MNCOGI recognizes three outstanding FOI advocates

Posted by: on Mar 16, 2014 | No Comments

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 2014 legislative issues

Posted by: on Mar 3, 2014 | No Comments

On February 28th, MNCOGI released its 2014 legislative issues document during a noon-time event at the Minnesota State Capitol.

During the 2014 session, MNCOGI will be closely following several matters, including the status of license plate reader (LPR) data, provisions surrounding booking photo data, and the creation of a legislative commission on data practices.

MNCOGI’s full list of issues is reproduced below:

Data Practices Legislative Commission

• MNCOGI position:  Given the importance and complexity of data-related issues, the Minnesota Legislature should create a Legislative Commission on Data Practices.  A commission would allow the Legislature more time to study data issues (both access and privacy issues), bring recommendations, and craft bills that could be acted upon during the regular session.  The additional time afforded by the commission would allow the Legislature to take a “long view” of such matters, and aim for continuity in data policy.

LPR (License Plate Recognition) Data

• MNCOGI position:  To ensure effective oversight, provisions should be included within state law to ensure public access to data about the scope, nature, and use of LPR technology by Minnesota government entities.  MNCOGI also believes that a reasonable formula for dealing with data collected by LPR scanners is as follows:

All data collected by LPR scanners should be classified as “not public” data for a very short period of time after collection.  A retention scheme should be instituted under which “non-hit” LPR data would be quickly purged during its brief, initial status as “not public” data.  The remaining “hit” data that pertains to specific individuals or vehicles should be maintained as “not public” criminal investigative data until the closure of a criminal investigation.

Private contract, sub-contract data

• MNCOGI position:  In light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Helmberger v. Johnson Controls case, the Minnesota Legislature should support changes to Minnesota law that would ensure that data about privatized government functions continues to be available for public review.

Booking photograph data

• MNCOGI position:  Minnesota law should not be altered to treat requesters of booking photographs differently from other public data requesters.  Two bills introduced during the 2014 session seek to institute certain requirements related to booking photographs.  One of the bills (HF 1940) mandates that requesters submit statements regarding their intended uses of the photographs, as well as the locations where the photographs will be published.  The addition of such requirements would weaken the overall framework of the MGDPA by introducing – for the first time – mandates requiring certain requesters to specify their intended uses of government data.

HF 1940 also seeks to institute a variety of penalties for failing to comply with some of its provisions. For instance, the bill requires that persons who receive booking photographs from other parties file use-related disclosures with police agencies, or else become liable for damages. Such an approach raises significant First Amendment issues.

Prosecutors specified in “Criminal Investigative Data”

• MNCOGI position:  Prosecutors should be added to the itemized list of persons and/or entities that can receive and maintain “criminal investigative data” under Minn. Stat. 13.82.  Such a change would codify a long-standing practice recognized by IPAD advisory opinions.

Affirmative right to record open meetings

• MNCOGI position:  Minnesota law should be altered in order to codify an affirmative right to record any proceedings that are subject to Minnesota’s Open Meeting law.  Such a change would codify a long-standing Attorney General opinion on the subject,

Police “body cam” data

• MNCOGI position:  Several municipal police departments have either obtained – or are in the process of obtaining – “body cam” video recorders for patrol officers to wear.  These mobile devices record daily police interactions in order to create a record for use in criminal or civil court proceedings.  MNCOGI believes that the data created by police body cams should be classified as public “incident” data, similar to the way in which squad car video is considered to be presumptively public government data.  In both cases, the public classification of the data ensures a measure of public review of police activities.

Mass surveillance data

• MNCOGI position:  Given recent advances in technology, government entities may increasingly be able to engage in the mass collection of data about individuals that was formerly beyond the reach of large-scale capture.  Such data could include, for instance, ongoing, “real-time” information about the locations and movements of thousands of individuals.  The legislature should evaluate such technologies on an ongoing basis, and ensure statutory access to information about the nature, scale, and legal underpinnings of such technologies.


City finally hands over records of investigation

Posted by: on Feb 10, 2014 | No Comments

By James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor

I blogged last month about how the Star Tribune had waited seven months for the city of Minneapolis to hand over records of an internal investigation into a public official. The documents finally arrived last week, and staff writer Eric Roper had a story about it in Sunday’s paper.  He also offered readers the entire investigative file, so you can piece together your own story, in between eight months’ worth of redactions.

MNCOGI-SPJ response to School District 833 data practices proposal

Posted by: on Feb 4, 2014 | No Comments

On February 3, 2014, MNCOGI and the Minnesota chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists sent a letter to several members of the Minnesota Legislature in response to a legislative priority set out by the School Board for District 833. At its January 9, 2014 meeting, the School Board listed its priorities for the coming legislative session, including making modifications to the Data Practices Act that would permit requests to be answered only if they were of “general interest to the public.”

As noted in the joint MNCOGI-SPJ letter, the district’s proposed standard would – if adopted – weaken the long-standing presumption of broad public access to Minnesota government data.  It would also permit government entities to “play favorites” with data requesters, effectively allowing them to pick and choose between who they wished to respond to. To quote from the letter,

“The proposed criteria of “general public interest” is exceedingly vague.  Some government entities might favor one requestor over another on the basis of mere political considerations, or turn aside “uncomfortable” requests that sought data related to government mismanagement, waste, fraud, or other unflattering conduct.”

Minutes from the School Board’s January 9th meeting are here. MNCOGI’s letter is available for review here.

Encouraging words about open data from Minneapolis

Posted by: on Feb 3, 2014 | No Comments

By James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor

Last month, Minneapolis’s Chief Information Officer, Otto Doll, convened a meeting with open data advocates to talk about how to get more city data into the public’s hands. I’m encouraged to see these kinds of overtures from public officials, and it’s clearly a response to the movement of civic-minded hackers who are changing the whole conversation about public records. Doll started the meeting by acknowledged that despite its progressive image, Minneapolis is way behind most major cities in providing regular access to electronic records. My Strib colleague Eric Roper covered the meeting as part of his Sunday story about the open data movement. Roper’s story noted that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie will host a “Capitol Code Open Data Jam” Feb. 22. The office describes it as an event “for citizens to use accessible public datasets to create new technology solutions that can stimulate business ideas — such as smartphone applications or websites.”

Too many public officials are reluctant to release data because they worry the public will misuse or misinterpret it. It’s refreshing to see officials offering access to data as a way to improve government’s performance and make society better. Let’s make them follow through on it.

Rejection by redaction: Seven months and waiting

Posted by: on Jan 9, 2014 | No Comments

From James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor

When public officials take forever to fulfill records requests, one of the most common excuses is that they need to redact information that’s not public. Under Minnesota law, they can’t charge for the time spent redacting, but the process can result in long delays in handing over records that are undeniably public. Star Tribune staff writer Eric Roper told the story of how he is still waiting for public records that he requested from the city of Minneapolis seven months ago.  The city’s explanation? The time has been spent redacting documents that fill a “banker’s box.”

Holding political candidates accountable for public data

Posted by: on Nov 14, 2013 | No Comments

By James Shiffer, MNCOGI board member

I confess that I am late to the party when it comes to the growing movement of civic-minded hackers who are doing wonders with government data. But the more I find out, the more I realize that those of us who have wrangled with government agencies for years over public records now have a new generation of compatriots who recognize the power of public data to make the world better.

One of those advocates, Bill Bushey of Open Twin Cities, paid a visit to the MNCOGI board earlier this week. One thing he talked about was the open data questionnaire that was sent to all political candidates in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Several of those who responded were elected to office, and now the public has a record of what they said they would do to make government data more accessible. My Star Tribune colleague Eric Roper blogged about it here.

One of newly elected Minneapolis City Council members, Linea Palmisano, gave a statement that we would like to hear more of from politicians: “I also believe that both the media and citizens shouldn’t have to submit a ‘data practices’ request and wait months in order to get data from the city. The irony is that the city has spent millions of dollars in the IT department but accessibility hasn’t improved for citizens.”

Now let’s they make sure they keep their promises.

MNCOGI draft of traveling law enforcement data bill

Posted by: on Nov 14, 2013 | No Comments

The MNCOGI board recently approved its draft of a possible “traveling law enforcement data” bill at its November 11th meeting.  The draft language creates a classification scheme for law enforcement data entering Minnesota from other states, and sets out the following results:

1.  Data that is already public in another state would remain public when transferred to Minnesota;

2.  Data that is already classified as “not public” data in another state would remain “not public” in Minnesota for a period of one year.  After that time it would become public data in Minnesota, unless the data became part of a Minnesota criminal investigation.

MNCOGI’s language would also require that agencies keep a public log with details about the “traveling law enforcement data” coming into their possession.  Finally, bi-annual audits would be required to ensure that “traveling” data that became part of a Minnesota criminal investigation met the threshold for “criminal investigative data” as set out by state law.

The draft bill has been shared with the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, as part of ongoing talks about this issue.  Watch this space for more updates on this process.

– Matt Ehling, MNCOGI board member


MNCOGI in the news

Posted by: on 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

Posted by: on 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.