A question of public information

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The issue of public access to information maintained by Stillwater County is becoming a topic of increasing discussion.

During the public comment portion of the regularly held Tuesday morning Stillwater County Commission agenda meeting this week, county Treasurer Jerry Friend raised this issue in reference to an email sent by Commissioner Steve Riveland to county department heads on Nov. 29, 2022, that instructed all Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests to be directed to the commissioner’s administrator.

That email was also sent to the News and read as follows: “Good afternoon all, As of today please direct anyone who wishes to file a FOIA request to Kisha at the Commissioners office. Kisha will forward said request(s) to legal for review. Thank you.”

Riveland told Friend at Tuesday’s meeting that county offices are not expected to do anything other than what they have been doing and that more clarification would be forthcoming.

WHAT IS A FOIA REQUEST

A FOIA request is generally made by a member of the public — or more commonly by the media — that formally asks a county, city, state or federal government agency for information that is public record, but not readily accessible to the public. Normally, FOIA requests are required by government agencies if there is a question about the specific kind of information being sought. Some examples of this would be personnel matters and some legal discussions — some of which are protected by law.

WHAT IS PUBLIC INFORMATION

Because government runs on taxpayer money, nearly all information maintained by such agencies is public record.

Budgets, claims paid, salaries, documents and correspondence on almost any topic are some examples of such public information that usually do not require a FOIA request.

Stillwater County routinely provides a wide variety of public information to the news, including court documents, claim information and money matters.

PENDING FOIA

On Nov. 22, 2022, the News filed a FOIA request with the county asking for all investigative reports from Kaleva Law Firm on county employees — both elected and hired. Also requested in the FOIA were claims paid to that law firm for investigative work.

This was prompted by the discovery of a large claim paid to that law firm that was discovered during the course of normal claims reporting by the News. Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde has been working on that request.