act contains a very powerful presumption that that is not the case,” he explained. “In all but the most extraordinary cases, the citizen claiming to need the information is going to get the benefit of the doubt.”