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Woodbury proposes fees for public data inspection

Woodbury City Hall. File photo.

The City of Woodbury is asking the state Legislature to allow inspection fees for public data under Minnesota’s open records law, citing financial burdens from records requests.

The proposal was included in a legislative wishlist City Council approved Jan. 24.

The proposal was attached to a consent agenda including six other items approved with a single vote with no discussion.

The Minnesota Data Practices Act (DPA) guarantees access to public information from government agencies.

Don Gemberling, a spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said the state's laws offer public transparency unique from other states.

"The people who make money off government data are willing to pay, but what about everybody else who just wants to find out what government's doing?" Gemberling said.

Council members met with local lawmakers at a Jan. 17 meeting to discuss their legislative priorities.

A memo attached to the legislative wish list said the recommendations would address "abuses that are occurring" regarding data requests.

State law allows government agencies to charge copying fees, but they may not charge for inspecting the data in person.

Woodbury City Administrator Clint Gridley said inspection requests take about the same time to process as requests asking for copies.

"People are requesting the data, coming to inspect it, and they don't get the copies," Gridley said at the meeting. "We have to spend all the staff time and all the money and they'll use their camera to take photos."

Woodbury did not include a financial figure in its proposal.

Gemberling said charging citizens to view public data essentially "guts" the state's open records laws.

The coalition has opposed similar efforts by other cities to charge for inspections.

Local agencies have had ample time since the DPA's passage to create more efficient systems for processing data requests, Gemberling said.

"They don't do that and then they want to come to the Legislature and say, 'because we did a really bad job managing our information, the public ought to pay for that,'" he said. "That really offends me."

The city's second recommendation for data policy changes would allow agencies to ask requesters identify themselves and explain the reason for their request.

Gridley said it would allow the city to narrow search results on large data requests and better direct people to the information they're seeking.

Many large requests, he said, could contain less relevant information to their inquiry and create more work for city staff.

"It becomes a very stilted conversation under current law," Gridley said.  

This step, said Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, could also pare down on people making broad inquiries rather than seek specific data.

"There's got to be a way that, if they really want it, it can't just be a fishing expedition," she said.

Although state law doesn't mandate requesters identify themselves, Gemberling said agencies can still ask questions to clarify what information is being requested.

He said local government can curb excessive requests in other ways.

State law requires agencies provide data within a "reasonable" period of time, which Gemberling said could be longer for larger scopes of data.

Informing requesters of longer timelines, he said, often prompts smaller or more specific requests.

RiverTown Multimedia reporter Youssef Rddad contributed to this report.