Q & A with an Accountability Expert

Matt Ehling, Board Member, Minnesota Coalition on Government Information discusses the state’s open records law and the opportunities and challenges of advocating for it. 

Tell us about Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and your role at the organization.

MNCOGI has been around since 1989, and it was originally started by a bunch of Minnesota librarians interested in open government issues and it’s been in operation since then. In 2005 or so we started getting more involved with public policy issues. We are now a volunteer organization and a couple of us spend time to go to the Minnesota Capitol and track open government issues. It’s myself and Don Gemberling who is the retired director of the Minnesota Data Practices Office. He ran that office for many years and then retired and joined our board.

What are some of MNCOGI’s recent accomplishments and which are you most excited about?

The state’s open record law is called the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act that was put into state statute back in the 1970s and it functions differently than a lot of other state open records laws. Many state laws are based on the Freedom of Information Act. They take that as their model where ours is really kind of a different approach and it involves a lot more legislative activity every year because the Data Practices Act doesn’t have broad exemptions that classify certain data as not public, so you have to be a very specific statutory language in the vote. For instance, we were very involved in the debate over body camera regulation and what was going to be public and what was not going to be public, and that was a two-year legislative battle over very specific elements of body camera data. Every year at the legislature there is a debate over new forms of data the government is collecting and how they should be treated or government agencies will come in and try to assert a new reason to classify something that is not public. So every year is very busy in Minnesota because of that sort of activity.

We get involved also in open meeting law issues. There have been some debates since the pandemic and people have been using more of the remote provisions of our open meeting law to meet virtually. It’s a law that was put in place about twenty years ago after 9/11 but hasn’t been utilized much until the recent pandemic and so there were certain things that were not working well that we wanted to see fixed. For instance, it was difficult in some localities for people to attend open meetings remotely and make public comments because the municipalities weren’t allowing that to happen anymore like they would at a regular in-person meeting, and so we got some language in, but I believe it’s past the Senate now and should be passing the House hopefully soon to fix that. There is now a requirement about making available remote comments for the public during remote meetings. We have been working a little bit on the governor’s budget proposal which has seven million dollars set aside to expand the Minnesota Fusion Center, and because of the nature of how the fusion center operates, a lot of its operations are not publicly available through data requests because so much of what it’s dealing with are open investigative cases or other kinds of data that’s classified as not public under Minnesota law. We want to see that if it gets expanded there’s more public oversight of what it’s doing, so we are advocating for the admission of an audit regime.

What led you to MNCOGI?

I work in the television business and have for 30 years. I’ve done a lot of documentary production that has appeared on PBS, both nationally and locally in the twin cities area. In the course of that journalistic work, I learned how to use Freedom of Information laws and I was awarded the Finnegan Freedom of Information Award in 2012, which is an award that MNCOGI issues every year to people that have utilized open records laws in ways the organization recognizes. I was invited to join the board after that.

What projects are in the works for MNCOGI in the coming months?

There are long-term issues we are trying to remedy. The Data Practices Act is a really strong law from our perspective but there are problems with it that date back to its inception. For instance, rural townships in Minnesota are exempt from the DPA and they were from the beginning back in the 1970s, so that’s something we’ve tried to bring some attention to and hopefully there will be a legislative fix for that at some point. We are trying to deal with strengthening the enforcement mechanisms both in the open meeting law and in the DPA. The DPA is basically enforceable through going to the district court or administrative court, and that works for some people but it’s still an administrative and financial burden. We would ultimately like to see some other enforcement mechanisms that don’t cost so much money for folks. It is something that has been on our to-do list for a long time. We are trying to bring more people into our organization and create a deeper bench of people that care about these issues so that as we go to the legislature every year we have more public support. It’s important for legislators to understand these are weighty issues that are at the heart of democracy. You can’t really have a functioning democracy if you don’t understand what your government is up to, so that’s what we are trying to ensure happens.

How has COVID-19 impacted the organization’s work and what will change as the most severe part of the pandemic winds down?

It hasn’t really impacted our day-to-day functioning too much. I’ve been up at the legislator as a volunteer for almost 10 years, so for someone like me who’s had some relationships built up over time you can still get things done. It’s very difficult for people who are coming into the process over the last year. For your average citizen who’s trying to talk to their legislators because it’s all a remote process now. There’s a significant disadvantage from the way things used to be done, where you could go to a hearing, and even if you weren’t testifying you could still buttonhole legislators and talk to them after the fact, but now – at least from my experience talking to people – unless you are a known entity it’s hard to get people on the phone, it’s hard to get them to return emails, and that’s just counterproductive. We hope that eventually, the Minnesota legislature can go back to its regular in-person operations soon because it’s so much easier for the average citizen to interact with them in that format.

What’s the most beneficial about being part of the Open The Government coalition?

Having a window into what else is going on in the country through OTG has been extremely helpful. The research resources that you provide are valuable. For instance, as we work on our fusion center issues here, it was extremely helpful to have the report you put together that had a multistate overview of what else is going on in the country. Also having OTG as an organization that deals with the legislative end of the Freedom of Information Act at the federal level is a great resource because it’s something we advise people on as practitioners, but we don’t get involved in the advocacy around it, so having OTG do that is just essential.

Can you tell us more about the Finnegan award and the selection criteria you mentioned earlier?

Sure. The award is named after John Finnegan Sr. who was the editor of the Pioneer Press newspaper in Saint Paul. He, along with a couple of other members of the press was the ones that really pressed for the adoption of the DPA. We had, before that, something called the Official Records Act which frankly was really constrained by court interpretations and it was really hard to get access to government information in the state of Minnesota prior to the late 1970s. So Finnegan was the main instigator of the DPA and that’s why the award is named after him. It has been awarded to all manner of folks, sometimes to people that are FOI requesters. A couple of years ago, we awarded it to a guy named Tony Webster, who is an IT professional, part-time freelance journalist, and prolific data requester who brought a very significant case against a local Sheriff’s Office because he was seeking information about facial recognition technology. A couple of years before that we awarded it to Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke, whose department was the first to use body cameras in the state. So, we also give it to people in the public sector who have taken steps to increase government transparency.