The City of Minneapolis approved a $100,000 settlement on Jan. 27, 2022, over a public records lawsuit brought by Tony Webster, a local independent journalist.
Webster told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was pleased with the outcome but believes the city missed an opportunity to enact changes to public records law.
"In a public records lawsuit, getting the records is of course a win, and paying the legal costs makes it all that much better," Webster said. "But at the same time, I'm disappointed. I wanted a court's finding that the City broke the law, and I wanted an order requiring them to make improvements to their processes to ensure that it doesn't happen again."
Webster said he started examining the disciplinary process for Minneapolis police officers in 2019. He filed public records requests with the Minneapolis Police Department but sued after waiting more than seven months and not receiving a single file.
The police department eventually produced more than 3,300 disciplinary files through the lawsuit, which Webster used in published investigations on police accountability.
The city council approved the settlement unanimously and it was later signed by the mayor.
"I believe in the Public's right to know what their government is doing on their behalf," Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins told the Tracker. "Subsequently, I also believe that there are times when FOIA requests encompass large amounts of information that is not always easily accessed and compiled. I think that reasonable concessions could be made on behalf of some requesters to allow time to meet the requests being made."
Webster, who said the settlement amount will go toward paying legal fees, said he is still optimistic it will prompt widespread change.
“I'm hopeful that the settlement will send a signal to records officials that they need to take their obligations under the law more seriously,” he said. “There are consequences to thwarting the public's right to know.”