Every so often I check the Minnesota Department of Administration's IPAD web site. On the site is information on our state laws that relate to access to government data and privacy rights. It also lists opinions which the Commissioner of Administration has made decisions on as it relates to interpretation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
Last week I read the latest opinion issued by the Commissioner. What a doozy. It states that the City of St Paul can make not public or secret identities of contractors, subcontractors, and almost any one else that is involved with the new construction of the Planned Parenthood facilities.
Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota (PPMNS) is building a new facility in St. Paul. In order to build, PPMNS must file building plans, get building permits, and allow inspection of the construction and get approval by city officials.
What is so unusual about the Commissioner's opinion in my judgement is the sweep of it to which St Paul is allowed to broadly decide what information should be public. I have never seen an opinion like it before. The Commissioner in the opinion states that St Paul should not use it as "a blanket classification scheme." I wondered about that so I visited the St Paul agency that oversees the permits and construction. The name of the agency is the Department of Safety and Inspections. (DSI)
I called and visited with DSI staff about the opinion and how they were interpreting it. I can understand why building plans, security, layout scheme and data specifically related to those areas of the facility can be not public per the opinion, but anything more I question. The staff I met with indicated to me that DSI is taking the position that every document filed with them, in their entirety, architectural plans and other documents related to the construction of the PPMNS building is not public or "security information".
This would mean the names of the contractors, subcontractors, and others also would not be public. I could see no rationale for that. The opinion says that companies that have worked on PPMNS projects have been subject to threats and boycott campaigns.
Threats towards parties that are involved in the PPMNS project cannot be tolerated by anyone and need to be dealt with immediately and investigated by law enforcement authorities. I have no knowledge as to the degree of the threats, but I do not see it as blanket justification for closing public access to all identities of suppliers, vendors, subcontractors as it seems the City is doing.
Another side to this situation is what about the general permits that are public and collected by another part of DSI, for plumbing, electrical, and other venues of the building process for the PPMNS project. When I questioned DSI staff as to whether or not the general permit data are public I was told that they may be applying the scope of the Commissioner's opinion to that data. The City Attorney may be reviewing that question currently.
I do not believe that data that is public should be made not public under security information without without a very well documented, intensive and thorough review. As to the plans of the building which involve layout and security the case has been made. Identities no. The City of St Paul is interpreting the opinion too broadly now and may in the future to other permit data. Are they using it as "blanket" for all public data to the PPMNS project?
The public has a right to know who builds structures in their communities for a number of reasons from safety to accountability. Another aspect to this situation is that some people in our community may have a viewpoint different than PPMNS. A segment of our community would like to let people know what businesses are doing work on the PPMNS project or public members may not want to do work with companies or individuals who work on the project.
I spoke with Don Gemberling about the Commissioner's opinion. Mr. Gemberling is former director of the division now known as IPAD. He told me about a Minnesota Supreme Court that was decided in 1978 with similar issues.
The court decision was named: Minnesota Medical Association vs State of Minnesota, 274 NW2d 84. The case held that names of all physicians, clinics, and hospitals that had performed abortions with state monies are open to public scrutiny. An argument used against having identities to be public was that there would be boycotts, pickets, and other threats. 33 years later similar arguments, different times, yes.
But it is a case in point not to allow the City of St Paul to arbitrarily deny the public access to public data of the PPMNS project, particularly identities of the contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, vendors, and others.