What Michael Brodkorb, Rep. Gauthier, and the Minneapolis Police Department have in common are the following:
- Are subjects of Minnesota Government Data Practices Act requests.
- The requests themselves have created or are creating policy discussion with the public, and
- The public and policymakers discovered activities that raise questions on what government is doing.
The top basic action tool for accountability and transparency of state and local government is for a person to make a data practices request. The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act is a law which we have given ourselves through the Legislature to make sure that government runs right, is accountable, and there are no shenanigans going on.
When there was public discussion several months ago of a civil suit possibility by Michael Brodkorb, the public and media wanted information. Out came the data practices request either orally or written by members of the news media and the public to the Minnesota Senate. The response was sorry the Minnesota Senate is not under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. Many people were surprised by that. This meant that information that was public with the state executive branch among others, and all local political subdivisions were not available to the public. An example, was the contract between the Minnesota Senate and their lawyer and the amount paid the attorney. The Senate finally released the data, but pursuant to their own wishes, not by law. Should not the Minnesota Legislature be under the same law that it applies to everyone else?
The Gauthier episode involves a data practices request by a reporter of the Duluth Tribune for public data on an elected public official, Rep. Gauthier. Knowledge came to the Duluth Tribune that an investigation was on going with Gauthier. The request was made to the Duluth Police Department and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety(State Patrol)for all public data. The Duluth authorities and the State Patrol were not forthcoming in giving the public data for a number of reasons highlighted by media reports. There was “talk” from Duluth law enforcement per “high profile” cases or that the Department of Public Safety believed in a different interpretation of the law therefore no release of public data. But what the public has gained from this data practices request is insight how law enforcement have different databases or files based on who you are. Secondly, issues of access to public data. Finally if you are a “high profile” person you get special treatment. There are a number of policy issues this affair raises for accountability and transparency how law enforcement operates and investigates people.
The Star Tribune did a story two weeks ago on license plate readers primarily focusing on how the Minneapolis Police Department has collected millions of license plate scans. The reporter did a number of data practices requests, but he also did one on himself. A great number of people think you use the Data Practices Act to make requests only on public data, far from it. People can ask for data about themselves which may be public or private. Government collects lots of data on us for a number of reasons from professional licenses to oversee health care in Minnesota.
The reporter made a request under data practices for the times that the license plate readers saw his car or whatever data they may have had on him in the license scan database. He got the information and with it the journalist pieced a story to let the public know about this new law enforcement tool and how a database with millions of records on individuals was being collected and for what purposes. The story ignited public discussion as evident by a follow up story by the same reporter last week. These data practices requests have made for sure legislation on the horizon.
By highlighting these three events I am emphasizing the importance of the principle of “right to know” to get an idea of what your government is doing. You do not have to be a member of the news media to make a data practices request.
Thousand’s of people do requests every year, from the restaurant owner who wants to look at their inspection report, or the person who is denied a job based on an incorrect criminal history. Some of my recent data requests are finding out, for example, about agencies doing surveillance on people, or agencies not having protocols/policies when it comes to getting private information on individuals. Some of my requests are showing agencies doing things “right” also.
If you want to learn more about the Data Practices Act and how to make requests check out the following websites or contact me through Twitter or e-mail which is on this blog site.