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Free access? (02/02/2014)
By Sarah Squires

County to address data policy after 7 month wait

Last July, Winona County Commissioners agreed on a unique new approach to government transparency and citizens' ability to access public data. Board members asked administrators to craft a new policy that would remove copy fees for nearly all types of information the county maintains.

It has been seven months, and while the board itself has broached the topic since, the policy has not yet been created. On Tuesday, commissioners will review the county's current policy governing data requests, examine materials provided by County Attorney Karin Sonneman, and decide whether the call for greater transparency that was made on that hot July day will become a reality.

Sonneman has delayed the timeline for the policy creation several times in an attempt to ensure she would have sufficient time to review complex state statutes that govern what fees local governments may impose when a person requests copies of public data. In a memo on the subject sent to board members last week, Sonneman acknowledged that the county has failed to properly maintain as is required by state law its data policies for a decade. It has also neglected the legal mandate that it annually appoint the county employees who are charged with managing public data requests so that citizens know where to turn when they would like to find out who is holding the keys to the information coffers.

An entire chapter of Minnesota law is devoted to the way in which government units must handle data from which data are public, which are private, and how governments must respond when citizens ask to see them. Called the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (DPA), the chapter also outlines how much money a local government may charge when a citizen would like copies of information.

The law says governments may not collect more than 25 cents per page for requests for 100 or fewer black and white copies. If a requestor asks for more than 100 pages of information, the government unit can only charge the "actual" cost of the copies the actual cost of the paper, the actual cost of the employee to make the copies, etc. And, in Minnesota, a person can always read or otherwise inspect all public data for free.

A close look at Winona County's current data practices policy and fee schedule suggests the county has not always followed the requirements of state law when distributing copies of public data. The policy and fee schedule do not separate charges based on the state-required 100-page threshold, and several "flat fees" included in the fee schedule do not appear to be founded in actual costs that vary from request to request. Fees for videotapes or DVDs $25 and $10 respectively seem to stray from the "actual cost" requirement as well. (The state's Information Policy Analysis Division provides commissioner opinions on data laws throughout the state, and the office has concluded on several occasions that the "actual cost" of a DVD is less than $1.) Prior to an adjustment in the fee schedule two months ago, the schedule indicated that the Sheriff's Department charged 16 times the maximum amount allowed by law for black and white copies of data.

Sonneman suggested several slight changes to the current policy and recommended the board update its fee schedule to reflect the areas in which it would like to remove fees for copies. Some kinds of county data, as the board has discussed in the past, have a commercial value, such as Recorder's Office information, or complex digital mapping systems produced by the Planning Department. If fees were removed for this type of data, board members have acknowledged, problems could arise as far-flung commercial businesses could request vast amounts of data that would put a strain on county resources and staff time. Board members have discussed potentially excluding Recorder's Office data and vital statistics such as certified marriage certificates from the free data policy.

Sonneman also recommended that the board annually update its data practices policy, as is required by state law, and annually appoint the county employee charged with managing and executing the policy also required by state law. That role is currently assumed by County Administrator Duane Hebert.

Read the Winona Post next week for more on this story.



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