It seemed like such a simple request.
Last December, what was supposed to be a routine budget adoption meeting by the Minneapolis City Council turned into an hours-long confrontation, as activists who had been protesting the Nov. 15, 2015 shooting death of Jamar Clark by a city police officer packed city hall.
Their mission was to block a budget amendment that had been announced just hours before via a press release. “The second amendment introduced by Council Member [Blong] Yang, with the support of Mayor [Betsy] Hodges, proposed $605,000 in one-time spending for safety and accessibility improvements at the Fourth Precinct to better serve officers and the community.”
No details were released about the needs of the precinct, which had been the site of an 18-day occupation by protesters. So opponents filled that vacuum of information by claiming the money was to fortify the police station on Plymouth Avenue against future protesters, and they used the hashtag #BlongNBetsysFortress to rally people to attend.
But the budget meeting didn’t end up providing much information, either. After hours of testimony — and hours more of work by the council on other budget amendments — the 2016 $1.24 billion city spending plan was approved, without the fourth precinct amendment even being offered. Neither Hodges nor Yang would answer questions afterward about what the fourth precinct money would have been spent on.
So, to try to find out, MinnPost submitted a request on Dec. 22, 2015 under Minnesota’s version of the Freedom of Information Act, known as the Data Practices Act. The request sought all data and correspondence related to the protest and encampment at the precinct — including information about security at the station, damage to the building and responses by city officials to current conditions there.
It also asked for any information about requests for new appropriations by Hodges or the Minneapolis Police Department, specifically why $605,000 for “safety and accessibility improvements” was needed.
And then we waited. And waited. And waited.
Minnesota law requires DPA requests be met in an “appropriate and prompt manner,” but state courts have not defined what that means. And now, as the council prepares to take up the city’s 2017 budget on Wednesday, the City of Minneapolis has still not fulfilled MinnPost’s DPA request, which is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary. A few documents have been provided by Hodges’ office. And the police department has released what are called “incident action plans,” daily reports on activities at the fourth precinct during the occupation.
But communications between city officials and politicians about the occupation and the security needs of the precinct have not yet been provided, despite myriad inquiries.
A long, not-so-strange trip
Our initial request went to Alexandra Fetissoff, then serving as Hodges’ communications director under a temporary contract. When Fetissoff left city hall, she passed it along to her successor, David Prestwood.
In an email sent on March 18, MinnPost asked Prestwood and City Attorney Susan Segal for a status on the DPA request, which had been sent almost 90 days before. “I’m not sure anyone could argue that going on three months without a reply is a reasonable amount of time,” we wrote.
Six weeks later, on May 4, Prestwood wrote that he was seeking a status update, that documents from the mayor’s office had been located. And on May 5, Prestwood wrote, the request was finally filed with the clerk’s office.
But then, on June 23 — six weeks after the previous update — Prestwood wrote that he had discovered that since the DPA had been sent to the mayor’s office and not the city clerk’s office, the clerk had no record and had taken no action.
It’s worth noting here that under the state law, it’s the responsibility of the mayor’s office, not the requester, to forward requests to the clerk’s office if that is the process created by the city.
Around the same time, MinnPost received an email from Ruth Carey, the assistant supervisor of the Minneapolis Police Department’s records information unit. She said she had begun working on the request and asked for a list of search terms and names that would be used for what is dubbed “an email pull,” i.e. a search of city email servers for messages that contain certain words and names.
So we drafted a list of search terms and sent it to Carey. That was June 23, or seven months after the first DPA request was filed.
Five days later, on June 28, the mayor’s office released all documents it said were responsive to the request — including one dated Dec. 8, 2015 — that talked about convening an urgent meeting in the mayor’s office to prepare a budget amendment for the next evening’s final budget adoption.
“No later than this afternoon we will need to nail down proposed MPD investments,” Hodges wrote to senior staff. “Notably, we need to enumerate the damages to the Fourth Precinct and proposed improvements to the Fourth Precinct that will take a budget action.”
The documents also show that the mayor’s office was aware that some members of the city council had sent the news of the fourth precinct budget request to constituents.
“Though I certainly support ensuring all of our public facilities are safe and well-maintained for employees and the public, I have concerns about this last-minute proposed funding for the Fourth Precinct,” wrote Council Member Lisa Bender in a bulletin to her Ward 10 constituents.
Council Member Cam Gordon wrote to Hodges that while he supported a different proposed budget amendment by Hodges and Yang — one aimed at accelerating police training in procedural justice, implicit bias and crisis-intervention — he could not support the money for the precinct building.
“If we are going to invest 600,000 here, I think we should let it go through more of a process,” Gordon wrote to Hodges. “It is a decision worthy of more time.”
Gordon, however, said he had been assured that the measure had enough votes to pass regardless of his vote and he promised to “try to limit the rhetoric.”
And that was pretty much it.
The bulk of our DPA request — communications among and between city politicians and staff in finance and the police department — remained unfulfilled.
Several weeks later, on July 15, the MPD’s Carey wrote that she had some documents related to the fourth precinct occupation but that she hadn’t heard back from the IT Department about the emails and would inquire. MinnPost followed up with Carey on August 11. She said the incident action plans should be sent soon and that “another request for status/ETA on the email pull was sent to our IT Dept today.”
Another prompt was sent to Carey on August 11. A follow-up with Prestwood on August 18 brought this reply: “MPD should be reaching out to you if they haven’t already. Let me know how it goes.”
But it wasn’t until two months later, and yet another request, when Carey forwarded the incident action plans from the fourth precinct as well as some memos regarding damage to the building during the occupation. The reports mentioned repairs to the east parking lot gate that had been damaged after being struck by a car, as well as reports of broken windows at the building.
Carey said there would be “more forthcoming.”
On October 20, when asked about the delay, MPD spokesperson Scott Seroka asked for and received a copy of the original MinnPost request, which had been first sent 10 months earlier.
On Nov. 30, more than 11 months after the city received the DPA request, MinnPost once again asked Carey for the data. Included on the email was Seroka, City Clerk Casey Carl and Hodges’ current communications director, Eric Fought.
A day later, Carey replied: “I have determined that the email pull was never completed. This is completely my fault. I have contacted IT and advised on my oversight. They had the request months ago but were waiting for me to get back to them with clarification on the search criteria which I did not.”
Carey promised an update followed by an “expedited review cycle” once the emails have been pulled.
Why it matters
The conflict over the proposed budget amendment still resonates among council members. In a recent newsletter to constituents in her Ward 9, Council Member Alondra Cano encouraged residents to attend this Wednesday’s budget adoption.
As Cano reminded constituents, last year “I was given a few hours notice that Council Members Blong Yang and Barb Johnson planned to make a motion to invest $600,000 to expand the Fourth Precinct.” Cano credited the people who showed up to protest with killing the amendment.
That led to Council President Barbara Johnson to criticize Cano, though without mentioning her by name, at then end of last week’s budget markup meeting. “I just want to make it very clear that our motion was not at the time to expand the Fourth Precinct,” Johnson said. “It was to deal with the property damage that had been created. I hesitate to do this but when I am called out, I really want to clarify about what actually happened.”
“Clarify” is an interesting word to use in that context, given that a year after the contentious meeting, the city of Minneapolis has not released documents that would make it perfectly clear what, exactly, the money would have gone for.