Freedom of Information in Minnesota (and 2012 proposals for change in the Minnesota law)

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State Freedom of Information laws are in the limelight again. This time from Minnesota. The state’s proposed revision’s on FOIA have bloggers writing about the importance of accessing government data before a crisis happens. Charles Leck offers his view on how the state’s proposal on what constitutes as public data may affect access to information in Minnesota.  He was also invited to attend a meeting (happening today) about the revisions and will give us an update. You can read his blog at ad astra.

Many ordinary citizens, like I, don’t really understand the importance of accessibility to public documents and information; we don’t understand, that is, until, in a crisis, we really need to get our hands on information squirreled away in the dungeon-like depths of government archives.

There is some rumbling over in the State Legislature about revising or altering one of Minnesota’s most important laws, the Data Practices Act – or the Freedom of Information Act (FIOA). That’s cause for concern and it should make many of us sit up and take notice. I don’t think we should allow any changes that would make securing public information any more difficult than it all ready is.

Currently, this process of securing government data information goes through the Information Policy Analysis Division (with Apple’s forgiveness, it’s known as IPAD). The current director of that division of state government is Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske. The operation falls under the state’s Department of Administration.

Current state law defines Government Data as: “all data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by any government entity regardless of its physical form, storage media or conditions of use.”

Though the act does not require the data to be maintained in a particular form or format, it is required that the data be “easily accessible for convenient use.” (Minn. Stat. § 13.03, subd. 1)

FOIA requests shouldn’t be seen as a political tool of either the right or the left or, for that matter, the center. They come from everywhere and they are often viewed (and sometimes correctly) as threatening and as attempts to censor.

However, our ability to get at important information in government files is crucial to the process of Democracy – and crucial to the process of protecting and maintaining our rights as free citizens. To repeat myself, the last thing we want are changes to our current law that would make that process more difficult for Joe Blow citizens.

IPAD appears to be pushing for some changes, however, and they argue that the changes are necessary in light of recent budget cuts aimed at “streamlining government operations.”

RED FLAG! RED FLAG! Some of the proposals that IPAD is floating around the State Legislature might redefine what is to be regarded as public data and also changes the procedures that would be followed in applying for and securing such data. Naturally, IPAD argues that the procedures would create a more precisely defined law and make the procedures more efficient.

I’d want to make sure “if I was you” (as my old man used to say). And, if I were you and you live in Minnesota, I’d suggest you start communicating with your State Representative and State Senator right now and ask them to be wary of any changes that might make the procedure of securing public information more complicated. I’m going to send a draft of this blog on to both State Representative Steve Smith and State Senator Gen Olson, my representatives over at the capitol.

It’s already too difficult to secure information. The popular, veteran, and now retired newsman, Don Shelby, wrote in a MinnPost column last April that he “had a career batting average of about .150” on his FOIA filings. “Most of what I wanted to get at, I was told, ‘was none of my business.”

In case you don’t know what a 150 batting average is, it means you have success 1.5 out of every 20 times you come to bat. That’s not very good in one’s attempt to secure information that should be considered public. And, Shelby is not just an ordinary citizen like I am. He’s very familiar with the ins and outs of the current law and its procedures. He also had staff available to wait out the delays that IPAD can create for an applicant.

We simply should not consider changes that would diminish even more the access that is granted to public information. In fact, we ought to be going the other way with FOIA and making access less complicated.

Beyer-Kropuenske claims that IPAD is seeking a public discussion about the policy proposals – proposals, she says, that aren’t even written into a proposed bill yet. Nevertheless, she calls the draft that is now circulating, according to Politics in Minnesota (1), a “preliminary proposal that is likely to be introduced this session.”

The IPAD Director is particularly interested in a variety of stakeholders (League of Minnesota Cities and Minnesota Coalition on Government Information). An open meeting was held in December and organizations like the Minnesota Newspaper Association had a representative there. It’s sad, however, that ordinary guys don’t get information about the meeting and we can’t easily get our hands on a copy of the proposed changes.

Even Common Cause of Minnesota, an organization I consider primary in representing my own interests in such matters, heard about the meeting after-the-fact.

A red flag, as far as I’m concerned (having not seen the document) is that a former IPAD director is concerned about it. Donald Gemberling was IPAD’s director for a very long period of time and he now serves as a spokesman and treasurer for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MnCOGI). He alerts us to the fact that the government, under the proposal, could sit on a public data request for six months under certain circumstances.

The proposal also calls for the removal of elected officials from the personnel section of the data law. Currently rules regarding how state legislators and senators should be treated have been up to each body. That, I think, makes them much more accountable to the general public in terms of how they define themselves. A blanket change in the law that defines legislators as “private” would not be wise at all.

At this point, I’m very concerned about just who the director of IPAD considers stakeholders in this matter. There should be many more organizations included in her list and I think members of the press should be included in notices about such “open” meetings. I’d jump at the chance to be included myself. And, I have sent an email to IPAD requesting a copy of the proposals that have been made available to others  that Beyer-Kropuenske considers “stakeholders.” (see copy below)

(1)   Horwath, Justin: IPAD floats proposed changes to public information law [Politics in Minnesota, 13 January 2012]

IPAD Policy Bill Overview

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