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Free workshop offered in Duluth on how to access public records

Rich Neumeister, a citizen activist and longtime champion of holding government accountable, hopes to inspire other members of the public to question authority.

Toward that end, the 59-year-old will lead a free workshop at the Duluth Public Library on Monday to teach people about how they can use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act to access government records on subjects of interest to them. It’s the first of several such sessions the St. Paul resident plans to organize across the state.

“As I enter my autumn years, I want to go out and educate people about the unique tools they have been given to make sure that government is held accountable,” Neumeister said.

Joining Neumeister will be Matt Ehling, president of Public Records Media, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that uses freedom of information laws to obtain and publish data.

“FOIA was not written just for the media,” Ehling said. “It was written for the general public to utilize.”

It’s easy for citizens to feel intimidated, but Ehling hopes they will leave Monday’s workshop with a sense of empowerment.

“The law can seem complex if people are not fairly familiar with it, but the concepts are simple, and this workshop will teach people the basics they need to navigate the system,” he said.

In addition to fighting for access to public records, Neumeister also has been a strong defender of individuals’ privacy. He has been an outspoken critic of widening surveillance in the name of heightened security.

Neumeister’s efforts have garnered much praise and recognition, including the John Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, which he received from the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.

Yet on his blog — OpenSecretsMN — Neumeister describes himself modestly, saying: “I am an ordinary citizen who cares about open government and privacy. I have worked on these issues at the Minnesota Legislature and elsewhere for 30 years.”

Ehling concedes it would be a long shot to expect another Neumeister to emerge from Monday’s workshop, but he maintains that when members of the general public exercise their rights to access public information it promotes the health of the entire system.

“Everyone is paying for these records to be collected, so having access to them is part and parcel of our democracy,” he said.

If you go

What: Free workshop on public record laws

When: 6-8 p.m. Monday

Where: Duluth Public Library, 520 W. Superior St.

Who: Open to any interested citizen or journalist

To attend: Please RSVP at www.publicrecordmedia.org or call (651) 335-2037

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