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In June, I reported on former School Board Member Art Johnston’s attempts to obtain information from the Duluth school district. For eight years, while Johnston was serving on the School Board, the school administration stonewalled him. Since he has left the School Board, Johnston has continued to ask for information, and the school district has continued to ignore him.
In March of 2018, Johnston filed four data requests with the school district. Three of the requests were for contracts and documentation related to the school district’s long-range facilities plan. One request was for emails that contained Johnston’s name. This second type of request, for information about oneself, is known as a “subject data request.” The governmental entity is supposed to comply with subject data requests within 10 business days. To date, the school district has ignored Johnston’s subject data request for 164 days.
In June, Johnston asked the state Department of Administration for an advisory opinion on whether the school district was responding appropriately to his data requests. On July 30, 2018, Commissioner Matthew Massman issued his opinion. It was straightforward: The school district “has not responded appropriately” to Johnston’s requests. Massman noted that the school district had “not … provided any data to the requester … or provided information to explain the delay in responding to the requests.”
The school district, for their part, argued that Johnston had requested so much material that it would take “1300 staff hours to respond to this request.” This is a common complaint of governmental entities—the idea that data requesters ask for too much information. Commissioner Massman acknowledged that large amounts of data “can present practical challenges,” but “entities are still required to respond in a prompt and appropriate manner.” Since the school district had never bothered to contact Johnston to explain the delay, they were not responding appropriately.
On Aug. 10, I called Superintendent Bill Gronseth for comment. Gronseth is the designated data practices compliance officer for the district. When I spoke with him in June, he didn’t appear to have a firm grasp of data practices law, going so far as to tell me that he didn’t think the district had to respond to Johnston’s subject data request within 10 days.
Now, his excuse had changed. “We recognize that the time limit is 10 days, [but] it’s a very large request, over 350,000 pages, and so we’re working on that as quickly as we can, and we’ll continue to do so,” he told me.
I did not incredulously ask how a few years of emails could amount to 350,000 pages, or how the district came up with that number. Because, in the end, none of that mattered: They had to comply. “Have you made arrangements to start releasing those on a scheduled basis?” I asked.
“We don’t have a schedule yet, but that is the plan, and so we’ve been collecting the data and making arrangements for it to be reviewed,” said Gronseth.
“And have you communicated this to Art?”
When I contacted Johnston via email, he told me that Gronseth had called him in July, looking for ways to “cut down the number of pages on my subject data request.” Johnston offered to come in and work with the district as they fulfilled his request, but Gronseth did not care for that idea. After one final email declining to meet with Johnston, the district reverted to their preferred mode of silence. If they really have a plan to release documents on a schedule, Johnston isn’t aware of it.
To date, Johnston has still not received any documents. As such, he is considering filing suit against the school district. His case would be strong. The Commissioner of Administration’s opinion is advisory and non-binding, but according to state statute the opinion “must be given deference by a court … in a proceeding involving the data.”
According to Minnesota statute, any person who “willfully violates” the state’s data practices provisions is guilty of a misdemeanor. Further, such a violation “constitutes just cause for suspension without pay or dismissal of the public employee.” Gronseth’s failure to follow the law certainly appears to be willful, especially lately, after he has been reminded of it so many times. Is he unaware that he could be suspended or fired for his actions?
A culture of vindictiveness
What makes the school district’s behavior especially egregious is that they are stonewalling Art Johnston, not for any practical reason, but simply because of his history with the administration. His tumultuous eight years on the School Board did not make him many friends in the administration. Johnston and Gronseth, particularly, were often in conflict with each other. The district’s continued failure to give Johnston any information highlights Superintendent Gronseth’s vindictiveness. He simply wants to make life difficult for Johnston in any way he can.
When I file data requests with the school district, I get a response right away. For example, last year I filed a data request for 5 months’ worth of the superintendent’s emails. I was called by then-Data Compliance Officer Doug Hasler within a day. He advised me that it was a lot of information, and he wondered if I would consider narrowing my request. After some discussion, I consented to reduce my ask to 3 months. A week or two after that, the superintendent’s emails began appearing in my inbox in batches of 50. I now have them all, several thousand in number.
In my case, the district did everything right. So the problem is not that they don’t know how to do their job. The problem is that they don’t want to do it for Art Johnston.
While reviewing the superintendent’s emails, I came across an item that perfectly illustrates the district’s wrongheadedness. On Aug. 10, 2017, while Johnston was still on the School Board, he filed a data request for documents relating to the long-range facilities plan. On Aug. 11, Compliance Officer Hasler emailed Superintendent Gronseth. “I spoke to [School Board Chair] David Kirby about this … I forwarded him both of Mr. Johnston’s emails. I asked him to review the requests, and let us know how he would like for us to proceed on these.” In response, Gronseth wrote: “Okay.”
The fact that the district was running Johnston’s data requests by his colleagues to see how they “would like for us to proceed” shows how skewed their priorities are. What business does Board Chair Kirby have looking at other people’s data requests? And what authority does he have to rule on them? None, according to the law. But apparently he, or somebody, did make a ruling, because Johnston never received a single page of data from that request. Or from any request in the last eight years.
In sum, because it’s Art Johnston, whom the board majority and administration don’t like, they do whatever they want. And why not? After all, they’ve never suffered any consequences for it.
Fourth Street sod issues
On July 30, 2018, St. Louis County issued a triumphant press release: After three years, the Fourth Street reconstruction project was finally done! Two miles of the street, from Sixth Avenue East to Wallace Avenue, had been fully rebuilt, complete with new sidewalks and utilities. The orange construction barriers were gone and Fourth Street was open for business.
Unfortunately, there have been some problems with the landscaping. Sod that was planted in the boulevards in the early stages of the project (on the Sixth Avenue East end) seems to have established fairly well, but much of the sod that was laid last year on the boulevards around Nineteenth Avenue East and Woodland Avenue did not survive. This summer, brown mats of dead grass along the street in that area provided a dreary contrast to the shiny new curbs and gutters.
Steve Krasaway, a project engineer with the county, told me that the die-off of the sod was due to harsh conditions this past winter. He also said that modern construction techniques required putting drain tile underneath the boulevards to help drain the road, which meant that water didn’t linger in the boulevards the way it used to, which meant additional stress for anything growing there. Sod needs plenty of water to establish itself, especially when it’s first laid down.
A few weeks ago, contractors replaced the dead sod with new sod, which they have been watering with a water truck. When I asked Krasaway who was paying for the new sod, he said, “Any sod that was placed this year that has died, the contractor pays for that. Any that was placed last year, that died due to the extraordinary winter, the county is paying for.”
Although he did not have an official number yet, Krasaway estimated that the county would end up paying $40,000 to $50,000 for the new sod. While this might seem minor compared to the project’s $14 million price tag, it’s still $50,000 that the county wasn’t expecting to pay.
The new sod was laid down in early August, during hot, dry weather—far from ideal conditions. Already, some of it is dying and turning brown. One only hopes the daily waterings continue (or a lot of rain falls) to help the sod take hold. Otherwise, we’ll be looking at the same situation again next year.
Scaia’s groping conviction
On July 18, 2018, a St. Louis County jury found Chisholm City Councilor Kevin Scaia guilty of fifth degree criminal sexual conduct for groping a woman in a downtown Chisholm bar last September.
According to the criminal complaint, the 50-year-old Scaia approached the victim from behind and “reache[d] both of his hands around her, including underneath her left arm, and squeeze[d] both of her breasts, one in each of his hands. The Victim is observed immediately striking the Defendant’s hands away from her … The Victim told the Defendant to ‘knock it off’ and leave her alone, to which the Defendant responded, ‘Oh come on [Victim’s name].’”
Scaia pleaded not guilty to the charge, saying it was a politically-motivated smear job by his enemies. The jury, however, after watching surveillance video of the incident, took only 20 minutes to return their guilty verdict.
As a city councilor, Scaia has treated a woman aggressively on at least one previous occasion. In September of 2016, when a female citizen wrote a letter to the local paper criticizing Scaia for his bullying behavior during a City Council meeting, Scaia stalked the internet until he found the woman’s picture, which he posted to his Facebook page with the comment: “Who is this butch? What a menace to society!”
On July 25, 2018, the Chisholm City Council unanimously approved a resolution asking Scaia to resign. “It is the opinion of the city that the continued participation of Councilor Kevin Scaia in the business and affairs of the city of Chisholm will be a distraction to the efficient discharge of the duty owed by the city to the citizens of Chisholm,” states the resolution. During discussion, Councilor Tracy Campbell added, “It is the position of this council that all citizens of Chisholm have a right to be free from sexual harassment and assault.”
Nevertheless, as of press time, Councilor Scaia had not resigned. It will be interesting to see how long he holds out. If he tries to stay on, we’ll see yet another round of skirmishes breaking out on the bloody battlefield that is Chisholm city politics.
Scaia is due to be sentenced on Sept. 13. He did not return my calls asking for comment.