The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 24, 2013

Our View: A test of access to public data


The Free Press

— It wasn’t a very flashy assignment. The reporters in southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin were assigned to go to places such as courthouses, city halls, schools and jails to gather public information.

Some of that information included public employee salaries, per diems, email correspondence, jail rosters — all of the records that anyone should be able to view if they ask.

The only story the reporters were working on was about how easy or difficult it was to gather the information. Access to information isn’t meant to only be a media thing; it’s a public thing.

Sometimes government employees seem to think media are prying when they ask for information. It’s true that reporters’ jobs are to gather significant and interesting information that informs, explains and sometimes entertains. But they’re not asking for anything that isn’t available to anyone else who would walk in off the street and request the same thing.

The Free Press, like every newspaper, has run into its share of obstacles in getting public information. Some law enforcement agencies think the names of minors involved in accidents should all be withheld, even when no charges against them are being considered. Some city officials think they can choose a top administrator and announce the selection days later. Some school and university officials make it cumbersome to find out employees’ salaries or whether they have been disciplined. Some jails haven’t allowed access to jail rosters.

In fact, in the audit done by the southeastern Minnesota and Wisconsin reporters, the toughest task was getting jail rosters. The sheriff’s departments in question said they rarely get requests for inmate rosters, although they said jailers can typically answer direct questions about whether an individual is in custody. The rosters are public for good reason — you cannot put someone in jail secretly. Authorities have to list reasons for incarcerating people.

The audit also revealed that sometimes records weren’t turned over right away when requests were funneled through supervisors, who weren’t always on duty. And in other cases clerks and other record keepers were occasionally suspicious and asked the name of the person making the records request, although requesters are not required to disclose their identity. The clerks often wondered what they were after.

Public information is called “public” for a reason. These audits are a good way to measure if the public is getting the information they have every right to. If we can’t get it, then you probably can’t either — and it’s yours.