Bills Say: ‘Let The Sunshine In’

By Danielle Nordine

The sunshine is peeking through the clouds in Minnesota, public information access advocates say.

A handful of data access proposals, also known as sunshine laws, would give the public wider access to government information if approved by the Minnesota Legislature.

One of the major data practices bills proposed this year would require releasing information when those in public managerial positions, such as at cities or schools, leave after settlements or financial agreements.

“If that was enacted it would be a major step forward for freedom of information and public access,” media attorney Mark Anfinson said.

The money used for those settlements typically comes from public funds, he said.

The bill stems from an issue in the Burnsville school district where a human resources director left after reaching a settlement with the district, but reasons and details surrounding the situation were not disclosed.

This bill would make it “explicitly clear” that this information should be available to the public, said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, who serves on the House data practices subcommittee.

“This is one of the biggest things for sunshine and accountability issues in a long time,” said Rich Neumeister, a citizen who tracks data practices and privacy issues at the Capitol. “If we can get that through that would be fantastic.”

Another proposal would repeal a 2009 law, making Department of Natural Resources license information public again. That would include information about applications for hunting and fishing licenses, snowmobile and cross-country ski passes and others.

“I do think we will have some public dissemination of that information,” Holberg said of the DNR bill. “Where that lands is still unclear.”

Holberg also predicted a number of smaller data practices bills will be approved together this year, likely after vetting controversial proposals.

Included in those bills could be one that would require the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, an economic development agency, to make more information public, such as loan and investment data. Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, has been working on the bill.

Many data practices proposals still are in various stages of the committee process, while others await floor discussions and votes.

“With the rush of the session, data practices bills sometimes don’t get the attention they deserve,” Holberg said.

Some likely will not be approved this year at all, she predicted, including one that had privacy and transparency advocates worried.

Republicans Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, proposed creating a new category for data allowing law enforcement to keep certain information private without deeming a case an active criminal investigation.

“We’re at a standoff of sorts,” Holberg said of this proposal. “We haven’t been able to build a consensus” on what information can be collected, how long it can be kept, who can access it and a number of other issues, she said.

Cornish said the change would not allow law enforcement to collect more information than it does now, only to keep some private while investigating situations.

But opponents said the provision could allow for data to be recorded or used against an individual without his or her knowledge of its existence.

“We’re trying to balance that out, and we’re not having much success,” Holberg said.

A number of data practices and privacy issues are discussed by lawmakers every year, Holberg said. And while it depends on the information being sought, “the general trend is more sunshine in terms of government information and less sunshine on personal information,” she said.

“In probably the last five years we have seen major breakthroughs in sunshine and accountability issues,” Neumeister agreed.

But Anfinson said Minnesota’s data practices policies still are confusing and cause people to err on the side of keeping information private. There are stiff penalties for wrongfully revealing information but not for failing to provide it, he said.

“The result of that imbalance is caution, and rightfully so,” he said.

It is difficult to make data practices policies that can apply across the board, Anfinson said.