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Tax on government transparency? (03/03/2013)
By Sarah Squires

Next week is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of local, state, and federal laws that provide for open, transparent, and accountable government. The week serves as not only a chance to laud the regulations that keep government open, but also as an opportunity for citizens to learn more about the laws and the importance of upholding them.

This week, the Winona County Board is expected to examine potential changes to its government data request policy—mainly, to consolidate several request forms into one. However, Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert confirmed that he will soon bring forward a recommendation for the county to adopt a "flat fee" to be imposed on those who request county data.

Winona County is not the only governmental body in the region that would like to tax public data requests; Wisconsin legislators are mulling a bill that would allow local governments to put a price tag on transparency.

In Minnesota, state law only allows a government unit to apply a fee for public records when a person asks for copies of the data. If copies are requested, a legal door is opened that allows government officials to charge for both the paper used, and for staff time used to retrieve, sort and redact requested information. In Winona County, citizen data requests for copies have triggered fees in excess of $1,000 in the past. Because of the state law, those who follow government closely and routinely request data know to ask to "view" information to avoid the fee.

In Wisconsin, Rep. Gary Bies (R-Sister Bay), has written a bill that would trump a recent State Supreme Court decision that forbids charging fees for staff time to redact information from requested data. The case involved the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which requested reports from the Milwaukee Police Department. The department attempted to charge the newspaper $4,000 for the information, and the Sentinel sued, and won.

Armed with the information, the Sentinel reported that the police department had failed to disclose or misreported thousands of violent crimes. The news report prompted an investigation by an outside consultant who confirmed the newspaper's findings.

Newspapers and open government advocates in Wisconsin are fighting the new bill, fearing the government data tax could hinder the public's right to know about government activities, and destroy the accountability that knowledge can trigger.

For Winona County, Hebert said the flat fee for data retrieval would comply with state law, and only be applied in cases where the requestor asked for copies. "What we're saying is [we will apply a fee] for staff time, whenever we can charge it," he said. Two hourly fees would be adopted, explained Hebert—one for time spent by "professional" staff, and one charged for time spent on data requests by "support" staff. How much the county would charge, said Hebert, has not been determined. When asked whether the fee would be more or less than the $1,125 fee the county attempted to impose on a data request made by Mary Cichanowski in 2011, Hebert said he could not remember how the county reached that figure, nor whether the new price would differ much.

Winona County Board Vice Chair Marcia Ward said she would not support any changes to the county data request policy that would make it harder for citizens to follow county government actions. "We don't want anything restrictive or hidden," she said. "I think [the board] needs to reiterate that we want people to have access to what county government is about."

Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman, and board chair Wayne Valentine, could not be reached by the Winona Post for comment Friday.



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