Over four years after his retirement, former County Administrator Bob Reinert is still officially listed as the gatekeeper of public information in Winona County. It is time for an update, the County Board unanimously agreed last July, supporting an overhaul that would also strike most fees for copies of public data. However, putting a policy down on paper has been a protracted effort. The board debated the details on Tuesday, including whether current County Administrator Duane Hebert should continue overseeing the county's compliance with information transparency laws.
What information is public and must be shared on request, what information is private, and how much local governments can charge for public data are controlled by state law: the Minnesota Data Practices Act (DPA). The chapter of law is complex, but the section detailing how much local governments may charge for copies of data is less cloudy. Citizens can view public data for free, and charges can only be imposed when a person requests physical copies of the information. When a person requests copies of 100 pages or fewer, the government may charge no more than 25 cents per page. For more than 100 copies, the government may charge only the "actual cost" of copying the information, including the true cost of the paper and the cost of the employee paid to retrieve and photocopy the information. Government units may not charge for the time it takes to "redact" — or remove private data from documents — which county officials have noted is the most time-consuming element of the effort to respond to requests for data.
Although the DPA requires governments to update data request policies and appoint government officials to handle requests for information, Winona County has not updated its policy nor appointed anyone to oversee it in a decade. Additionally, the current policy and fee schedule appear to stray from the maximum fees outlined in state law: the Winona County fee schedule lists the cost for copies from the sheriff's department at 16 times the legal limit; DVD prices are listed at $10, while the state's Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) has frequently noted the "actual cost" of a DVD is less than $1.
On Tuesday, board members studied the complex chapter of state statute, reviewed the county's decade-old policy, and attempted to identify what more they would need to begin crafting the first county policy in Minnesota that would remove fees for most kinds of data — from child protection reports to mine applications.
In a draft policy, County Attorney Karin Sonneman requested additional direction from the board on how much to charge for different types of data. Board members seemed to agree that certain unique data should not be free: certified birth certificates, for instance, or land records that lenders and real estate companies might seek for commercial uses. Board members also discussed questions about who should handle data requests and whether charges are appropriate in some cases, though they did not make any final decisions.
Sonneman suggested that the county also consider retaining its higher charges for data generated by expensive county systems, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps, or reports generated by the county's new law enforcement databases.
"Those are all expenses that we've agreed to incur regardless," Jacob responded. "To try to justify that and ask the public to pay for that when they ask for a data request, that sounds like double taxation. This is the public's data." Jacob suggested waiving the 25-cent-per-page copy fee for requests under 100 pages, arguing that small requests are likely to be the sort made by average citizens, but supported excluding the Recorder's Office, Assessor's Office, and GIS maps from the free data policy.
Hebert and Sonneman stressed that a great deal of staff time and resources go into handling some requests, especially when county staff have to separate public information from private information; the DPA expressly states government units may not assess a charge for the latter.
"People are already being levied to pay for the employees' salaries, the supplies, [blank] DVDs," commissioner Wayne Valentine responded, saying that he agreed with the argument that charges for such costs are equivalent to "double taxation."
New contact for data handling?
Jacob mentioned a data request that has not been fulfilled after nearly seven months (see sidebar story), and questioned whether having the County Administrator handle data requests was an efficient use of county resources.
"I think for one we're channeling too much data to one person to have to redact and go through this," Jacob said, noting that many county employees must sort public and private information as part of their jobs. "Could we speed this [up] or be more expedient by designating who's responsible for what data?"
He continued, telling Hebert, who reportedly spent scores of hours on the 7-month request, "You're one of our highest paid employees. I think there are other people that would be capable of doing this." Jacob also said, "I've had constituents who think they're struggling with your personality. I'm wondering if we can put someone else in that position and see if we still have these delays."
"Yes, with proper training anyone could provide this," Hebert responded, referring to the handling of data requests. "Secondly," Hebert continued, "if we're going to be making policy decisions based on personality conflicts or perceptions of personality conflicts, we're not going to get a lot accomplished."
"If Mr. Hebert were to have a person that he could really count on to handle a lot of this stuff, that would be great, and hopefully he wouldn't have to spend so much time on it," commented Commissioner Jim Pomeroy. However, the county needs to be careful, because the liability of accidentally releasing private data could put the county "in a world of hurt," he said.
"While we want to be transparent, we also have to be very careful about releasing data," Sonneman said of the need to redact private information before releasing documents to the public. "The government entity also has a responsibility to protect the privacy of individuals who are the subject of data." She added, "There's no computer program that's going to identify for you — boom, that's private data."