MNCOGI in the news

Nov 14, 2013 | No Comments

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.

MNCOGI, MN Chiefs of Police Association in talks about traveling data

Oct 10, 2013 | No Comments

Non-Minnesota police entities prepare and disseminate “threat assessment” and other “criminal intelligence” information to Minnesota law enforcement agencies, including the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and its component MNJAC (the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center). Such data are often utilized in support of crime and terrorism prevention, and can consist of reports on individuals or groups who are believed to pose a threat to public safety.

The classification of this type of data in Minnesota has been in dispute for some time, as some of it does not fit neatly within the existing law enforcement data sections of Chapter 13. In addition, certain non-Minnesota law enforcement entities have reportedly been hesitant to share some of this data with Minnesota agencies, expressing concerns that the data might become public under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. Civil libertarians and political activists have also raised questions about the content of some criminal intelligence data.  They have expressed concerns that the inappropriate use of such data could have a chilling effect on the constitutionally protected activities of individuals or political organizations.  Since 2009, three bills addressing criminal intelligence data have been introduced in the Minnesota legislature, but none have passed.

Recently, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association (MCPA) approached MNCOGI about working together to craft a narrow bill that addressed state-to-state “traveling” data – including criminal intelligence data – while setting aside any larger discussions about criminal intelligence data generated by Minnesota agencies until another time.  MNCOGI has agreed to prepare the first draft of a bill that would address data coming into Minnesota from law enforcement entities in other states.  Formal talks began earlier this month, and are ongoing.

Efforts at crafting criminal intelligence bills require multiple stakeholders.  The traveling data discussion will solict input from all parties as it moves forward.  MNCOGI is also presenting updates about this process on its blog.  Find the minutes of the first meeting between MNCOGI and MCPA representatives here, and watch this space for more updates.

Cameras in Courts: MN court committee keeps door open to expanded public access to courtrooms

Oct 2, 2013 | No Comments

A court panel leaves open the possibility for a continuation of the current experimental rules allowing limited use of still and video camera access in the state’s courtrooms. A recommendation issued October 1 notes “the committee is not aware of any problems or complaints caused by the use of cameras or audio recording equipment in court proceedings” during a two-year pilot project scheduled to sunset at the end of this year. The court’s General Rules Committee is made up of judges and attorneys from various jurisdictions around the state. Read the full recommendation here. Minnesota Supreme Court justices will make the final decision.

The committee also touched on the possibility of expanding camera access to some criminal proceedings, but such a move will probably require a new round of scrutiny.

The report reflects concern by some members of the panel during their Sept. 20 meeting that they have very little information to go on since there were few media requests to bring cameras into courtrooms. At that meeting, WCCO news producer Joan Gilbertson talked about the difficulty of navigating the sometimes confusing process of the civil cases that organizations were limited to covering during the pilot project. She said the proceedings are readily postponed and often settled before the parties ever enter a courtroom. “I would like to court to step up and present (media organizations) with some cases they want covered,” Gilbertson said. WCCO aired more than a half dozen stories about civil cases during the pilot project highlighting the fact that it was the first time such access was available in Minnesota.

Minnesota is one of 12 states that effectively bar camera use in court proceedings. Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota all allow camera use by media organizations for both civil and criminal court cases.

Minnesota courts to decide the future of courtroom camera access

Sep 23, 2013 | No Comments

 

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.

Losing access to records when you want them most

Sep 18, 2013 | No Comments

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.

IPAD’s message to the Star Tribune: We help keep government open

Sep 13, 2013 | No Comments

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 info.ipad@state.mn.us

Reporter fights back, with words, after getting stonewalled over records

Sep 5, 2013 | No Comments

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

MNSure records to remain public

Aug 27, 2013 | No Comments

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.

In News

Lifting the veil on sudden departures by government officials

Aug 26, 2013 | No Comments

By James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, and brand-new COGI board member

Nine months after he arrived to run a 300-employee department for the city of Minneapolis, Gregory Stubbs abruptly quit. The City Council gave him $65,000 and gave the public no explanation.

The Star Tribune reporters who cover Minneapolis thought they had an easy way to find out why Stubbs left. They sent a public records request to the city invoking a new provision of the Data Practices Act designed to shed light on the departure of “public officials” who leave in the midst of scandal. The law had been changed following outrage over the pricy and unexplained severance package given to a school official in Burnsville.

But the city of Minneapolis had a surprising response: the city’s director of regulatory services isn’t a public official, as defined by the law. The Star Tribune went to IPAD for an opinion, and the agency agreed with the city. As it turns out, the law was drafted in such a way that it excluded most of Minneapolis’ top officials, including the police and fire chiefs. Reporter Eric Roper turned that situation to his advantage, writing a story about the loophole and getting a key lawmaker on the record that it would be changed.

The Legislature followed through this year by broadening the definition of “public official” to eliminate any doubt that it covered Minnesota’s largest city. In an era when lawmakers are making more and more exemptions to the Data Practices Act, this was one significant advance for the public’s right to know.

It took weeks before the Stubbs documents arrived at the Star Tribune. They were heavily redacted, but  they documented the sex discrimination and ethics complaints that preceded Stubbs’ departure. On Aug. 23, nearly a year after we first asked for the records, the Star Tribune published the story on the metro cover.

I learned several lessons from this journey: Read the law. Hold lawmakers accountable for their pledge of openness. Keep up the pressure on governments to release records. And when you get the records, publish a story. It lets everybody know we mean business.