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Township records can be exception to state open records law

BEMIDJI - Attorneys agree that the Data Practices Act does not apply to rural townships, but one says the issue is not that simple.

The state's Data Practices Act was revised in 2001 to clarify that the towns affected by the law are those that exercise powers more in line with those of a city. Typically, those are towns in the seven-county metropolitan area.

Troy Gilchrist, a township attorney with Kennedy & Graven, said the revision confirmed how he and others had already been interpreting the statute.

"It was a bit of an unsettled question," he said Wednesday, one day after a township meeting in which the board released a statement about an ongoing dispute with a landowner, who wanted access to numerous records.

Most townships, except the more populated ones in the Twin Cities region, do not have full-time personnel needed to comply with the technical record-keeping required by the Act, said Mark Anfinson, a Twin Cities attorney who represents numerous Minnesota newspapers, including the Pioneer.

But while the Data Practices Act does not apply the townships, Anfinson said, government records are still presumptively open to the public.

Through common law - law that is developed based on court decisions and not legislative action - courts have stated that we live in a democracy and government here is by the people and of the people.

"There is a natural presumptive flow from that holding that public records are presumptively public," Anfinson said.

Common law, Anfinson said, predates the Data Practices Law, which was developed in the late 1970s.

Gilchrist is a township attorney whose clients include Helga Township, which is involved in ongoing litigation with resident Doug Crosby about the excavation of his property.

While the Data Practices Act does not apply to townships, Gilchrist said townships do try to fulfill data requests when received.

"Towns typically will try to make a reasonable effort to allow access," he said.