Minnesota county takes ‘bold step’ to make free information free of charge

Board members of Minnesota’s Winona County agreed last week to make all government data free of charge in a “bold step toward true transparency,” according to the Winona Post.

The board plans to adopt a one-year policy to lift fees for copying data and then assess the system at the end of the trial year and adopt a permanent policy. They’re expected to vote on the policy in the coming weeks, the Post reported.

Currently, Minnesota statute 13.03 explains that all government data is considered public unless classified as private and citizens can “inspect” or view the data for free. But if they want copies of the data, the government may charge them the cost of “searching for and retrieving government data, including the cost of employee time, and for making, certifying, and electronically transmitting the copies of the data or the data,” according to the statute.

Depending on how many copies requesters need, some fees are as high as thousands of dollars, the Post said.

All of Minnesota’s 87 counties currently charge fees as high as thousands of dollars for some or all of the data they provide. Winona would be the first county to lift fees.

The consensus has been four months in the making since County Administrator Duane Herbert suggested adopting a “flat fee” or tax on public information in March. Commissioners rejected the policy for fear that it conflicted with Minnesota law statutes forbidding fees for information beyond the expense of copies and employee time to retrieve the data.

The Post wrote several articles pushing the new free information policy, and when board members heard community outcry supporting it, they agreed that public information belongs to the public, as county chairman and former radio news personality Wayne Valentine said.

Minnesota Newspaper Association Attorney Mark Anfinson applauded Winona County commissioners, calling their decision “a remarkable breakthrough that has statewide ramifications.”

“I think it’s extraordinary because it reflects one of the more positive features you can have with a government agency, and that’s willingness to experiment, to try things out, to see if there are possibilities that haven’t been thought of before — maybe better and new ways of dealing with a difficult issue can be discovered,” Anfinson told the Post. “It’s hard to really experiment in government, but once in a while people are bold enough to try.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

 

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