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  Thursday October 23rd, 2014    

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Sunshine Week lasts all year at the Winona Post (03/19/2014)
By Sarah Squires
From private government negotiation talks to bridge replacement cost estimates and school disciplinary records, Minnesota local governments maintain data that is important to you and the community. The story on page 1a illuminates the closed-door discussions among former Winona Area Public School (WAPS) Board members during the last round of employee union negotiations, and it’s an example of the kind of reporting routinely found on Winona Post pages. It’s the sort of reporting that requires journalists to request public documents, the kind of reporting that uncovers the full story.

The Winona Post does not merely request and relay government data to celebrate Sunshine Week — a week to celebrate freedom of information and government transparency laws. Instead, this newspaper digs for the truth each and every week, often bringing home state and national awards for investigative and public affairs reporting. Below is a summary of some of the public records searches the Post has conducted this year, because for us, every week is a week to celebrate — and often demand — government transparency.

Pedestrian accidents

While the Winona City Council was unsuccessfully requesting information on pedestrian safety from city staff, Winona Post gathered years of pedestrian and bicycle accident reports through data requests. Data analysis by the Winona Post staff identified accident trends and higher risk areas.

School bus behavior

A Winona Post report made public the number of behavioral incidents on Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) buses, including violence and drug-related incidents, and WAPS’ failure, in some cases, to follow its own discipline policies, all facts obtained through data requests.

Troubled sewer deal

Engineering firm McKinstry gave the city of Winona a money-back guarantee when the city signed a deal with the firm for a sewer plant energy savings project. Through public data requests, the Winona Post found that after years of malfunctions and underperformance, the city had never contacted McKinstry to complain or receive its “guaranteed” refund.

Winona bridge costs

The Winona Post requested Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) documents that listed the estimated price difference for constructing an arch bridge as being $14 million, millions less than the dollar figure Mn/DOT cited in letters to state officials in which the agency defended its design choice.

Halfway houses’ funding cut

Based on a public data request, the A Winona Post uncovered emails between county officials leading up to a policy change that left some residents of local halfway houses homeless, and which forbade county employees to speak to the press about the change.

Levee Park Committee

A Winona Post investigation revealed behind-the-scenes tensions among designers, city officials, and the Levee Park Committee, which affected the course of the Levee Park project.

Union negotiation tapes

Following Winona Post requests, audio recordings obtained of closed meetings of the Winona City Council, Winona Area Public School (WAPS) Board, and Winona County Board shed more light on the county’s long-term plans for reducing employee costs, the WAPS Board’s strategy for dealing with a potential teachers’ strike, and how much city leaders may be willing to give unions in current bargaining.

Annexation costs

Winona Public Works financial records requested by the Winona Post confirmed that the city spent $2.6 million on sewer and water lines for properties annexed from Wilson Township. A fraction of that expense has been recouped from the annexed area. 

 

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