Transparency advocates had grand plans for improving public access to government information in Minnesota this legislative session.
One proposal would have stopped the mass destruction of government e-mails by requiring agencies to preserve them for three years. Another would have studied how to bring legislators under the same public records law that every state and local agency must obey.
In the end, those bills went nowhere. The state’s public records and open government laws remained mostly unchanged.
In an era of growing government secrecy, that’s something to be thankful for.
The chairwoman of the House committee that deals with data practices, Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said she was told by her predecessor that she would play defense much of the time.
“It’s really difficult to get some of this bigger stuff done,” Scott said in an interview Friday.
The proposal to force longer retention of e-mails caused “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” among cities and counties in particular, Scott said. That proposal may not advance until there’s some clarity about how much it will actually cost local governments to keep, not trash, e-mails.
Another idea that got little traction was a measure sponsored by Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, that would require governments to reveal the names of employees who improperly access databases of private information. Law enforcement agencies have kept those names secret using a law meant to protect privacy of citizens, not snoopers.
On the other hand, proposals to impose new restrictions on information also fell short. Family day care operators sought to limit the public’s access to enforcement actions, saying it would slow the exodus of child care providers from the business. Legislators did not approve the exemption.
Every year, though, the Legislature tinkers with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, usually at the request of a group seeking secrecy, and that’s why there are at least 660 exemptions to the presumption that all records are open. The newest exemption goes to real estate appraisers, the people who provide educated opinions on how much properties are worth.
The Department of Commerce licenses and watches over appraisers to make sure they obey the rules. Occasionally the department will fine them and order them back to school.
But appraisers, who tend to work solo or in small operations, found that past mistakes hindered their ability to get insurance. So they asked the Legislature to restrict access to investigative files older than five years. “We don’t want something that’s minor to haunt them,” said Byron Miller, a Minneapolis appraiser who helped craft the bill.
The disciplinary actions themselves will remain public. In fact, only the files of cases that have gone to hearings are affected. Last year, the department took action against two appraisers whose cases went to hearings.
The bill offered other help for appraisers, and it passed unanimously. Now appraisers have their own special secrecy provision. So will real estate dealers, insurance salespeople and debt collectors now storm the Capitol demanding the same concession?
One of the bill sponsors, Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, doesn’t think so. The appraiser bill reflects the specific situation facing that profession, and the Legislature is set up to consider each request on its own merits, O’Driscoll said.
The cumulative effect of deals like these on the public’s right to know doesn’t faze him. “I don’t lie awake at night thinking it’s a problem,” he said.