Home data on citizens who sit on boards ruled private

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2008 - 11:01 PM

Addresses and phone numbers for volunteer government members are now off limits.

Minnesotans will find it harder to reach members of hundreds of zoning boards, planning commissions or other government panels because of a decision by the Pawlenty administration to classify members' home addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses as private.

The private classification was sought by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) after several people asked for home information on members of the agency's climate change advisory group, which was appointed by Pawlenty.

But the decision by Administration Commissioner Dana Badgerow also restricts the public's ability to contact members of boards or commissions advising local governments, as well as members of state panels not selected through a formal process requiring greater disclosure.

Badgerow initially issued an opinion that the information should be available to the public, but she later changed her mind.

Badgerow said she classified it as private because the MPCA convinced her that state law is ambiguous on the question. Her temporary classification could last until June 2010 to give the Legislature an opportunity to rewrite the law if it wishes.

The classification applies to volunteers, not elected officials, so a citizen who wants to reach his city council member at home could still get his home address, while someone wouldn't have a right to the home address of a city planning commissioner.

Community activists and others say the decision will complicate efforts to persuade unpaid advisers on policy issues and deny the public valuable details about people who are crucial in shaping government decisions.

"It is important for citizens to know where people live who serve on the local level," said Rich Neumeister, an advocate of both open government and privacy rights who opposed the decision. "Do you want people for a citywide board for zoning to come from one part of town?"

Address requests denied

The Climate Change Advisory Group began work in April 2007 to prepare recommendations on reducing or controlling greenhouse gases. It has 55 members. Soon thereafter, people holding very different views on the environment wanted to contact them.

Fresh Energy, a nonprofit that advocates stronger government action to reduce carbon emissions, was interested in contacting members. One of Fresh Energy's staffers is a member of the advisory group.

But when Fresh Energy executive director Michael Noble asked his staff to get e-mail addresses of the other group members, he said he was told they weren't being released.

Noble said he needed e-mail addresses to reach advisory group members who live around the state and don't have MPCA offices. He said the group meetings aren't conducive to one-on-one talks.

From the other end of the spectrum, Sheila Kihne, a former Republican activist and critic of some global warming theories, asked the MPCA for the home addresses of group members. In a letter to the Department of Administration, she said an aide to MPCA assistant commissioner David Thornton first told her it wouldn't be a problem, but later asked "what I needed the addresses for." Kihne replied that she wanted to invite group members to an event on global warming. The aide "called back that same day to say, 'We won't be providing the addresses,'" Kihne wrote. She said Thornton later told her the data was private.

Thornton, in an interview, said that he offered to pass information from Kihne and other citizens to group members, and that the public is invited to its meetings.

When the MPCA was talking to possible group members, Thornton said, "Some of them indicated they did not want their personal contact information distributed or made public. They just didn't want to get a whole slew of stuff from all over the place. Lots of e-mails, information. They could get spammed. I don't know. They just said they didn't want them out.

"We said ... we'll just keep it private."

Kihne appealed to the Department of Administration, which issues advisory opinions to agencies on the status of government data. Badgerow opined in October that home addresses of the advisory group members were public under a 2005 law and under a different statute before then.

State law doesn't back privacy

Then the MPCA sought to temporarily classify the data as private. The agency acknowledged there was no state law making it private, but argued that similar information has been treated private by other agencies and the public.

It got written support from Jim Genellie, the assistant city manager of Hopkins, who said releasing home phone numbers of members of city boards and commissions "could expose these individuals to inconvenience or harassment."

Badgerow said in an interview that she temporarily classified the data as private because, "this really needs legislative clarification." She expanded her classification to cover similar information held by other government units because, "If there's an ambiguity for [MPCA], there's an ambiguity for everyone."

But Kihne sees the decision as insulating members of government commissions and boards from the public.

"If you're going to sit on a public board, at least you should be able to get mailings," she said.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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