Star Tribune Whistleblower columnist Alejandra Matos blogs about how once-public records at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture are now unavailable, because of a continuing investigation into a business linked to a salmonella illness outbreak. Here’s the story.
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Last week, my Strib colleague Chao Xiong couldn’t get the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office to hand over public records regarding a homicide. So he blogged about the experience, and got a promise from the sheriff to do better next time. Read his story here.
— James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor
The Minnesota Department of Administration recently determined that “marketing data” held by MNSure, the state’s health care exchange, must remain open to review by the public.
In July, MNSure, submitted a request to the department for a temporary data classification that would have converted internal marketing documents to a “nonpublic” status until its marketing plans were publicly released. The change would have closed off access to scores of documents that were presumed to be public, due to MNSure’s status as a taxpayer supported entity.
MNCOGI submitted comments in opposition to MNSure’s application, and noted that MNSure had not met the showing required by Minnesota law to get the data re-classified. On August 22, Commissioner Spencer Cronk agreed with MNCOGI and others, and determined that MNSure’s marketing records must continue to be publicly available.
I attended the National Freedom of Information Coalition 2013 FOI Summit in New Orleans last month. The NFOIC has posted a wrap-up page with videos of the Saturday panels and the keynote address.
In addition to the presentations on Saturday, panels on Friday afternoon brought together the attendees to talk about nuts-and-bolts issues of running a state freedom of information group, like fund-raising and maintaining a website. The conversation was informal and part of the aim was to share news of activities in the states.
In the session titled “Yes, You CAN … on a Shoestring,” the speakers were ardent advocates for getting involved in the legislative process. Across the country there are a few states that hire and pay lobbyists. Many other states are in a situation similar to Minnesota, where the group is a 501c3 educational group and “lobbying” is only done informally and without pay by members of the groups. The comments were valuable for both types of situations.
Megan Rhyne, the Executive Director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said that if you want to lobby, you should and you can. The benefits are so much greater than the time you spend in the chambers. Since the VA Legislature meets only two months each year, most lobbying is done during the interim. During the session, she makes almost daily trips to walk the halls, meet with legislators, and attend committee hearings to testify or watch. Some of her most useful conversations and contacts over the years have taken place when she didn’t expect it – in a bathroom washing her hands, or while chatting with lobbyists of other groups that may have similar interests. Half of lobbying is just showing up. You are not only talking with legislators, but also meeting other stakeholders. Lobbying gives your group a good public relations platform to reach out to donors and constituents. With information from the capitol you have instant content for your social media outlets. It gives you a way to get your members involved; you can inform members about what they can do about various issues and bills, and who they should contact.
Lobbying doesn’t always change the outcome of legislation, but sometimes it does. For many bills, it is helpful to identify citizens who can testify.
Sometimes coalitions can be pigeonholed as just spokespeople for open media issues and for the concerns of journalists – but the coalitions represent more, they represent open government for all citizens. You are an embodiment of the peoples’ right to know. Keeping close contact with the media is useful; journalists like to write articles about bills that will affect them directly, and they will be looking for spokespeople.
Hyde Post, a journalist and consultant from Georgia, said that their group looks at education as a form of long-term lobbying. Lobbying at the legislature is a form of triage. Often you are working to prevent the doors of open government from being shut. How do you prevent that? Build a basic education workshop that you can transport anywhere. Make it your business to get in front of newly-elected or newly-appointed public officials, like state court judges, or school board members, or sheriffs, even legislators School board officials are often those least-savvy about public openness issues, he noted, since many come from the private sector. If you make contacts with people at an educational seminar and they see you at the Capitol some time later, they will know you, before there is a crisis with a specific bill and you are heading off legislation at the pass.
This is just a small piece of the interesting session. Another important topic was fund-raising, a crucial aspect of the life of any small nonprofit. Hyde Post from Georgia said that their group began as an organization with $15,000 a year and has grown from there. “We are always on the precipice of running out of money. If you aren’t worrying about money all the time, I want to meet you, because you probably have a lot of it and I’d like some.” He also pulled out his phone from his pocket and the small credit card reader that hooks onto it. He said that everyone in the room needed one. That way if you are talking with anyone who might have an interest in donating to your group, you are ready to take a donation, then and there.
The Summit was well-run, the speakers were engaging, and my overall reaction was regret that I had not attended the summits in previous years!
Overloaded with too many print and online news sources already, I never pick up something to read at my local convenience store. Maybe that’s why I haven’t kept up with Busted Paper, a newspaper that publishes mugshots from Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, and Dakota counties. Stephanie Fox from the Twin Cities Daily Planet wrote a great article about the issues raised by the Minnesota paper and similar newspapers and websites around the country. Read “Busted Paper” and other mugshot magazines: Why they are—and will likely remain—legal.
MNCOGI board member Jane Kirtley was quoted in the article.
Mugshots.com includes on its website more than 11,000 words justifying why what they do is moral and legitimate, including strong legal and social arguments about legitimate public interest, open government, even tough love. A lot of people in law and the media agree.
“Many in the criminal justice system are appalled by public access to mugshots in papers and online,” said Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota.
“Their reaction is to say that it’s an invasion of privacy, there are unintended consequences, that it inflames the public. A lot of the members of the public are appalled, too. People forget that transparency in the criminal justice system is for the protection of the arrested. Secrecy imperils those in custody,” she says. “Public information should be accessible and there should always be a presumption of openness.”
The attitude is similar at the Minnesota ACLU, where executive Director Chuck Samuelson agreed that openness in the criminal justice system is vital for a free society.
“One of the things we had our revolution about in 1776 was secret police work by the government. That’s why we have the Fourth Amendment. Arrests must be public. If they are public, there must be a record of it and the government has to bring you into open court.”
“That’s the good side,” he said. “You don’t want situation like in Argentina. But the bad news is if it’s all public, so is your mugshot.”
Good arguments. I hope to avoid being arrested, so I can stay out of the Busted Paper and don’t have to pay money to get my image off websites like mugshots.com.
— Robbie LaFleur
Judge Kathleen Gearin gave a robust argument for allowing the televising of court proceedings in civil and criminal cases in Minnesota, a position developed over the past ten years. She said her personal experience with cameras in her courtroom has been only positive. For example, the televised hearings during the 2011 state government shutdown helped the public understand the process.
She noted many reasons that judges and lawyers oppose opening up courtrooms to televised coverage. Judges are afraid of the unknown, and many are uncomfortable with public speaking. They are afraid that single sentences may be broadcast out-of-context, that cameras will bring more publicity to cases, and that it will be more difficult for juries. Judges and attorneys will play to the cameras. Witnesses don’t want to be seen as snitches. Minnesota has a collegial bench, and some judges don’t want to be considered oddballs, or “hot dogs.”
To counter those arguments, Judge Gearin said that in practice judges quickly forget that the camera is even there, and the media have been respectful of the privacy of juries and witnesses. During the question and answer period someone asked whether there is a particular state that allows cameras in the courtroom that would be a good model for Minnesota. Her matter-of-fact response was that all the states allowing cameras in the courtroom are fine models.
Judge Gearin feels that a successful move to full use of cameras in the courtroom in civil and criminal cases will require broad acceptance in the legal community, and that the legal culture in Minnesota is slowly changing.
I recommend watching all of Judge Gearin’s interesting and thoughtful remarks, available here.
MNCOGI is seeking nominations for the annual John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award. Send in your nomination by March 1 for a worthy individual or group or organization working to promote government information and increase transparency. (form: WORD, pdf) For inspiration, here is a list of former FOI award recipients.
This week, Ruben Rosario from the Pioneer Press highlighted the work of a prior award winner in “Meet Rich Neumeister, the People’s Activist.”
Rich Neumeister received the FOI Award in 2009. He still fills his watchdog role at the Capitol, working on his own dime to track data practices and privacy legislation. The lively profile includes a description of how Rich gained the trust of legislators over the years.
Depending on whom you talk to, Neumeister is an annoying pain in the butt or an indefatigable watchdog who has helped legislators massage laws to better protect privacy rights as well as makegovernment more transparent over the years. Two straight-shooting and veteran lawmakers I respect attest to the latter.
“Rich is an asset at the Capitol,” said Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, an eighth-term legislator and member of the House Data Practices subcommittee. “He represents the average citizen and is often battling against the interests of organizations with highly paid lobbyists. He is respectful, knowledgeable and provides a vital perspective on keeping government accountable while protecting individuals’ privacy rights.”
Neumeister said he still has to pass the “weird guy” test annually with rookie lawmakers. That included Rep. Michael Paymar during his early years at the Legislature.
“I wasn’t sure if he was a black-helicopter guy or a good- government guy,” recalled Paymar, DFL-St. Paul. “While his points usually seemed legitimate, he didn’t look like the lobbyists I had been used to dealing with.”
Throughout the years, though, “my respect for Rich grew, in part because of the way he handled himself, but also he really knew what the hell he was talking about, and he understands the intent of the law,” added Paymar, who is serving his ninth term in the House and chairs its Public Safety Finance and Policy committee.
“When a data privacy bill comes up, I wait to hear from Rich.”
MNCOGI board member and spokesperson Don Gemberling was featured on “Almanac at the Capitol” on January 30. Mary Lahammer’s interview with Don (which begins at 18 minutes, 20 seconds into the program) was part of a segment on data privacy concerns at the Capitol. Hear Don’s comments about the importance of training in state and local government to avoid privacy breaches. He also mentions the possibility of creating a statewide commission to deal with ongoing complex issues of data practices and government access.
Minnesota lawmakers propose safeguards against misuse of government databases
By Kyle Potter
Updated: 01/23/2013 08:14:37 PM CST
Sens. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville
A week after more than 5,000 Minnesotans found out that a Department of Natural Resources employee had looked up their driving or motor vehicle records, state lawmakers Wednesday announced their plan to curb abuse of databases.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, outlined a bill that would require all state and local government agencies to establish better safeguards against database misuse and calls for harsher criminal penalties for violators.
Holberg said the breach at the DNR underscored the need for an overhaul of how government handles its data on Minnesotans.
“We’re just really frustrated that this is continuing to happen,” Holberg said. “This situation has to stop.”
The bill would increase the penalty for repeatedly abusing a database from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor.
It also would require all government entities to post an investigation on the Internet, detailing what data was accessed, how many people were affected and naming who was responsible.
Holberg and Dibble’s bill would apply to local government and law enforcement as well. Current law only governs state agencies.
Investigations have found that misuse of the state driver’s license and motor vehicle database is common. Minneapolis, St. Paul and more than 10 other municipalities have paid out $1 million combined in settlements to a former area police officer who accused other officers of improperly accessing her driver’s license information.
It’s especially troubling that databases are being abused “by public safety employees whom we trust with sensitive information,” Dibble said.
Dibble and Holberg said they’ll consider recommendations from the legislative auditor, who is expected to release a report next month on how law enforcement uses state databases.
“I think everybody recognizes that we don’t have the proper systems and procedures in place,” Holberg said.