From James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor
This week, two dozen Star Tribune journalists launched polite questions at Stacie Christensen and Janet Hey of the Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD), the state agency that weighs in on conflicts over public records and open meetings. I invited them to visit the Strib after hearing they had done a similar presentation to Minnesota Public Radio. They’ve also visited the Pioneer Press, and after their visit to the Star Tribune, most of us came away convinced that Stacie and Janet are committed to helping journalists and the public keep government open.
The last state in which I practiced journalism, North Carolina, didn’t have anything like IPAD, so I didn’t know at first whether they were friend or foe in getting government officials to obey the law. Here’s what I took away from their presentation on the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act:
Presumption of openness: The MGDPA has a presumption that all records are public, except in two areas: personnel records and police records. For those categories, records are non-public unless specified.
Access to records: Government agencies must allow free inspection of public records, no matter what form they’re in. Anyone requesting public records doesn’t have to say who they are or why they want the records.
Proprietary data: There’s no such designation in the MGDPA, so if any agency or contractor invokes that phrase to try to withhold records, it’s bogus.
Incentives: One explanation for officials’ reluctance to release records is that there are more penalties for releasing private data than there are for withholding public data.
Records retention policy: Ask for it! Every agency has to have one. And it’s illegal for an agency to destroy a public record after someone has requested it, even if the retention policy allows them to do it.
Call them: IPAD staff are willing to mediate disputes over records, and sometimes even participate in conference calls to advise government agencies and records requesters about what the law requires. You can reach IPAD at Phone: 651-296-6733 or 800-657-3721 or firstname.lastname@example.org