Our View: Protect public access to public data

Look no further than last summer's attempt by the city of Duluth to start charging by the hour to fulfill data requests for the need to keep fighting to protect the public's access to public information and government records.


Look no further than last summer's attempt by the city of Duluth to start charging by the hour to fulfill data requests for the need to keep fighting to protect the public's access to public information and government records.

You don't have to be a newspaper reporter, whistle-blower, or even someone important to request to see what's public via freedom-of-information laws, including Minnesota's Government Data Practices Act. It's your right as an American to be able to access records that yield what government is doing - and isn't doing but should be. It's your responsibility as a citizen to make sure what elected and appointed bodies are up to is legal, proper, and what you want.

Documents and information are necessary for government accountability.

But how do we go about getting those documents and records? How do we submit written requests for public information?

A free workshop from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. next week, on Thursday, Oct 12, at the Duluth Public Library downtown, will be able to help. Sponsored for a fourth straight year here in Duluth by Public Record Media of St. Paul, which holds similar sessions statewide, the workshop is to highlight how anyone can use freedom-of-information laws. Leading the workshop will be Rich Neumeister, a longtime requester of public records and an advocate for open government. Public Record Media Executive Director Matt Ehling will give an overview of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). And Duluth-area data requesters have been invited to share their experiences. The workshop is free and open to the public.


"In order to make informed judgments about policy issues, the public must have access to information about the function of its government entities as well as the large private institutions that they regulate and interact with," the nonpartisan nonprofit Public Record Media says at its website, "PRM believes that (freedom of information) is a linchpin of the democratic process. In order to ensure oversight, enable public input, and uphold the integrity of the democratic process itself, access to information about the workings of government and the large institutions it interfaces with is essential."

Public records and knowing how to access them yielded "many examples of great national and local FOIA reporting" this year, the News Media Alliance, a trade association representing approximately 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, boasted last week in a statement to the News Tribune and other media outlets.

"While several of the stories rely on freedom of information requests to gather information, even more are about those laws and requests themselves," said the alliance, which is based in the state of Virginia. "It is also interesting to note that journalists' requests are changing the FOIA landscape, forcing agencies to take a long, hard look at how they work with the press and what records are eventually made public."

One example of a freedom-of-information success this year happened in North Carolina after journalists requested texts from state officials. The state attorney general ruled that North Carolina had to better catalog digital documents like texts that are part of the public record.

"While a solution to easier access to texts and other digital records is still a ways off, the work of these journalists will ensure that this becomes - and remains - a priority," the alliance said.

As another example, the Associated Press determined and reported that in the final year of the administration of President Barack Obama it spent a record $36.2 million fighting freedom-of-information requests.

"The administration also set records for the number of denials and 'non-existent' records replies it sent out, making it harder for journalists and members of the public to get their hands on many records that should have been accessible," the alliance said.

Here in Duluth, city officials proposed charging $35 per hour for staff time beyond 15 minutes spent responding to requests for public information. The amount was in excess of what's specified by state law. After criticism and outcry - including from the News Tribune's publisher, a Twin Cities journalist who specializes in public-record investigations, and the Minnesota Newspaper Association's legal counsel - the city backed down.


So there's another example from this year of successes related to protecting the public's right to access public information.

Workshops like the one next week in Duluth can help lead to more needed successes. So, go. Learn. No matter who you are, you can play a critical role in making sure government is always held accountable.

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