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.

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

Posted by: on 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.

Pictures and Video from the 2013 Finnegan Award

Posted by: on Mar 25, 2013 | No Comments

MNCOGI’s 2013 Freedom of Information Day presentation

Judge Kathleen Gearin

MNCOGI Chair Helen Burke and John R. Finnegan Jr.

John R. Finnegan Jr.

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

MNCOGI’s 2013 Freedom of Information Day award

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

Video from The UpTake

Chief Justice Magnuson Keynote at 21st annual Freedom of Information Day Award Ceremony

Posted by: on Mar 2, 2010 | No Comments
Freedom of Information advocates hear Chief Justice Magnuson, honor local newspaper editor Anfinson and promote open access
Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson will deliver the keynote speech at the 21st annual Freedom of Information Day Award Ceremony on Tuesday, March 16, Noon-1:00 at Minneapolis Central Library Pohlad Auditorium. Chief Justice Magnuson will explore the freedom of information implications of two significant processes with which he has been closely involved – the Minnesota Senate election recount and the ongoing debate surrounding the issue of cameras in the courtroom.
A highlight of the Freedom of Information Day event is presentation of the 2010 John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award.  Reed Anfinson, publisher and owner of the Swift County Monitor-News will receive the award which recognizes his commitment to transparency and open government at the local and national levels.  Anfinson is on the Board of the National Newspaper Association; in 2012 he will assume the national presidency of the association. Finnegan, for whom the award was named two decades ago, will make the presentation.  The Award is a testament to Finnegan’s lifetime commitment to a free press and a transparent government.
Open government advocates celebrate Freedom of Information Day each year on March 16, the birth date of James Madison.  Often identified as the Father (or one of the fathers) of the Constitution, Madison is a hero of freedom of information proponents who are wont to quote Madison’s admonition that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.” 
Sponsors of Freedom of Information Day at the national and levels include a host of professional and advocacy organizations – journalists and newspaper editors, librarians, researchers and archivists, diverse nonprofit groups committed to open and accessible  government, particularly in an era of economic, political and technological change. Freedom of Information Day is the highlight of Sunshine Week, an initiative of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Local sponsor of FOI is the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.  The event is free and open to the public. 
For additional information about Freedom of Information Day, Sunshine Week, or the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information contact:
Mary Treacy, Executive Director
612 781 4234 or 612 703 3290

Sunshine Week 2010 Webcast – Building Transparency

Posted by: on Feb 14, 2010 | No Comments

Friday, March 19, 2010

11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. CST

Participants in past Sunshine Week webcasts have expressed a preference for viewing/participating from their own office rather than gathering for a group view.

No registration required.

The link will be available 24 hrs. prior to the event at the SW event page.
Panelists include Norm Eisen, Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform; and Miriam Nisbet, Director of the Office of Government Information.

Reed Anfinson Receives John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award

Posted by: on Feb 12, 2010 | No Comments

February 8, 2010 — The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) announced today that Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News, will receive the 2010 John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award. Anfinson will be honored at the annual Freedom of Information Day recognition event, on Tuesday, March 16, noon-1:00 at the Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.

Anfinson is a long-term journalist and advocate for access to government information at the local, state and national levels. He has testified frequently before both the Minnesota Legislature and the U.S. Congress on Freedom of Information and First Amendment issues.

Since 1994 he has co-chaired the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s legislative committee and currently chairs the National Newspaper Association Government Relations Committee. In 2012 Anfinson becomes President of the National Newspaper Association.

For the past 30 years Anfinson has been associated with the Swift County Monitor-News as a reporter, managing editor, and now publisher and owner. In this role he has published frequent editorials and articles on open government, including articles on the state’s Data Practices Act, open meeting regulations and discussions of the impact of video and digital technology on public access.

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, a nonprofit corporation formed in 1989, is dedicated to ensuring access to government information and public records. MNCOGI provides public education programs, manages a website and blog, maintains links with other state coalitions and promotes public awareness of information policy issues. In June 2009 MNCOGI hosted the annual Summit of the National Freedom of Information Coalition in Minneapolis.

The Freedom of Information Award, established by the Coalition in 1989, is named for John R. Finnegan, Sr, retired senior vice president and assistant publisher of the St Paul Pioneer Press. Finnegan is founder and stalwart of the Minnesota Joint Media Committee which has consistently supported open records, open meetings and other First Amendment-related causes in the Legislature and other public arenas in Minnesota.

*** Podcast interview with Reed Anfinson about the importance of Freedom of Information (conducted by Renee McGivern) *** 

The Freedom of Information Day event is free and open to the public.

Additional information on the MNCOGI website at or contact or 612-781-4234.

MN COGI Wins Blog Award

Posted by: on Sep 19, 2009 | No Comments

MN COGI wins spot on Top 100 Freedom of Information Blogs from The Daily Reviewer!

Missed the weekend? Catch the action!

Posted by: on Jun 8, 2009 | No Comments

Extraordinary thanks are due to the staff of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and to our own transparency team at The Uptake for brilliant coverage of the NFOIC Summit held in Minneapolis this past weekend. The Summit concluded late Saturday. In nanoseconds the text summaries and videos were posted on the web.

Attached is a program for the conference that may help readers follow and link to the big picture. Following are the sessions summaries accompanied by great photos.

· NFOIC Summit: Civics education
· NFOIC Summit: Fiscal transparency
· NFOIC Summit: Texts, Lies and Video Tape
· Mitchell Pearlman honored at NFOIC Summit
· NFOIC Summit: Infrastructure coverage tips
· NFOIC Summit: FOI & Infrastructure
· Judge rules media have no more rights than general…
· NFOIC Summit: Technologies you should be using
· NFOIC Summit: Coalition Sustainability
· NFOIC Summit: Arizona FOI roundup
· NFOIC Summit: Delaware FOI roundup
· NFOIC Summit: Kentucky FOIA roundup
· NFOIC Summit: Missouri FOI roundup
· NFOIC Summit: Oklahoma FOI roundup
· NFOIC Summit: Wisconsin FOIA roundup
· NFOIC Summit: Florida FOIA roundup
· NFOIC Summit: Minnesota FOIA roundup
· NFOIC Summit: Public access values
· NFOIC Summit: Public access threats

For those with a preference for video, we offer The Uptake take on the Summit. The Uptake livestreamed the Summit, thus reaching the many “regulars” whose budget cuts prevented travel to the City of Lakes. As always, there are some video glitches, but the audio is clear throughout. Keep checking TheUptake, too – there’s much more to come!

Many thanks to the several journalists, professional and citizen, who captured the moment. As one who spent a good portion of the Summit keep abreast of activities outside the sessions, I am particularly grateful for the virtual experience. After a Sunday of reading, viewing and listening, I feel as if I actually participated in the group experience. MT.

Freedom of Information Coalition Summit

Posted by: on May 15, 2009 | No Comments

Freedom of Information Coalition Summit
June 5-6
Minneapolis Marriott City Center

Friday at noon, we begin the conference with a luncheon and the ever-popular FOI Salon, followed that afternoon by two panels on Coalition Sustainability.

Saturday, we’ll have panels on FOI & Infrastructure, Financial Transparency, and FOI as Civic Education. At Saturday’s luncheon, for our keynote address we’re proud to present Paul Anger, vice president and editor of the Detroit Free Press.

For further information:

** added update – students can now attend for free (if they forego lunch)

Midwest Democracy Network’s Report Has Serious Problems

Posted by: on Apr 1, 2009 | No Comments

The Midwest Democracy Center’s recent report, Accessing Government: How difficult is it?, reflects what happens when you only look at a statute in trying to figure out what it does and particularly why it does what it does. Even with a statute based analysis, there are numerous mistakes in their description of what the statute says and does.

I also found it very strange that the authors spend quite a bit of time talking about the rules implementing the Data Practices Act. As the primary author of those rules, I take no great pleasure from that because the authors seem to believe that the rules were authored by the legislature. This is just one detailed example of why this report is bad and misleading.

The complexity of the Data Practices Act stems from three significant and primary legislative policy judgements.

First, the legislature decided that it would reserve to itself the authority to make all the decisions about whether data should or should not be public. It also decided those decision would be done in detail. This position on who classifies data was strongly urged on the legislature by the media community. People like John Finnegan, the former editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, were desperately trying to avoid having the courts make decisions based on a broad exemption system such as the federal FOIA.

Second, the legislature decided that our Act would also be a fair information practices and privacy statute. The latter being primarily a function of detailed decisions about what government data ought not be public. This adds a level of complexity to the DPA that is unlike other states and their foi statutes. However, it also gives to Minnesota citizens rights concerning access to data, limits on the data they provide to government and challenges to data that are not available in most other states in this country. For this reason, Minnesota has always received high rankings for the quality of its fair information practices protections.

Lastly, the legislature also retained to itself the authority to decide, at a detail level, issues of access to and dissemination of not public data. This adds to complexity because agencies and local governments must seek specific legislative enactments when they want to use and disseminate data.

In summary, when you strip out all of the detailed language in our DPA that deals with classifications of and use and dissemination of not public data, you are left with a statute that is not physically or conceptually any larger than most foi statutes. However, in other foi statutes, you must look to case law to see what the courts have said about detailed classifications of data as public or not public. On balance, when you add in the case law, you will find other states have the same level of complexity and physical size.

As Rich Neumeister, the 2008 Finnegan Award Winner, has said a number of times this past week, the Minnesota system is better because decisions about what should or should not be public have to be made in public and not behind the closed doors of a judge’s chambers. This is the very result John Finnegan and the rest of the media were trying to attain in the 1970’s.
However, there is a real problem with the process of the legislature making all decisions about closing data as that process currently operates. Simply put, there is little or no coverage of hearings by the media. At last week’s, Senate Subcommittee hearing there were lots of interesting issues discussed and debated. However to the best of my knowledge there were NO reporters in the room.

Be very careful with this report. I am going through this report line by line to identify detailed errors. The report makes recommendations about possible reforms to the Data Practices Act that I either do not understand or that miss the point. They did correctly identify that enforcement of the DPA is a problem. Suffice it to say, there have been recommendations by at least three study groups that Minnesota should establish a state office or commission whose primary job would be to work on issues of compliance. And, by such an office, I do not mean the current version of IPAD which is coming primarily a fee for service consulting shop for state agencies and which no longer appears to have a citizen centric perspective on information issues. However, there has not, so far, been the will in legislature to create, and more importantly, to properly fund such an office.

Don Gemberling, Secretary, MNCOGI Board