Freedom of Information Awards 2023

Freedom of Information Awards. This year, MCGOI awarded Elder Voice Family Advocates the 2023 Finnegan Freedom Information Award. Librarian Helen Burke, a former MNCOGI chair, won the 2023 John Borger Lifetime Achievement Award.

From left: Nancy Haugen, MNCOGI Chair Kevin Featherly, Jean Peters, Kay Bromelkamp, Misti Okerlund, and Anne Sterner.

Finnegan Award

Elder Voice Family Advocates is a nonprofit that advocates for senior citizens, assisting seniors and their families to monitor care quality in the state’s nursing homes, memory care centers and numerous other related facilities.

The group won the Finnegan award for working with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to create an online database, “Elder Care IQ,” that allows users to easily search for facilities’ care-quality track records and any history of abuse, neglect or exploitation. Database users can search for facilities by zip code, then examine MDH complaint data, state inspection survey forms and related correspondence.

The project is a positive example of how the Data Practices Act can be utilized to provide critical information to the public. As a side note, MNCOGI wishes to highlight MDH’s vital role in helping to transfer its data to the Elder Care IQ project, free of charge.

From left: Matt Ehling, Kevin Featherly, Helen Burke, and Hal Davis.

Borger Award

Helen Burke spent her professional career in the Minneapolis Public Library and Hennepin County Library System government records departments. She spent two decades serving on the Minnesota Library Association’s Government Documents Roundtable, and twice served as its chair.

Helen served on the Minnesota Library Association’s Committee for Intellectual Freedom from 2004-2014. She also served on MNCOGI’s board for over two decades and was its chair for half of that time, helping transform MNCOGI from a library-focused organization to a broader coalition of open-record advocates engaged in public education and policy development.

MNCOGI’s awards are named for John R Finnegan, the former Pioneer Press editor who advocated for the establishment of the Minnesota Data Practices Act; and John Borger, a Minnesota lawyer who was one of the nation’s foremost First Amendment attorneys.

A ceremony presenting both awards was held Minnesota State Capitol’s Cass Gilbert Library on James Madison’s birthday, March 16, 2023, the United States’ traditional Freedom of Information Day.

MNCOGI supports cameras in courts

The Minnesota Supreme Court will consider expanding a pilot program to allow audio and video coverage of criminal court proceedings after a guilty plea or verdict is entered. This follows a two-year pilot that allowed cameras at civil court proceedings.

The high court will hold a hearing on the program December 16. MNCOGI submitted a statement urging the court to accept a committee’s recommendation to expand the pilot program:

Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI)
Cameras in the Courts
Prepared by Hal Davis, MNCOGI board member

Minnesota Supreme Court
December 16, 2014

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) commends the Minnesota Supreme Court for continuing to move forward in allowing Minnesotans to see their court system in action. The coalition commends the Court for its extensive efforts and hard work in striving to provide open access to judicial proceedings as we transition to the electronic age.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1947 decision (Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367, 374), said: “A trial is a public event. What transpires in the courtroom is public property.” In 1981, in Chandler v. Florida (449 U.S. 560), the Court ruled that states could experiment with television coverage of criminal trials. The Court found that state experimentation with “evolving technology” in the courtroom, as long as it does not infringe on “fundamental guarantees” of the accused, is consistent with the Constitution.

The public has a right to observe proceedings in open court. “To work effectively, it is important that the society’s criminal process satisfy the appearance of justice, and the appearance of justice can best be provided by allowing people to observe it.” Richmond Newspapers, Inc., v. Virginia, 448 U.S. at 571-572 (1980).

MNCOGI commends the Advisory Committee on Rules of Criminal Procedure for proposing a pilot program to allow cameras in “criminal proceeding[s] occurring after a guilty plea has been tendered or a guilty verdict has been reached.” Rule 4.02(d). We are pleased by the recommendation that “Absent good cause, the trial judge must grant a media request for audio and video coverage of proceedings governed by the pilot,” by the presumption favoring coverage, and by the recommendation that the pilot should be carried out statewide.

This recommendation comes after a two-year pilot allowed cameras in certain civil proceedings. The Advisory Committee on General Rules of Practice reported, among its conclusions:

“The committee is not aware of any problems or complaints caused by the use of cameras or audio recording equipment in court proceedings during the pilot period.

“Coverage of the proceedings has not, to the committee’s knowledge, generated any known prejudice to any of the parties.”

MNCOGI is appreciative of the Advisory Committee’s commitment to further open criminal proceedings to video and audio coverage, and our organization looks forward to additional steps in this area. After more than 10 years of consideration, we believe no problems will arise. Adequate safeguards are in place to protect the participants in the process and the decorum of the court. Problems that have been anticipated have not materialized. We believe that will continue to be the case.

In the State of Ohio, for instance, video is now the official record. The cameras are positioned all over the courtroom, except toward the jury box, and microphones are everywhere but the spectator area. DVDs are the public record, available for $2.25, and can hold a day-long hearing. The judges say that the fears that people would “play to the camera” have not come to pass. The cameras are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. Everyone knows they are there and no one thinks about them.

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information believes that a similar outcome will ensue in this state. Further opening Minnesota courts to audio and video coverage will foster community understanding and present citizens with a positive experience of what goes on in their courtrooms.

MNCOGI opposes health care industry exemption in “Helmberger” data practices bill

In 2013, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued its opinion in the Helmberger v. Johnson Controls case, which limited the application of the Data Practices Act (DPA) to private entities performing outsourced government work under contract. In its decision, the court held that private vendors whose contracts did not contain express “notice” language were exempt from the provisions the DPA. The decision reversed the previous, long-lived understanding that all Minnesota government contractors were, in fact, covered by that law.

“Helmberger” bill introduced

At the start of the current legislative session, the Minnesota Newspaper Association brought forward a bill that would remedy the Helmberger decision by specifying that all contractors performing government functions would be covered by the DPA – whether or not their contracts contained a specific notice requirement.

The bill clarifies section 13.05, Subd. 11 of the DPA, which provides the public with a valuable tool to oversee the outsourcing of government work to private entities. By providing public access to contractor data, this section of the DPA ensures that there is transparency in how tax dollars are spent, and how government functions are performed.

The “Helmberger” bill is important to government transparency, and MNCOGI board members have testified in favor of it at several legislative committee hearings. Most recently, at a joint Civil Law- HHS hearing, MNCOGI testified that the important oversight purpose of the bill should not be obscured by the addition of amendments, so that legislators could vote solely on the bill’s underlying premise.

Senate adds amendment to exempt health care industry

While in the Senate, the “Helmberger” bill had several sections added, including a section that granted a one-year exemption from the full reach of the DPA to health plans who contract for government work, as well as related providers and vendors.

MNCOGI opposes industry-wide exemptions from DPA

While this section “sunsets” after one year, MNCOGI believes that specific industries should not be granted preferential treatment in how the DPA applies to them – even for a short period of time.  Additionally, MNCOGI is concerned that once an exemption has been established in law, there may be a tendency to convert what was once a temporary statutory provision into a permanent feature of the DPA.

The House of Representatives is now set to vote on the House version of the bill on May 15. As of this writing, several amendments have been offered to the initial bill, including amendments that mirror the final Senate version (complete with its amended language).

MNCOGI is continuing to urge legislators to oppose the addition of broad, industry-wide exemptions to the bill, so that its oversight purpose does not become diluted.

MNCOGI recognizes three outstanding FOI advocates

Upon receiving the 2014 John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, Timberjay Newspapers publisher Marshall Helmberger said he’s gratified to know “Minnesotans still appreciate German-Norwegian stubbornness.”

Helmberger accepted the award Friday, March 14 at the annual Minnesota Coalition on Government Information FOI Day event in Minneapolis. Two pioneers for government transparency, Rodgers Adams and Robert Shaw, also received lifetime achievement awards.

MNCOGI honored Helmberger for his nearly three-year legal fight to uncover construction cost irregularities by the St. Louis County school district. The district and its contractor refused to disclose figures for a taxpayer-funded school construction project. Timberjay vs. Johnson Controls reached the Minnesota Supreme Court and prompted a legislative push to clarify how such contracts are structured.

“This fight is not over,” Helmberger said after receiving the award. He also praised First Amendment attorney  Mark Anfinson for his pro bono work on the case that Helmberger credited for “leveling the playing field” for a small newspaper going up against a Fortune 500 company with a well-financed team of lawyers.

MNCOGI also recognized two contemporaries of John Finnegan for their work with the late St. Paul Pioneer Press publisher to enact the law establishing the presumption of openness for government documents in Minnesota.

Robert Shaw, former executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, and Rodgers Adams, a former assistant editor at the Star Tribune were presented with lifetime achievement awards at the event.

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson gave the keynote address at the ceremony. He quoted Mark Twain, folk singer John Prine and Star Tribune reporter Rachel Stassen-Berger to both praise and excoriate members of the press.

“I don’t love the press,” Anderson said. “I treasure your role and I respect you.”

Anderson is recognized as a proponent of government transparency, but spoke of instances where inaccurate news reports put him in uncomfortable positions, including questioning by the FBI.

MNCOGI in the news

MNCOGI and board member Don Gemberling have been featured in recent Minnesota news coverage.  On November 11th, Minnpost ran a piece on data privacy issues, and Don Gemberling made an appearance in a recent Almanac broadcast about lawsuits stemming from drivers license data breaches.

Minnesota courts to decide the future of courtroom camera access



After two years of limited camera access to Minnesota district courtrooms, the Supreme Court is set to decide whether to extend, expand or halt the practice of giving greater public access to the judicial process.

This week, the Court’s General Rules Committee will issue a recommendation to reflect the views expressed during their meeting Sept. 20th. This same committee in 2011 voted 16 to 3 against the current pilot project. The Supreme Court justices ultimately rejected that recommendation.

At Friday’s meeting, attorney Mark Anfinson asked for an extension of the current experimental project to allow video and still cameras in courtrooms during civil cases at the judge’s discretion. He also suggested expanding the test to allow cameras during criminal court cases. He cited some two dozen examples of media requests for camera access during the test period with no negative issues arising either from judges or media organizations. WCCO producer Joan Gilbertson presented samples of her organization’s coverage of civil cases.

The members of the committee praised the coverage, but their conclusions of the pilot are mixed.

Hon. Robert Walker, a one-time opponent of allowing cameras in courtrooms, expressed his wish to not let momentum for the current project die. He suggests allowing cameras in additional ‘safe and appropriate’ settings such as the state’s drug and veterans courtrooms.

The Hon. Mel Dickstein said the examples of courtroom coverage presented at the meeting were ‘quite good’. Still, he sees the recent pilot as a ‘lost opportunity’ for the media to tell more stories that arose from civil courtrooms. He said he’s unconvinced that the pilot produced enough compelling evidence that the practice of allowing cameras should continue, much less expand to criminal proceedings.

Pictures and Video from the 2013 Finnegan Award

MNCOGI’s 2013 Freedom of Information Day presentation
MNCOGI’s 2013 Freedom of Information Day presentation

Judge Kathleen Gearin
Judge Kathleen Gearin

MNCOGI Chair Helen Burke and John R. Finnegan Jr.
MNCOGI Chair Helen Burke and John R. Finnegan Jr.

John R. Finnegan Jr.
John R. Finnegan Jr.

John R. Finnegan Jr. presents the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award to Michele Timmons.
John R. Finnegan Jr. presents the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award to Michele Timmons.

MNCOGI’s 2013 Freedom of Information Day award
MNCOGI’s 2013 Freedom of Information Day award

Michele Timmons accepts the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award.
Michele Timmons accepts the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award.

Video from The UpTake

Fair Use and Social Media: A Primer

Presenter: Paul Hannah
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
4:30 – 6:00 pm
Women Venture Meeting Room
2324 University Ave West, St. Paul (just East of Raymond)
A COGI-tations Event

Confused about how and when Fair Use applies to entries on Facebook, Twitter and blogs? Paul Hannah, media lawyer, provides pointers on Copyright law for journalists, concerned citizens, bloggers and all concerned about Fair Use in online expressions. As a well-known Twin Cities media attorney, Mr. Hannah knows the law and can clarify it for those who may be intimidated, confused or overwhelmed by it.

This event is free and open to the public. Free parking is available.

COGI-tations are public forums sponsored by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.

Sunshine Week & Finnegan Award in the News

Now that the week is over it’s fun to take a look at the coverage we got – and are getting:

Newspapers provide broadest access to government records – Jim Pumarlo wrote a nice article for the Minnesota Newspaper Association

Jim Neumeister was interviewed on Midday (Minnesota Public Radio)

Rich Neumeister, recipient of the 2009 John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, will be interviewed on this week’s Almanac: At the Capitol, with Mary Lahammer. Air times are Wednesday, March 25 at 10:00 p.m. and Thursday, March 26, at 4:00 a.m. on Channel 2. Channel 17 will air the program on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday at 2:00 a.m, 7:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m.

MnCOGI hosts the National Freedom of Information Coalition 2009!

The Board of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information is pleased to announce that we have been invited to play host to the 2009 national conference of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. This coalition of coalitions brings together a unique network of advocates committed to transparency in government and freedom of expression.

Each state projects a unique profile of membership, priorities and services, ranging from major organizations with large staffs and massive budgets to fledgling coalitions such as MnCOGI. Many are supported by mainstream media organizations, others by media attorneys, still others by foundations and individual/organizational memberships. All sponsor websites, most post blogs and each employs unique and creative strategies to address the common purpose of open government. Headquarters of the national coalition of coalitions is at the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

We look forward to this opportunity to define and articulate the mission of MnCOGI, to learn from other coalitions and to involve Minnesotans as speakers, panelists and attendees.

NFOIC members will be meeting in Minneapolis at the end of May or early June 2009. Any individual or organization interested in open government and First Amendment issues can get involved NOW. Specifics about the conference program and logistics will appear on this blog as they unfold.

For details of past NFOIC conferences check here. Good stuff!