Make public information easier to obtain
Here's a legislative proposal that makes a lot of sense for anyone who believes in an open and transparent government. Introduced by Representative Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, HF 2899 would establish new procedures for enforcing the requirements o...
Here's a legislative proposal that makes a lot of sense for anyone who believes in an open and transparent government.
Introduced by Representative Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, HF 2899 would establish new procedures for enforcing the requirements of the Open Meeting Law and the Data Practices Act. The Senate version of the bill is SF 2354.
Right now, the over-loaded district courts are determining whether requests for public information should be granted. Pelowski's bill would shift the burden to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), an independent, respected quasi-judicial agency that is part of the executive branch.
The current enforcement option - a lawsuit in state district court - isn't very viable for most news organizations and citizens because of the disproportionate expense and long delays, according to Mark Anfinson, an attorney with the Minnesota Newspaper Association who specializes in public information law.
Government agencies are clued in to this reality and periodically take advantage of it, knowing that the probability of a lawsuit to enforce the requirements of the law is very low, according to the MNA.
Minnesota law has guaranteed the right of the public to examine most information held by government bodies. There are only a few specifically defined exceptions.
A resident or organization that believes a government agency or employee is withholding public information has the right to sue in district court to obtain that information. Vital information is often at stake - why a public official was fired, what really took place at a closed meeting, shielded documents that should be public record and other data that the public has a right to know about.
But getting that information is far from easy. A lawsuit can take six to 10 months to work its way through the courts and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. "The cost [to the plaintiff] is hardly ever justified," Anfinson said.
The OAH process promises to be faster, more economical and would likely produce more consistent and reliable results. Pelowski's bill contains deadlines and time requirements calling for complaints to be resolved within 60 days.
A speedy resolution, Anfinson noted, puts information in the hands of a successful plaintiff in a reasonably timely manner and holds down legal costs for both sides by limiting the number of possible billable hours available to the contesting attorneys.
Reassigning these cases to an OAH administrative law judge also eases the caseload for judges in the district courts, Anfinson said - a benefit to everyone.
There is a way right now for the citizens to seek public information without paying expensive court fees. They can ask for an advisory opinion through the Department of Administration. The process, however, lacks teeth - bureaucrats are making the decision, not judges - and it's merely an opinion, not a binding court ruling.
Pelowski's bill would require those seeking information to pay a $1,000 filing fee, which would cover the cost to the state and discourage frivolous complaints. A provision in the bill, however, promises to take the sting out of that cost: The administrative law judge could order the losing party to pay costs, including legal costs for the opposing party.
The bill has bipartisan support of 16 cosponsors. Pelowski said he was optimistic about the bill's chance of passage. "This is the type of thing we should be doing this session," he said, "Finding better ways of doing things."
The Legislature should promptly enact this measure into law. It would not only benefit news organizations that are pursuing their roles as watchdogs over government but also everyday citizens who are simply seeking the truth.