Less lawyering more sunshine for public data

Eight dollars to take a photo of a public document? Eight bucks, the district court administrator’s office in Little Falls told a reporter who requested not a copy of the document, but the mere “privilege” of shooting it.

That’s a fanciful interpretation of Minnesota data privacy law, which clearly prohibits unreasonable charges for access to government documents.

The public must not nap when it comes to safeguarding its rights concerning public data and the overriding presumption of Minnesota law: that all government data are public unless expressly closed by law under exceptions that include privacy rights for individuals.

News organizations are usually the ones complaining when access to public data is barred or hindered, but Chapter 13 of the Minnesota statutes is for everyone.

Data-practices experts outside the press include state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville. She recently introduced legislation to not only guard against public employees wrongfully accessing data but to spread sunshine in the form of reports on violations.

“We’re really, really tired of it,” Holberg said, referring in part to a former Department of Natural Resources employee who improperly gained access to 5,000 Minnesotans’ drivers-license records.

Experts include citizen activist Rich Neumeister, who has waded into the one of the latest quagmires: buyouts of public school administrators under separation agreements.

Neumeister worked with state Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, last year to pry open future government secrets after the controversial and mystery-shrouded $255,000 buyout of former Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school administrator Tania Chance.

Ever vigilant, Myhra is taking another crack this legislative session at tightening the portion of data privacy law that stipulates what the public is entitled to know about such deals. Why? Because the West St. Paul School District recently paid Henry Sibley High School Principal Robin Percival $64,590 to resign without saying why she resigned or received a buyout.

The fact that Myhra’s  amendments from last year are not lawyer-proof shows that keeping government open and accountable is a continuous campaign.
Her new legislation attempts to further clarify exactly which public officials are subject to disclosure edicts in $10,000-plus buyouts. It reinforces a requirement already on the books that specific reasons for the buyout be disclosed. That requirement proved toothless in the Burnsville case, the details of which may never be known to anyone but insiders.

Finally, Myhra’s amendments call for a description of the nature of the “acts, omissions, or other events that gave rise to potential liability, if the agreement releases the government entity from potential liability.”

In the Burnsville case, Tania Chance agreed to release her claims against the district as part of the separation. Myhra’s attempt to uncover the nature of such claims could be thought of as the “What part of tell us the truth don’t you understand?” clause.

The clearer the disclosure requirements are, the less school districts and other government entities will have to wring their hands over liability for releasing private personnel data. Everyone wins, especially taxpayers.

State advisory opinions issued last year in 15 open records and data practices cases show that efforts to cover up are still routine and are routinely met with efforts to pry open. The opinions hold much good news for sunshine advocates.

A sampling:

  • The Minnetonka School District erred when it provided only a summary of the superintendent’s contract to a citizen who requested the entire contract. The district had decided that only part of the contract was unprotected “public data.”
  • The Minneapolis Police Department was wrong in refusing to provide a copy of a squad-cam video of a traffic stop. The department had claimed that the video was private personnel data because it showed the actions of an officer under internal investigation.

The previously mentioned Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district was wrong to redact portions of the Tania Chance separation agreement based on the district’s claim that it contained private personnel data.

But another portion of that advisory from the state commissioner of administration said the district was not required to “create data” in response to a data request, and therefore was not required to provide additional specific reasons for the separation agreement.

We hope Rep. Myhra’s amendments are approved in the interest of less lawyering and more sunshine.

This editorial is a product of the ECM Editorial Board. The Stillwater Gazette is a part of ECM Publishers Inc.

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