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Rick Lubbers column: Local city, county officials’ transparency lacking

Officials sometimes withhold public information that residents deserve to know.

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Rick Lubbers
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“Transparency” is a buzzword these days with corporations, schools, hospitals and just about any person or entity that deals regularly with the general public.

Local, state and national governments love the word, too.

The intentions are great. Everyone wants to hear about how institutions are peeling away various veils of secrecy to maintain more open and honest communication with the public. It's true democracy at work.

As members of the press, we will certainly laud any advancements made that increase engagement between our elected officials and their constituents, but it is also our duty as watchdogs of our local government to inform its citizens when that transparency has gotten a bit cloudy.

Tom Olsen, the News Tribune’s crime and courts reporter, has been seeking data for months that Minnesota law says is public concerning Duluth police officer Tyler Leibfried and Duluth firefighter Conrad Sunde, with varying amounts of success.

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Leibfried is the officer who said he thought he heard gunshots, then shot into an apartment last September, injuring a man. Sunde is accused of allegedly attacking a woman along a Duluth trail last summer.
Olsen’s questions were not complicated, and they didn't cross over into an area of protected personal information.

He asked the city of Duluth whether there were internal investigations of Leibfried and Sunde, whether they remained employed and what the city was paying them.

After much back-and-forth and several friendly reminders, the city eventually confirmed those investigations, even though the answer was withheld for reasons unknown for weeks. Olsen finally learned Sunde’s salary and that he remains employed.

Likewise, the city eventually said Leibfried is still employed, yet they still haven't revealed his salary.

Why not? That information is just as public as the firefighter’s salary. Yet we wait — as do Duluth’s taxpayers.

The underlying message to the News Tribune and city residents is that the public has no right to know how its tax dollars are spent.

Olsen has followed up, again, on this issue, asking for that information.

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None of us in the newsroom holds a law degree, but we’re fortunate to have someone on speed dial who does: Mark Anfinson, an attorney who is an expert in First Amendment and information law and has served as counsel to Minnesota newspapers for several years.

He has backed our position that this information is public and should be readily accessible to the public.

“(They) are not correctly applying the law,” Anfinson told the News Tribune. “The information you seek is explicitly classified as public personnel data under section 13.43 of the Data Practices Act. The fact that the officer has been formally charged makes no difference in the public classification of that data.”

He also explained that the many lengthy delays in receiving the information was out of compliance with the law.

“The delay here is way beyond what the law prescribes — which is that agencies must respond to public data requests promptly and within a reasonable time (determined by the scope and complexity of the request),” Anfinson said. “In this case, you’ve asked for information that is pretty straightforward, and that should be readily available to the city and its police department. It should therefore have been provided within a few days at the most.”

In this case, it’s been a few months.

In another example, city reporter Peter Passi followed the story of K-9 officer Marc Johnson and the off-duty dog-bite incident in Warroad, Minnesota, that resulted in a civil lawsuit against him and the city.

RELATED STORY: Duluth City Council approves $50,000 settlement for police dog bite
Passi asked the city whether any complaints or charges had been filed against Johnson.

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His requests were repeatedly met with a brick wall, despite those responses being clearly outside the intent of Minnesota’s Data Practices Act.

Anfinson agreed.

“The city attorney’s response is, to put it mildly, frustrating,” Anfinson told Passi. “It’s also quite clearly wrong. The civil investigative data classification (in 13.39) cannot be used to override public access to data explicitly and specifically classified as public, such as whether a complaint against an employee has been received.”

Anfinson even wrote a letter to the city attorney’s office asking them to rethink their response. To date, that wall between city officials and their citizens remains in place.

We at the News Tribune are disturbed by this trend to deny citizens their basic right to know how their tax dollars are spent, and are disheartened by the ways city officials have stiff-armed the press and delayed answers to very basic questions. Even when some information dribbles out of City Hall, the data is so old that the content becomes less valuable to the public.

Another recent example comes from St. Louis County, where this week two sheriff’s deputies were cleared of any wrongdoing after fatally shooting a suspect in Mountain Iron in December.

Olsen asked if the deputies involved have returned to work or still remain on any form of leave.

While receiving a much quicker response than he has gotten from the city of Duluth, Olsen originally received another no, but following the online publishing of this column on Friday morning, St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman contacted the News Tribune and said that the deputies "have both been on standard administrative leave since the incident on December 5, 2020 and will transition back to work soon with my full support."

The News Tribune appreciates the release of this information because these are not questions we ask and seek answered for courtesy’s sake. It is our local government’s legal obligation to be accessible and transparent to the public.

We hope that officials immediately re-examine their foot-dragging with answers to data requests, eliminate the secrecy and incomplete nature of their answers and begin following the letter of the state’s public information laws. We also hope the residents of Duluth and St. Louis County join this chorus and demand that their elected officials engage in true transparency.

They are the ones, after all, truly being kept in the dark.

Rick Lubbers is editor of the News Tribune. Write to him at rlubbers@duluthnews.com or call 218-723-5301. Follow him @ricklubbersdnt on Twitter.

Editor's note: This column was updated at 11 p.m. Friday with information from the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department on the status of the two deputies involved in a fatal shooting in December.

Related Topics: ST. LOUIS COUNTY
Rick Lubbers has been in his role since 2014 and at the News Tribune since 2005. Previous stops include the Superior Telegram (1999-2005) and Budgeteer News (1997-1999). Prior to that, he worked at the St. Cloud Times and Annandale Advocate in Minnesota, and the Greenville Daily News and Grand Rapids Press in Michigan. He received his journalism degree at Central Michigan University.
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