After almost seven months, Winona County may comply with public information laws and release data that may shed light on how tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in state housing funds were spent by the county on ex-convicts who didn't qualify for the assistance. For months, Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert objected to a request for public information by the Winona Post and repeatedly sought to limit and select what information would be revealed. After the newspaper appealed the matter to state authorities last month, Hebert pledged to release all of the information within four weeks.
The issue: state
funds questioned, some rendered homeless
On July 1, 2013, 16 Winona men — at least some of whom became homeless — had to leave local halfway houses after it was discovered that for three years Winona County had incorrectly been giving them, and others like them, state-sponsored housing funds. The state tax dollars were supposed to be used to house people who had been certified as unable to work, but instead were spent to support individuals who were struggling after being released from jail. The details of how much state money was misappropriated over the years, how the error began, and how officials discovered and responded to the issue are unclear. County and state employees gave conflicting reports. Hebert barred department heads and other county staff involved with the issue from speaking with the press. Staff members contacted last summer said they had been instructed not to speak with reporters. In an email obtained by the Winona Post, Community Services Director Beth Wilms told staff members, "I spoke with Duane [Hebert] after his conversation with [Winona Post reporter Chris] Rogers and he has requested that he be the communication point person on this particular issue; please do not speak with Mr. Rogers regarding specifics of GRH [the housing program]."
The data request
In an effort to learn more, on July 18, 2013, the Winona Post requested to view county emails regarding the program, which are public information under state law. While some of the emails contained clients' names and other private data that must be redacted, state law nevertheless requires that the emails — and any public data — be provided upon request in a "timely" manner.
Hebert did not dispute the county's legal responsibility to release the emails. Initially he indicated he would provide them, but in the months that followed he repeatedly asked the newspaper to alter its request and only ask for data from a select group of staff. Asking for other emails, Hebert said, "will only result in additional wasted taxpayer resources." The Winona Post twice amended its request to narrow the group of staff included in the request and encouraged Hebert to move forward and provide the public data. Again, Hebert responded with continued requests that the newspaper only seek communications among select staff members.
In November, Hebert released emails from the select individuals he suggested. Later, he admitted that the emails released were only a portion of the emails discussing the housing program that were sent by those individuals. In other words, it was a select group of emails within a select group of people.
If the Winona Post wanted to see all of the public information it requested, "it may become necessary to request an opinion from the [Minnesota] Department of Administration [Information and Policy Division (IPAD)] which has provided past opinions on overly broad or overly burdensome data requests," Hebert said in an email in November.
The Winona Post ultimately did just that, though instead of ruling that the request was overly burdensome, the state authorities sought to ensure the request was fulfilled in a timely manner. The newspaper requested that the IPAD, which handles disputes about government data requests, issue a commissioner opinion on whether the county had responded appropriately to the request for information.
Before issuing a state opinion on whether the county's response to the request and the seven-month wait for the information constituted a violation of state law, an IPAD staff member said on January 23 she would like to help the Winona Post resolve the issue with the county informally. Five days later, Hebert sent an email to the Winona Post indicating he would provide the requested information by late February. He stated in the email that there was a seven-week lapse in communication regarding the issue due to his assumption that another county official had informed the Winona Post that the county would provide the requested information.
The "seven-month data request" was the topic during Tuesday's County Board meeting — the second time the board has taken up the issue and directed Hebert to release the emails. (See story page 1.) On November 26, 2013, county commissioners expressed displeasure that the request had not been filled. "I am still frustrated with your response," commissioner Steve Jacob told Hebert during the November meeting. Jacob added, "If we can't get someone the information they want in one month, I think we're failing."
On Tuesday, Hebert defended the length of time taken to respond to the request, detailing the intricacies of the necessary redaction of private information included in the data. He also argued that his willingness to provide the remaining data was not prompted by IPAD's inquiries. Hebert said the county was already planning to release the emails shortly, but because of an internal miscommunication the county failed to communicate that information.
Citizens are going to look at this and see that "the request was made by IPAD, and all at once what took seven months was done in a few weeks," Jacob commented at the Tuesday meeting.
"It's purely circumstantial," Hebert responded. "And if people want to make that determination or be suggestive in one form or another, I guess we can't prevent that, but there's absolutely no correlation."