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Our View: Still time to fix public-data policy

City Hall flubbed badly this year in formalizing a policy for handling the public-information requests it receives from news reporters and others eager to know what local government is up to.

Duluth's Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery would be the first to admit to that.

"We fumbled the ball. ... I will take ownership of this," Montgomery said late last week in an interview with News Tribune Editorial Board members. "We goofed up the messaging. ... We messed up the whole approach."

A formal, written-down data-practices policy was first proposed by Montgomery and city administration in July. Informal and mostly just how things were done until then, the formalized policy included a $35-per-hour fee, a charge for the staff time it takes to dig through documents and to produce the records members of the media and public request to review.

The policy immediately, and rightly, raised rebuke. A one-size-fits-all fee like that conflicts with state law, Minnesota Newspaper Association legal counsel Mark Anfinson and others argued. State law allows local governments only to recoup for actual costs incurred.

Despite the backlash, last month — on the day before Thanksgiving, no less — Montgomery signed off on the data-practices policy, putting it into effect. It was just in "a stack of stuff that comes through," he said. He swears he didn't really think much about it or that it was something that could go unnoticed in the hubbub of the holiday. Making the fumble even more egregious was that the $35-per-hour fee was still in the policy.

But it won't be for long, Montgomery vowed. And give him and city administration credit for promptly acting to fix this flub. City policy can be updated with a stroke of Montgomery's administrative pen, and this policy, he acknowledges, needs prompt updating.

The city likely still will go with a flat fee, like Minneapolis does, but it'll be something more reasonable. The city's lowest-paid clerical position authorized to fulfill data requests earns $27 an hour, Montgomery said. The actual cost to the city jumps to $32 to $37 per hour, depending on the employee's level of health insurance. So perhaps a fee of $20 or $25, he tossed out, a little more if a higher-salaried employee, like someone from the city attorney's office, has to be involved. And the first hour of staff time still would be free, covered by the city taxes the data requester and the rest of us already are paying.

So, "less than our actual costs because then we know we're under the bar (set in state law), and then it's administratively simple and easy and doesn't create more costs to try to manage it," Montgomery said. "And it keeps it at a fairly reasonable level."

Taxpayers do want the city to charge something. While the News Tribune and other responsible media don't make frivolous document requests, an hourly charge can deter others from making excessive requests, simply because records are public and government is obligated to make them available.

Picking up this fumble in 2018 also will include a new portal on the city's website through which the public will be able to more easily and more efficiently make document requests. And Montgomery is always happy, he said, to listen to concerns or suggestions about this or other city policies. His email address is dmontgomery@duluthmn.gov.

"I'm more than happy to listen," he said.

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