MNCOGI Signs Statement on Government Coronavirus Emergency Transparency and Public Access

Posted by: on Mar 22, 2020 | No Comments

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information has joined over 130 organizations in signing the below statement, affirming the importance of government transparency during the coronavirus pandemic.

As state, tribal and local governments across the United States take measures to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic, executive orders and legislative proposals are calling for the suspension of normal operating procedures including, at times, compliance with open-meeting and public-records laws. We strongly urge government branches and agencies to recommit to, and not retrench from, their duty to include the public in the policy-making process, including policies relating to COVID-19 as well as the routine ongoing functions of governance.


Government bodies should not opportunistically take advantage of the public’s inability to attend large gatherings to make critical decisions affecting the public’s interest if those decisions can reasonably be postponed. Just as citizens are being asked to defer nonessential travel and errands, so should government agencies defer noncritical policy-making decisions until full and meaningful public involvement can be guaranteed. Where postponement is not realistic, every available measure should be taken to (1) notify the public of meetings of government bodies and how to participate in those meetings remotely, (2) use widely available technologies to maximize real-time public engagement, and (3) preserve a viewable record of proceedings that is promptly made accessible online.


We understand that government agencies will struggle with staffing and time constraints during this period of exigency, as employees transition into working from home, attend to personal and family health needs, and become focused on crisis-response duties. Some agencies undoubtedly will have difficulty meeting their legal obligations to process requests for public records promptly and thoroughly. This predictable difficulty counsels strongly in favor of affirmatively disclosing as much as is legally permissible without waiting to receive a request for records. Members of the press and public often resort to freedom-of-information requests when decisions are made secretively. It should not be necessary to reconstruct critical decisions about public health and safety by piecing together email trails. The fact that a government decision involves public health and safety is a reason for more, not less, transparency.

As government employees begin transacting more public business off-premises on personal devices, it is important that they faithfully observe records-retention protocols so that messages about core governmental functions are retrievable and reviewable just as on-premises correspondence is. All official-business communications — regardless of where it occurs, and whose devices and accounts are used — should take place over channels that allow for messages to be easily archived, produced and read. When possible, all electronic communications and information sharing should be transacted through official email accounts and government-issued communication devices.

At all times, but most especially during times of national crisis, trust and credibility are the government’s most precious assets. As people are asked to make increasing sacrifices in their daily lives for the greater good of public health, the legitimacy of government decision-making requires a renewed commitment to transparency. Open government is not “bureaucratic red tape.” We encourage the custodians of information at all levels of government to take this opportunity to leverage technology to make governance more inclusive and more credible, not to suspend compliance with core accountability imperatives in the name of expediency.

This statement, and a list of all 132 signing organizations, is available for download as a PDF.

2020 FOI Award Ceremony Announcement

Posted by: on Feb 17, 2020 | No Comments

March 13th Update

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, continues to impact the lives of Minnesotans. In light of recent events, including cancellations by numerous organizations and the declared state of emergency in Minnesota, MNCOGI has decided to postpone the March 16th Freedom of Information Award Ceremony.

We will continue to monitor the news, and will arrange to hold the Freedom of Information Award Ceremony at a future date. As soon as arrangements allow, we will provide an updated date for the Freedom of Information Award Ceremony.

Thank you for your understanding and we look forward to welcoming you to the Freedom of Information Award Ceremony in the near future.

If you have any questions, contact us at [contact@mncogi.org]

ST. PAUL, MN
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 2/12/20

Freedom of information awards go to APM Reports’ “In the Dark” team and to First Amendment attorney John Borger (posthumously)

Public is invited to award ceremony featuring a panel discussion by “In the Dark” team members

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) is pleased to announce:

  • This year’s John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award will honor the APM Reports “In the Dark” team of host Madeleine Baran, producers Samara Freemark, Natalie Jablonski and Rehman Tungekar and reporters Parker Yesko and Will Craft for outstanding work on podcasts aired since 2016. The first series explored the kidnapping and killing of Jacob Wetterling, scrutinizing the law enforcement system that failed for decades to solve the case. The second series examined the case of Curtis Flowers who had been convicted in Mississippi for a 1996 quadruple murder but won six retrials and a favorable U.S. Supreme Court ruling due to flawed prosecution. The team arduously dug into public records, assembled sophisticated data analysis and creatively deployed the narrative podcast form to deliver powerful and compelling exposures of injustice. In nominating the team for the award, MNCOGI chair Gary Hill wrote: “In some instances, the records were dumped in warehouses where mice shredded them to make nests. Reporters had to wear masks and gloves to sort through the records.” The team assembled data on the prosecution by obtaining records from 418 trials and scanning more than 115,000 pages of court documents. “All this work allowed APM to report that in these trials prosecutors struck black jurors at 4.5 times the rate white jurors were struck,” Hill wrote. “U.S. Supreme Court observers say they think this was one of the reasons the court agreed to hear the case and why they threw out Mr. Flowers’ conviction, allowing him to be released on bail while awaiting a decision whether he would be tried again.”
  • This year’s lifetime achievement award will honor First Amendment attorney John Borger (posthumously) for a significant body of accomplishments that have helped to advance and preserve the public’s right to government transparency. Borger, a long-time MNCOGI board member, worked for decades to protect Minnesota’s sunshine laws. His dogged commitment to allowing facts to be uncovered and published has benefited all Minnesotans. He was one of the country’s pre-eminent First Amendment lawyers, named in 2018 as “Champion of the First Amendment,” the highest honor from the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law (only the third to receive the prestigious award). In bestowing the award, the Forum noted Borger lifetime work “passionately and zealously fighting to hold public officials and institutions accountable through transparency.” In nominating Borger for this MNCOGI award, journalist Steve Brandt, cited his landmark public access battles – including a 1976 case that set ground rules for the attorney-client exception to the Open Meeting Law for succeeding generations, and the 2004 case in which the Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled that state open-government laws apply to the search for a University of Minnesota president. Further, Brandt listed everyday cases in which Borger fought to assure that public officials lived up to the demands of data practices law — safeguarding public access to court hearings and files, to arrest information, to official phone records and much more. In closing, Brandt quoted Borger’s own words on the day he accepted the ABA award: “I have carried a torch for the First Amendment for more than 50 years. I hope I lit a few candles along the way. The First Amendment torch now burns with you, and you, and you. Hold it high. The road goes ever on and on. Many important battles lie ahead.” Borger died on Dec. 16, 2019.
  • MNCOGI’s future lifetime achievement awards will be named in John Borger’s honor.

Award ceremony

When: Monday, March 16th, 7 pm
Where: Pohlad Hall, Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
RSVP: Click Here

The award ceremony will include a panel discussion by “In the Dark” team members, moderated by Professor Jane Kirtley.

The public is most welcome to attend.

This press release is available for download as a PDF here.

MNCOGI Remembers Board Member John Borger

Posted by: on Dec 23, 2019 | No Comments

MNCOGI regrets to observe the passing of Twin Cities media attorney and MNCOGI board member John Borger.  John leaves behind a significant body of accomplishments that have helped to advance and preserve democratic self-government.  In state and federal court, John defended the free speech protections so necessary to the maintenance of a free press and citizenry.  Through administrative actions and legal challenges, John also worked to protect our state’s open records law – the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.  His dogged commitment to allowing facts to be uncovered – and published – has benefited all Minnesotans.  

John’s family is holding a memorial event on January 2 at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library.  The event will run from 4-8pm, with a program from 6-7pm.

For more information on John’s life and legacy, please see his obituary, the Star Tribune’s coverage and editorial, and a Minnpost remembrance by media lawyer Leita Walker.

Inspections of pet breeders: Who should see the findings?

Inspections of pet breeders: Who should see the findings?

Posted by: on May 5, 2019 | No Comments

When: 12 noon to 1:15 p.m., Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Where: Rondo Community Library, 461 North Dale Street, St. Paul MN 55103

Sponsor: Minnesota Coalition on Government Information

RSVP: Click Here

Since 2014, state law has required commercial dog and cat breeding facilities to be licensed and inspected by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. The inspection reports generally are not open to the public. Should people have the right to scrutinize those reports just as they might look into results of inspections of day care centers, restaurants and other regulated facilities? Animal welfare advocates have lobbied the legislature seeking to open the reports to the public. Yet they remain secret.   

Please join us for a conversation about a question that is likely to come before the Minnesota Legislature.

Speakers:

  • Don Gemberling, The state’s top expert on the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act
  • Sen. John Marty, Minnesota State Senate
  • Ann Olson, Founder/Executive Director, Animal Folks
  • Prof. Beth A. Ventura, University of Minnesota Department of Animal Science
  • Moderator: James Shiffer, a Star Tribune editor who oversees coverage of Minneapolis and St. Paul

RSVP: Click Here

Box lunches will be served to those with advance reservations.

Attendance will be limited, so please reserve your space today.

Share this event on Facebook and Twitter

The library is on the METRO Green Line, Dale Street Station. It has free underground parking.

We hope you can make it!

2019 John R. Finnegan FOI Award Ceremony Announcement

Posted by: on Feb 18, 2019 | No Comments

STAR TRIBUNE TEAM CHOSEN FOR THE 2019 JOHN R. FINNEGAN FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AWARD

MNCOGI’s board is pleased to announce that this year’s John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award will honor the Star Tribune team of Brandon Stahl, Jennifer Bjorhus, MaryJo Webster and Renee Jones Schneider for outstanding work on the nine-part series “Denied Justice,” published in July through December 2018. The articles exposed the mishandling of rape cases across Minnesota and showed how the state’s justice system is failing victims of rape. To accomplish that public service, the reporting team made extensive use of Minnesota law requiring most inactive criminal investigative files to be open to the public.

In nominating the team of journalists for the award, MNCOGI board member Don Gemberling wrote: “These stories have already led various criminal justice organizations to change policies and procedures on how sexual assaults are handled. The series caused the creation of statewide task forces to examine and make changes how the system handles sex crimes. Largely because of this reporting, the state Police Officers Standards and Training Board has issued new required standards for how police officers are trained and how they should handle reports of sexual assault in the future. Most importantly, the work of these reports has caused the Legislature to more closely examine the issues that were raised and to begin a process of amending Minnesota Statutes to address and to fix problems identified by the stories.”

Contact:  MNCOGI Chair Gary Hill
ghillgary@gmail.com

Finnegan Award Ceremony

When: Noon – 1PM on Thursday, March 14th
WhereRondo Community Library – 461 N Dale St., Saint Paul
RSVP: Click Here

The award ceremony will include a keynote by MaryJo Webster. All four winners of the Finnegan Award will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Don Gemberling.

Boxed lunches will be provided for those who RSVP.

Support government transparency on Give To The Max Day

Posted by: on Nov 15, 2018 | No Comments

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) is an education and advocacy organization that supports government transparency in the State of Minnesota.  Through public forums, citizen education, and legislative advocacy, MNCOGI helps to ensure that the public has robust access to information about the workings of its government institutions.

On Thursday, November 15th, MNCOGI will be participating in “Give To The Max Day” through GiveMN.org.  The funds we raise help to support our annual activities, including our yearly presentation of the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, and our ongoing efforts to ensure the transparency and accountability of Minnesota government. 

In 2018, we hosted public panel discussions on issues ranging from legislative secrecy and sexual harassment, to the role of secrecy in the selection of the University of Minnesota’s president.  MNCOGI also supported numerous transparency proposals during the 2018 Minnesota legislative session, as we do every year.

MNCOGI’s 2017 financials are available on our web site, as is extensive documentation about the transparency policy work we’ve been involved with at the Minnesota Legislature.

You can donate to MNCOGI via our page on the GiveMN website.

 

2018 Candidate survey results available now

Posted by: on Oct 9, 2018 | No Comments

In September, we asked candidates for Minnesota state offices to answer seven questions related to government transparency on issues that are of great concern to Minnesotans. The poll, intended to inform the voting public, was sent to all candidates for the Minnesota Legislature as well as to candidates for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor. Now you can follow this link  bit.ly/2018-mn-transparency-results to see candidates’ responses and also see which candidates did not respond. We invite you to share the results with Minnesota voters. And we urge you to continue to ask candidates about the questions posed in the survey. You also can ask any who did not complete the survey to do so now; we will leave it open through October.

Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, working in partnership on the survey with the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

Articles and Opinions Regarding This Survey

2018 Open Government Candidate Survey Press Release

Posted by: on Sep 11, 2018 | No Comments

This Press Release is available for download as a PDF.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SEPTEMBER 11, 2018

TRANSPARENCY WATCHDOGS TO SURVEY CANDIDATES ON OPEN GOVERNMENT

Are candidates for Minnesota state offices committed to government transparency so that citizens can hold elected officials accountable? We asked them in a poll sponsored by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The seven questions in the poll speak to issues that have been of great concern to Minnesotans. The questions, listed below, were sent to all candidates for the Minnesota Legislature as well as to candidates for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor.

“We are very concerned that Minnesota’s public institutions, once known as models of good government, have become less transparent and increasingly willing to deny the public timely and critical public information” said Gary Hill, Chair of the MNCOGI Board of Directors.  “All of the other issues that are important to voters depend on transparency,,” said Board Member Sharon Schmickle. “When government operates in secret, voters can’t be sure how candidates truly will stand on critical issues.”

Poll responses will be distributed before the November election to media organizations for use in news stories and opinion pieces about candidate stances on issues. Non-responses to the full questionnaire or to any individual questions will be reported as well.

MNCOGI and the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists urge voters to contact the candidates and ask them to participate in the poll. Further, voters could pose the same questions directly to the candidates in person and at  campaign events.

In conjunction with the poll, MNCOGI is making available to the public a spreadsheet of contact information for candidates of this year’s general election races in Minnesota. This spreadsheet, containing public data provided by the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, is available online at bit.ly/2018-mn-candidates .

 

Here are the poll questions:

  • Do you support prohibiting state government from requiring non-disclosure agreements in settlements of alleged sexual harassment and other misconduct of legislators or employees?
  • Do you support making public any House or Senate ethics committee reports on investigations of the conduct of members?
  • Do you support making the Legislature subject to the open meetings and open records laws that currently apply to counties, cities, school districts and other government bodies?
  • Do you support making police body cam video as public as squad car camera videos which are more accessible to the public?
  • Do you support the currently allowed use of cameras in Minnesota court rooms?
  • Do you support requiring that government emails be preserved beyond the current minimal limits?
  • Would you support strengthening the economic interest statements filed by public officials, bringing them in line with most other states – for example adopting the requirement they disclose household financial information beyond the direct earnings and holdings of the public official?

 

CONTACTS:

Gary Hill
ghillgary@gmail.com
763-420-8670

 

Sharon Schmickle
sschmickle@gmail.com
612-285-5805

MNCOGI endorsed bills/concepts for 2018 Legislative Session

Posted by: on Mar 2, 2018 | No Comments

• HF 3258; HF 3259; HF 2309/SF 1589 – Implementing recommendations of the Data Practices Commission
HF 3258 and HF 3259 improve auditing for license plate readers and body-worn cameras by requiring audits to be conducted by an independent, third-party vendor.  HF 2309/SF 1589 clarify reporting requirements related to the use of location tracking warrants.

• HF 1185/SF 1719 – Three-year e-mail retention
Removes references to “official” records and reconciles the language of 15.17 and 138.17 with Chapter 13 (the Data Practices Act). The Minnesota Supreme Court’s reading of the word “official” in Minn. Stat. 15.17 (in the Kottscahde v. Lundberg opinion) has been used to narrow the types of records that must be retained by government entities. The effect of the proposed change would be to require that all government data be placed on a retention schedule that specifies the length of time it must be maintained for. Recently, some government entities (including the City of Saint Paul and Hennepin County) have started to destroy e-mails that contain data useful for government oversight.  A three-year retention period for government correspondence (including e-mail) is established.

• HF 1105/SF 1715 – Change to the Open Meeting Law
In 2016, the Saint Paul School Board sought to hold “collaborative problem solving” meetings in private, outside of the coverage of Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law – meaning that the public could not attend the sessions. The school district sought – and secured – an advisory opinion allowing the private meetings to occur, so long as “official business” was not discussed.  The Minneapolis School Board has followed suit, and closed one “leadership development” session to the public in 2017. Out of concern that these private sessions may be abused, MNCOGI seeks to amend Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law to ensure that the public is granted access to gatherings of a quorum or more members of a governing body.

• HF 1316 – Government cannot use “personnel data” exception to limit access to otherwise public video
Amends Minnesota Statutes 13.43 to specify that certain video recordings of government employees continue to be public data even when classified as “personnel data.”  The bill is a response to the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in the KSTP TV v. Metropolitan Council case.

• HF 2065/SF 1517 – Permitting access to certain HMO quality of care records by complainant
Amends the HMO quality of care investigation statute to ensure access by the complainant to records of resolved complaints.

• HF 857/SF 817 – Data Practices Commission to study expanding access to legislative records
Directing the Data Practices Commission to study the possibility of establishing an open records framework for the Minnesota Legislature.

• HF 2954; HF 1065/SF 1393 – Legislative open records framework
Open records frameworks established for the Minnesota Legislature, including amending the Data Practices Act.

• MNCOGI supports the Rep. Lesch/Rep. O’Neill proposal to change the House rules as they relate to investigations of sexual harassment
MNCOGI supports the public reporting and public process provisions of the procedural changes to the House rules proposed by Reps. Lesch and O’Neill.

• MNCOGI encourages legislators to work to improve enforcement of the Data Practices Act

MNCOGI testimony in support of HF 1517

Posted by: on Feb 27, 2018 | No Comments

MINNESOTA COALITION ON GOVERNMENT INFORMATION

Minnesota Senate Judiciary, February 26, 2018

Testimony in support of HF 1517

Thank you Mr. Chairman and Senators.  Matt Ehling, Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.  I am testifying in support of SF 1517, and will limit my comments to technical aspects of the amendment language.

The main point we would like to raise about the bill as amended, is that provisions of this bill have similarities and analogs to other, existing provisions of law.

1)  To begin, the bill would require HMOs to provide certain data – specifically, records about the resolution of quality of care complaints – to the Department of Health.  Under the current statute, HMOs are required to maintain records about these complaints, but they only have to provide statistical summaries about the complaints to the Commissioner.  Under SF 1517, providing records about the resolution of complaints would also be mandatory.

I would note that mandatory data production is not at all unusual in the current relationship between HMOs and their state regulators.  Mandatory reporting is already part of the information management reality for HMOs under Chapter 62D, as well as under Minnesota Statutes 256B.69.  Under 62D.08, HMO entities are already required to report a wide variety of information to the Department of Health, including financials, enrollment numbers, and performance information.  Under 256B.69, HMOs must report additional data to the Department of Human Services, including administrative expense reporting, data on client satisfaction, and service utilization.  So the requirement in this bill that HMOs vest quality of care complaint records with the Commissioner of Health is neither unusual or novel.

2)  Secondly, I would like to speak to the data classification status of the record provided under this bill.  The bill would classify the record provided to the Commissioner as either  “confidential” or “protected nonpublic” data, but the bill also provides an exception to that classification.  The exception is that the individual who made the complaint can access certain parts of the record.

For background, “confidential” and “protected nonpublic” status are data classifications under Minnesota law that are routinely applied to sensitive data, such as investigative data.  For example, criminal investigative is classified as “confidential” or “protected nonpublic” while the investigation is active.  These classifications mean that only the government entity holding the data can access the data.  As I’ve noted, this bill provides an exception to that protected status, by allowing the complainant to access certain parts of the record.

This exception would not be unique, however, as there are other exceptions to “confidential” and “protected nonpublic” data elsewhere in Minnesota law.  For example, there are statutory provisions in the criminal, human rights, and licensing contexts that provide government entities with the ability to release confidential data for specific purposes, as allowed by statute.  In the criminal investigative context, for instance, investigative data can be released to crime victims in certain instances, and law enforcement agencies are permitted to release confidential data to promote public safety.  Access exceptions to the general treatment of confidential data have been added by the legislature over time, to promote specific public policy goals.

3)  Finally, I would like to speak to the mechanics of how redactions would work under this bill.  The bill states that “the commissioner shall assure that all parts of the record that do not identify individuals” are accessible to the complainant, meaning that such individual data would need to be redacted before the record is presented to the complainant.  It is long-standing practice under Minnesota’s Data Practices Act for government entities to make redactions to protected data before disseminating.

The most relevant point of comparison here is to how Minnesota law treats proprietary business data held by government entities – what is called “trade secret” data under Chapter 13.  When government entities receive trade secret data from private companies, they have a legal obligation to evaluate the data, and to apply any necessary redactions before releasing the data in any form.  Under Chapter 13, it is the responsibility of the government entity to make redactions.

Similarly, as contemplated by this bill, redactions to the record would be handled by the government entity, and they would be applied to obscure the identify of any named individuals within the record.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak in favor of the bill today, and I would be happy to speak to any questions you may have.