Data Man

When state legislators weigh privacy rights against the public's right to know, they call Don Gemberling: Big Brother's Big Brother

The Question: Can the government demand a $51,000 down payment if someone wants to examine government e-mails?

The Opinion: Disputes over charges, both for gathering information and making photocopies, have been at issue in some 51 of the IPAD's opinions since 1993. But, for our money, none rivals State Sen. Phil Krinkie's battle with the Department of Transportation over the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit project. In 1999 Krinkie, looking for hard evidence that the DoT misled legislators on cost, wrote to the department asking to inspect all e-mails relating to the project. Margo LaBau, the DoT chief of staff, responded that it would cost approximately $99,950 to gather the information and requested a jaw-dropping $51,000 down payment. In June 2000 the Commissioner of Administration David Fisher delivered his opinion on the matter. He concluded that under data-practices law, Krinkie was within his rights requesting access to the documents, and that the DoT could not charge for compiling the data. "What Krinkie learned from this is the real-life problem of trying to get information out of a government agency," Gemberling observes. The Republican senator is still learning. In the fall of 2000, he filed a data-practices lawsuit against the DoT and the Metropolitan Council, another agency involved with the project. Since then, Krinkie figures he has received about 80 percent of the requested e-mails. "But," he complains, "that's two and a half years and a lawsuit later."

The Question: Should government have to comply with data-practices requests that are, um, ridiculous?

The Opinion: It seems there isn't a public agency or government institution around that hasn't piqued the interest of Minneapolis resident Teresa Graham. Over the past four years she has asked for information from a wide range of public agencies, from the Department of Labor and Industry to the State Board of Private Detectives and Protective Service Agents. Typically her requests are for "all public data" on a particular agency's employees--requests that, those same agencies complain, can take weeks and even months to fulfill. In some instances Graham has sought out advisory opinions from IPAD; in two cases, those requests resulted in findings that an agency had failed to comply with the Data Practices Act. Finally, in January of 2001, Julien Carter, commissioner of the Department of Employee Relations, decided to seek out an opinion of his own: Must state employees assemble data "under circumstances indicating the requests are not necessarily motivated by a desire to gain access to data"? Carter contended that Graham often failed to show up to inspect data once it was collected; he also noted the ill will that existed between Graham and at least five state agencies which, together in 1998, sought and received a restraining order barring Graham from contacting them in person. In March Commissioner Fisher issued his opinion: state agencies ought to be relieved of their data-practices obligations "because of the unique facts of the situation." Fisher also decided that he would not respond to four additional requests for opinions from Graham. He didn't wish to "serve as an agent for Ms. Graham's abuse by perpetuating fruitless exercises in the expenditure of government resources so that she can exact revenge on entities with whom she has a variety of long-standing disputes."

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