Attorneys for the city of Minneapolis said Thursday they would back off their earlier demand that a small government watchdog organization – which is currently suing the city for access to police records – hand over a list of Social Security numbers and marital statuses for each of its board members and volunteers.
The Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office made the formal request as part of the ongoing lawsuit, first filed in 2021 by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) and attorneys at the ACLU.
The city is still demanding the watchdog group to hand over a trove of documents so extensive that MNCOGI representatives suggested it essentially amounted to government bullying.
“I can’t speculate on what the city’s intent is, but I can tell you how this looks and feels,” said Leita Walker, MNCOGI’s attorney. “It feels intimidating, and it feels as if people are now on notice that if they ask the city for data, the city will come back at them with really invasive questions.”
Among these questions was a demand that MNCOGI divulge its sources: The city demanded the organization identify the city officials whom they’d cited in their original 2021 suit, as well as any Minneapolis City Council members or Police Conduct Oversight Commission members that they’d contacted.
MNCOGI is not a news organization, but many members of its board are current or former journalists. Since 1973, Minnesota law has shielded journalists from being compelled to hand over confidential sources or unpublished materials.
In a statement, City Attorney Kristyn Anderson framed the requests as typical for the “discovery” phase of a lawsuit, in which parties can request access to the other side’s documents and witness. She said her office had requested similar “demographic information” in previous cases.
However, after questions from several media organizations including MinnPost, Anderson’s office later said the city would amend its discovery request to no longer demand as much private information about MNCOGI board members. According to this second statement, Anderson’s office will no longer request Social Security numbers, nor for information about dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, education levels or marital status.
Before Anderson’s office walked back this request, Walker said it was “extremely atypical” to demand the Social Security numbers of a legal opponent, and that “the vast majority of what they’re asking for has nothing to do with the issues in this litigation.”
MNCOGI could still object to the city’s discovery request, and it’s possible a judge could decide the city’s demands are out of bounds.
“If the Plaintiff has an issue with discovery served by the city, we would expect to hear from them directly and resolve any disputes as they are resolved through the normal litigation process,” Anderson said in a statement.
When asked for comment, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s office referred to Anderson’s statement.
MNCOGI describes itself as an “all-volunteer freedom of information council” which pushes for greater government transparency and stronger open records laws through both “legislative advocacy and litigation.”
MNCOGI’s Minneapolis case stems from a public records request the group filed in February 2021. In the request, the group asked the city to release all records of cases in which Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officers received “coaching” after an allegation of misconduct. MPD critics contend the department uses coaching instead of discipline too frequently, including in cases that should merit more serious consequences.
The city denied MNCOGI’s records request, arguing that personnel records are public only when disciplinary action is involved, and coaching didn’t amount to disciplinary action. MNCOGI disagreed and sued for the records the following June. The case is still potentially more than a year away from trial.
- Produce “documents, communications and statements” showing the damages the organization sustained from being denied access to the records – a fairly standard request in discovery in a civil suit.
- “Produce any and all documents that constitute or relate in any manner to any communications or statements made by (MNCOGI) or anyone else relating to the facts and circumstances alleged” in the group’s suit, further specifying that any “social media posts, messages, recordings or materials” related to coaching in the Minneapolis Police Department ought to be handed over.
- Turn over any communications with council members about police coaching or discipline, “regardless of whether the communication was with a person who was a member of the City Council at the time of the communication.”
- “Identify any members of the media with whom you have communicated concerning coaching or discipline (within MPD or the city).”
All of this is normal for a discovery request, the City Attorney’s statement contended: “It is typical to seek discovery of information within the plaintiff’s knowledge, including any communications regarding the issues involved in the litigation.”
Walker disagreed, saying many of the city’s requests sought “highly irrelevant information.”
MNCOGI has until Sept. 22 to either object or provide responsive documents to the city.