Public record laws, here today, gone tomorrow


As the Legislature bears down towards the end, many surprises can happen quickly and without notice, one of those is fast moving deletion of open records law.

Until about 35 years ago, the public never had access to public data that we have access to now.  Such things as arrest records, memos that detail why elected officials raised your taxes, detailed information how a city decides to take property, or how a school district decides on the goals of teaching your children were generally non existent for the people.

Beginning in the mid sixties, the Federal Government and state governments began to pass laws that gave people the right to access public data.  In Minnesota, we started the process in the mid seventies to what has now become the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

Two main concepts of the Data Practices Act is all government data is public, unless classified as being not public, and two, the Legislature decides what is not public.  Rather than have some decision by the court or single bureaucrat determine what is public or not, the people’s elected officials decide.

But, access to public data can disappear at the Legislature.  How is this done?  It is done through the legislative process of passing legislation.

For example, the amendment that I have fought against for the last 3 years that makes private, all e-mail addresses of public employees(which are now public) unless you know their name.  So if you want to contact the Director of Public Works about the pothole that needs fixin you would need to know the name before you get their public e-mail address.

Another example,  for thirty years or more the Department of Natural Resources license data was public.  Many open government advocates thought at a conference committee two years ago a proposal to make all DNR license private would not become law based upon conversation with key legislators. Lo and behold after the conference committee bill was signed, the provision to make the data private was in the bill.

There are not many people who follow open government issues consistently.  There is the group or individual who comes to the Legislature on a specific issue or two, but there is not continuous monitoring.  It is also harder for the few people and individuals who do it on a regular basis.  Many times if there is no one at a hearing that raises an objection when an amendment is presented that makes public data secret, the amendment will get on the bill.  Silence is taken as acquiesce, other words no objection.

In the next few weeks at the Legislature, there will be attempts to make public data secret, put up barriers to public data, exempt groups from open meeting laws, and in my opinion, ultimately makes government less accountable and transparent for you and me.

Personal Note
If interested to follow what is happening on open government issues at the Legislature until it adjourns follow me on twitter @richneumeister or  It is my intention to use the new tools I have learned in the past six months to share with you what’s a happening.