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Winona County pledges freedom of information, literally (07/03/2013)
By Sarah Squires
For decades, government transparency among all 87 Minnesota counties has carried a price tag. Fees for copies of documents have ranged from pennies to thousands of dollars, frequently imposed upon those who request public information such as property tax reports, frac sand studies, and material about the business of county boards. When citizens request private information maintained by Minnesota counties about themselves or their families from child protection reports to personnel files a charge for copies is also often levied. Every county in Minnesota has a policy that requires payment for copies of some, or all, types of data.

Winona County aims to change all that, with a pledge to make all government data truly, literally, free.

By consensus, Winona County Board members agreed last week to create a policy that removes all fees for copies of county data, becoming the first county in the state to take what some are calling a bold step toward true transparency.

In March, County Administrator Duane Hebert suggested the county adopt a "flat fee" for copies of data, asserting that some large data requests had required thousands of dollars in staff time and that the flat fee could be a way for the county to assess the cost of retrieving the requested information. (See sidebar story 'Government data and Minnesota law.') Several commissioners at that time objected to a policy that might hinder the public's ability to access county data.

The Winona Post began communicating with commissioners, explaining the intricacies of Minnesota law, which allows counties to charge a fee for data in some cases, as well as information that suggested the flat fee proposed by Hebert could be in conflict with those statutes. This newspaper also advocated for a policy that would lift data fees entirely, urging commissioners to champion measures that support freedom of information, accountability and transparency.

Board members agreed.

Following several articles on the topic printed in the Winona Post, commissioners said they received feedback from constituents asking that the fees be lifted. "The biggest argument I hear from citizens is it's the cost of doing business," recounted Board Chair Wayne Valentine during the meeting. "They already pay taxes to support the salaries and to purchase the supplies."

Commissioner Marcia Ward agreed. "I don't like the idea of charging [for data], because what we do is the public's business," she added.

Commissioner Jim Pomeroy said he wanted the county to be open and transparent, and for citizens to get the information they have requested in a timely manner. However, he wondered whether there might be an issue with those who make large, broad requests and refuse to narrow the scope of the data they are requesting. "To me, that's kind of wasteful," he said. "Wasteful of resources, wasteful of people's time."

Commissioner Steve Jacob, who had argued in the past that the more accessible county data is, the fewer large, broad requests the county would get, objected to Pomeroy's concerns. "I feel that's almost an accusation," he quipped. "We don't know why [they are making the request]. We don't know what they are dealing with."

Hebert told the board that the majority of the requests for data the county receives are for private data maintained about an individual or family, such as child protection reports. "Many times we have opposing parties trying to access data, and in some respects, trying to put the county in the middle," he said. County attorney Karin Sonneman said the largest expense to the county for data requests comes in attorney or other staff time in redacting private information. Hebert reminded the board it couldn't charge a fee for redaction costs anyway. (See 'Government data and Minnesota law.')

Jacob suggested the board adopt a one-year policy to lift fees for copies of data and then assess how the system worked and adopt a permanent policy after the trial year. Pomeroy and the rest of the board agreed, and the board expects a formal vote on the policy in the coming weeks.

First county in the state

The Winona Post contacted all 86 other Minnesota Counties to determine whether Winona County was, indeed, the first in the state to create such a free data policy. All 86 other counties affirmed they do, in fact, assess a fee for copies of data, as allowed under Minnesota law.

Minnesota Newspaper Association Attorney Mark Anfinson applauded Winona County Commissioners for their decision to remove fees for copies of data. "I think this is a remarkable breakthrough that has statewide ramifications," he said, adding that it has been talked about in the past in various parts of the state. Cities, school districts, and other local governments are allowed to assess similar fees for copies of data under Minnesota law. "This [policy] that Winona County has now embraced has been talked about, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody's really done it before," Anfinson explained. "I think it's extraordinary because it reflects one of the more positive features you can have with a government agency, and that's willingness to experiment, to try things out, to see if there are possibilities that haven't been thought of before maybe better and new ways of dealing with a difficult issue can be discovered. It's hard to really experiment in government, but once in a while people are bold enough to try."

Chairman Valentine, who is a former radio news personality, said he stood firmly behind the new policy, adding that efforts made by the Winona Post helped both the public and the board become engaged in how changes to the county's policies could make the county more transparent. "I'm glad that the Post did bring this issue to the forefront because I think it's something that we should have resolved a long time ago. Without [the Winona Post] urging us, this change probably wouldn't have happened," he said.

The policy change is one of a host of new initiatives undertaken by the County Board in recent years, including many that have been hailed at Association of Minnesota Counties conventions and mimicked by other counties across the state. Valentine said he hoped that other counties would adopt similar policies and follow the board's lead. "I'm very happy with [the new policy] and I hope this will be something that other counties look at," he noted.

Anfinson predicted Winona County's action would be the topic of conversations across the state. "This will be watched with interest throughout the state at all levels of government," he said. "This is a breakthrough. It has statewide consequences. More power to the Winona County Board."

The action, said Valentine, simply put in writing something he said he's known for many years. "When you say information is public, it belongs to the public."



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