Editorial: Changes to city data policy will reduce citizen involvement

Published 9:37 pm Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Albert Lea City Council on Monday is slated to vote on a resolution that would start charging people who make data requests that take longer than 30 minutes to fulfill.

According to the city, the number of data requests completed by city staff increased to 69 in 2018, which is 20 more than the previous year. Requests submitted have also reportedly increased in their complexity and, as a result, have increased the amount of time taken by staff to research, retrieve and compile data to complete the request.

The city states it is permitted by Minnesota State Statute 13.03 Subd. 3(c) to change the language in the city’s data practice policy to allow the city to be reimbursed for the time it takes the lowest-paid employee capable of performing the task to complete requests that take longer than 30 minutes.

Email newsletter signup

While state statute technically indicates the city may require a person to pay the actual costs of searching for and retrieving data when the person requests copies or electronic transmittal of the data, we believe this will hinder citizen involvement and is excessive. Thirty minutes also seems like a small cutoff.

Lawyer Mark Anfinson, an expert on data privacy laws who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said state statute is very clear that a government entity cannot charge for the time needed for a government employee to separate public from non-public data. Some personnel information falls into this category, as does some sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, among other information. A government entity also cannot charge when a person simply wants to inspect documents instead of getting copies to take with them.

We encourage the City Council to rethink this policy change and protect the public’s right to access public information.

This decision would impact anyone who could ever make a request, whether it is a resident, a business owner or even this newspaper. All members of the public have a right to request access or copies of government data and documents, and making it more difficult to do so clouds the view of transparency local governments should be promoting. 

Informed citizens are vital to the functioning of a democratic society.