By: James Eli Schiffer
And since November 2016, county officials have been waiting.
Those of us who routinely ask government for records are used to suffering. We wait, and wait, and wait, sometimes for months, or years, for a magic e-mail or a letter in the mailbox.
So I confess to schadenfreude to see my friends in government feeling the same pain. In this case, it’s Mille Lacs County that has discovered the Freedom of Information Act’s exasperating reality.
The county is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe over law enforcement on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation. In 2016, the county ended a 25-year agreement that allowed tribal police to work as fully authorized peace officers.
The conflict has created the peculiar situation of tribal officers who can’t take criminal suspects to jail or carry out other basic duties. The dispute is rooted in broader issues, such as the boundaries of the reservation and the role of federal agencies, which have some jurisdiction over tribal law enforcement.
That’s why the county filed a FOIA request in November 2016 to the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior. The county wanted all agreements, correspondence, notes and other records related to the tribe’s law enforcement powers.
“We’re looking for background material. A lot of it has to do with how the federal opinions were put together,” said Pat Oman, the Mille Lacs County administrator.
Too busy to respond
The Interior Department responded the next day with a letter identifying the staff member who would handle the request. It took nearly six months for the Department of Justice to respond, and when it did, it said it had “received an exceedingly heavy volume of Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act requests” and therefore could not comply with the law’s time limits, county records show.
Oman noted that he’s not allowed to make that excuse if someone asks him for county records.
Eleven months later, Oman and the county were still waiting.
So on Oct. 26, the county filed a federal lawsuit against the departments of Justice and Interior, accusing them of violating FOIA and asking a judge to order them to turn over the records.
More than 500 FOIA lawsuits were filed in fiscal year 2015-16 nationwide, according to a tracking website, the FOIA Project. It’s unusual, but not unprecedented, for one part of government to sue another to get information.
Also last month, nine states and the District of Columbia sued the federal government, saying it failed to turn over information it asked for in June about immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, arrests and detentions and other elements of immigration enforcement.
It does seem a little silly. After all, the public is paying for these people to cooperate with one another to make our lives better. But I can understand the county’s patience wearing thin when the federal government can stonewall it for the better part of a year without any explanation other than “We’re busy.”
Mille Lacs County hired Randy Thompson, an attorney with Nolan, Thompson & Leighton in Bloomington, to represent it in the lawsuit. Thompson said the goal is simply getting the federal government’s attention so it will obey the law.
“We don’t want to get into a big dispute with the government,” Thompson said. “We just want the documents.”
I inquired with the federal agencies about the lawsuit, and whether too many FOIAs are making their lives difficult. On Friday afternoon, the Department of Justice declined to comment.