Judge says St. Paul ‘did not comply’ with state records law

Save Our Street sues St. Paul over transparency in Summit Ave. project

Save Our Street sues St. Paul over transparency in Summit Ave. project

A Ramsey County Court Judge, in an Order, said the City of St. Paul has not been fully transparent and may be in violation of state law for its response — or lack thereof — to citizens’ request for information in relation to the City’s Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, which would include a controversial bicycle path.

In the name of safety, St. Paul Parks and Recreation officials want to build a raised bike trail along historic Summit Avenue that would be separated from the street by a curb.

A grassroots group of residents, ‘Save Our Street,’ are against the idea for a number of reasons, including the loss of mature trees and parking that would come with the project.

‘Save Our Street’ member and Dorsey & Whitney LLP lawyer Bob Cattanach sued the City in March for failing to respond to several of his requests for public records since July of 2022 and requested a pause on the project pending the fulfillment of said requests.

There are public interests on both sides. On the one hand, government officials should be held to provide information that the public feels needs to meaningfully comment on the project. On the other hand, if the hearing process is paused as a result, the City risks losing funding.

“This is not a game of hide and seek, but that’s how they’re playing,” Cattanach said in an interview Tuesday.

His more than 20 requests, as listed on Judge Patrick Diamond’s mid-April Order, began an effort to answer questions like, “What alternatives did [the City] study other than Summit Avenue?” Cattanach explained.

“They sat on that request for months and months and months,” he said.

“I think there’s a principle at stake here much bigger than a bike trail. This is about, the citizens get to see, you know, the inner workings of…the people whose salaries they pay.”

It’s a right journalists use often, and it’s available to everyone in Minnesota. That is, the access to information that is already considered public but organized and kept by government officials. (Think police reports, financial records, or even email communications between public employees.)

Getting those records, though, requires navigating a state law, The Minnesota Data Practices Act.

Cattanach on Tuesday believed that the City of St. Paul was still withholding records related to about half of his requests.

“I wish I could tell you with any precision, but I’ll bet it could be over 1,000 documents that they produced only after I brought the lawsuit,” he said.

“Their goal pretty clearly has been [to] keep the documents hidden. Rush the thing through getting an approval by city council, and then who cares, it’s too late, too little, too late for their document disclosures.”

“It looks to me and looks to the judge like there’s a real question about whether they’ve complied with state law,” University of Minnesota media ethics and law professor Jane Kirtley chimed in Tuesday.

“In sum, the City’s process in responding to Cattanach’s [Data Practices Act] requests did not comply with section 13.03 because, in practically all instances, it was not directed to the responsible authority or a designee and, more importantly, was designed to and did treat a request on the entire City government as a request to a single department,” Judge Diamond’s Order read.

“In addition, the record does not show the response within the single department was
appropriate and timely.”

The City “has offered few reasons for delay in its responses,” Diamond continued, adding, “This factor favors Cattanach and Intervenors.”

The Data Practices Act requires government agencies to cite a statutory exemption for denying a request, which has not happened to date, according to the Order.

The law also requires that, if the agency is unable to provide responsive records at the time the request is made, they “be supplied as soon as reasonably possible.”

“Well, I would not say that they were timely,” Kirtley said of St. Paul’s response to Cattanach’s requests.

“To me, it’s refreshing to see a judge take a hard look at how responsive a governmental entity is being and saying, ‘You’re not telling everything you should be doing. And there’s really no excuse for it.'”

In response Tuesday, a City spokesperson argued officials “have provided an open engagement process with the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan” and have “already provided [Cattanach] with hundreds of emails, documents and other data responsive to [Cattanach’s] various requests in accordance with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.”

St. Paul has until noon on Wednesday to fill in the missing pieces, according to Judge Diamond’s Order, and on Thursday, the City will be called to testify and be cross-examined by Cattanach and other counsel.