A battle over public access to public data in Duluth

[Update: Duluth has pulled the ordinance from consideration according to the Duluth News Tribune.]

If data collected by Minnesota’s state and local government is public, why do we have to pay so much to get it?

That’s the debate that is focused on Duluth at the moment, thanks to Tony Webster, the freelance software engineer whose idea of fun is seeking out government data.

Data shines a light on government and sometimes government doesn’t like that. It’s one of the reasons why the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honored Webster last month, bestowing an award on Webster for his dogged determination to get from government that which people have a right to get.

In Duluth, the City Council will vote Monday night on an ordinance that would require people to pay $35 an hour for staff time required to release data, the Duluth News Tribune reports.

At that rate, a fulltime employee would be making more than $72,000 a year.

City Attorney Gunnar Johnson contended the hourly fee being proposed is justifiable, particularly when all employee costs, including health insurance and other benefits are baked into the mix with wages.

“We were trying to come up with a number that’s reasonable and fairly approximates the cost of not the highest-paid employee but your basic administrative employee, and that’s the number that we feel is appropriate,” he said.

On Thursday night, Johnson told councilors the $35 per hour fee is consistent with what the city has been charging people for research although it previously was not set forth explicitly as a “a fee for public data research and retrieval.”

“We’re trying to find that middle ground. We’re happy to give people information, but we’re also trying to make sure that we’re doing that in an administratively sound way,” Johnson said.

Open-government advocates, however, think that charging people so much for public data is meant to diminish the number of requests government gets for the data.

Webster says maybe Duluth should be looking at its inefficiencies instead.

Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson tells the News Tribune, however, that the city can’t afford to spend staff time for the requests of detailed data.

“He’s one of a few people out there making very voluminous and administratively difficult data practices requests, and the city works to accommodate that. But we need to make sure that we’re also doing the other work of the city so that the little things are getting done,” he said.

“There are only so many staff people that we have, and every department works hard to respond to data practices requests, but we want to make sure that doesn’t overwhelm the city, and it hasn’t. This is just a tweak,” Johnson said.

Webster isn’t buying it.

“Responding to data requests is city business, and there have actually been advisory opinions from the state commissioner of administration that make that exact point,” he said. “So being transparent and accountable to taxpayers should not be considered a nuisance but rather a public policy priority, and I would hope the City Council would consider the ideals of transparency and accountability before they would start thinking about how to nickel and dime people,” he said.

“I don’t mean to say they shouldn’t be charging for requests. Obviously if they can under law, they’re entitled to do that,” Webster said, noting, however, that the city lawfully can charge people only when it provides copies of documents and files. It cannot charge people who choose to review data on site.

Webster has been seeking data from police departments across the state on the use of license plate readers. In his letter to the city, he called Duluth’s response “the worst in the state.”