MNCOGI testimony on HF 291, presented January 26, 2017

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MINNESOTA COALITION ON GOVERNMENT INFORMATION (MNCOGI)

Testimony of Matt Ehling related to HF 291

House Civil Law Committee 

January 26, 2017

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information supports HF 291.  This bill seeks to clarify the language of Minn. Stat. 13.55 – the section of the Data Practices Act that classifies convention center data.

Before I discuss why clarification of this statute is desirable, I want to address its history briefly, so that its original intent is clear.

As you’ll see in our packet starting on page two, this provision of the Data Practices Act was added in the early 1980s, and was written to specifically address data held by the Saint Paul Civic Center Authority, which booked musical acts and other touring events seeking to rent the Saint Paul Civic Center.

The original statute essentially classified data that related to the marketing and negotiating activities of the Civic Center as it dealt with prospective renters.  You’ll see that the data made “nonpublic” by the statue included the identity of firms that contacted the Civic Center Authority, as well as the suggested terms of the rentals.  The statute then made this data “public” after a contract with a renter had been signed, or under certain other circumstances.  So the original statute was directed specifically at protecting the identify of – and communications with – prospective renters of Saint Paul’s convention center.  Setting aside for a moment whether this was good public policy or not, it was the original intent of the earliest version of the statute.

You’ll then see that subsequent alterations to the staute were made, which resulted in what we have today — a generalized provision that covers publicly owned and operated convention center facilities, as well as the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, or MSFA.  The MSFA is the successor orgnization to the Metropolitain Sports Facilities Commission.  The data elements that are covered by the statute today are essentially the same as those covered in 1982, with a couple of additions.  What is not covered are the names of individuals who recieve free or discounted tickets or other gifts from publicly owned facilities — that data is presumptively public.

After stories broke in the Star Tribune newspaper about the MSFA providing various public officials and others with free access to box seats in US Bank Stadium, the MSFA recieved press inquiries about who specifically had attended events as guests of the MSFA.  Initially, MSFA officials declined to release the names of their guests, citing Minnesota Statue 13.55 – the convention center provision that we’ve been discussing.  Eventually, the MSFA released a list that included dozens of names, due to the fact that those names were classified as public data under Minnesota law.

While data relating to persons who receive free tickets and gifts is presumptively public data under the Data Practices Act, we feel that it would be useful to reiterate that fact in law for the following reasons:

1.  First, the language of the Data Practices Act has been crafted in many instances to call out specific, public data that is described within a provision that otherwise classifies data as “not public” information.  You’ll see an example of this on page four of your packet, in Minn. Stat. 13.601.  This statute makes certain data “private,” but its language also notes that other, very specific data are public.  Generally under the Data Practices Act, the absense of specific langauge classifying data means that the data remains public, but there are instances in Chapter 13 where language calling out a public classification has been added for clarity.

2.  Secondly, in cases where there has been a controversy or disagreement about the meaning of a provision of the Data Practices Act, the legislature has sometimes added clarifying langauge to underscore the right to access certain public data.  The controversy over access to the names of persons with free access to MSFA box seats falls into this category.  Given the number of publicly-owned convention facilities in the state – ranging from the Ames Center in Burnsville to the DECC in Duluth – questions about the status of data related to gift and tickets may arise again, and additional clarity will be helpful.