MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — State Sen. Scott Newman found himself on the defensive earlier this year, explaining away an e-mail that suggested he would take revenge on his election opponent’s supporters by refusing to meet with them.

If Newman’s embarrassment hadn’t been exposed by the e-mail, which was made public by the recipient, it certainly wouldn’t have come to light by checking his appointment calendar. That’s because the public has no right to see the calendars, one of the many ways in which Minnesota legislators are shielded from the state’s freedom-of-information law.

The state Data Practices Act was written with the executive branch in mind when it was crafted nearly 40 years ago, so the state’s 201 senators and representatives aren’t required to give up information such as e-mail and meeting calendars.

The AP is highlighting the public’s ability to obtain information about its governments as part of “Sunshine Week,” which began Sunday and annually marks efforts by government watchdogs to open government affairs to “sunshine” and freedom of information.

Minnesota lawmakers may choose to give up some information to the public, but the actual requirements are scattered in various state statutes and rules. For example, legislators do have to disclose phone and travel records and staff rosters and are required to report on campaign money-raising.

Without those requirements gathered in a central place, it can be challenging for a citizen to understand what they have a right to see. That in itself hinders transparency, said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

“It gets so complicated and difficult for John Q. Public to follow,” he said. “Is that a clever way of making things not as open as they should be? I think so.”

Bunting said Minnesota is one of 15 states that exempts its legislators from its open-records law.

Legislators themselves often are confused about what is and isn’t public, said Don Gemberling, who previously oversaw Minnesota governments’ compliance with the Data Practices Act and is now secretary of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, a group committed to ensuring open access to public information.

Both the House and Senate have unofficial policies of providing legislators’ travel records to the public, Senate Counsel Tom Bottern said. People can request where the legislator traveled and why, whether they rented a car, their lodging and expenses.

A rule requires a public roster of all staff members in the Legislature, including their positions and salaries.

The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board collects and reports all campaign contributions of more than $100, including how the money was spent. The board also requires information about each legislator’s finances annually, including sources of outside income, real estate, stocks and securities.

Rep. Larry Hosch, a Democrat from St. Joseph, said that when asked, he’s always provided his professional meeting calendar and e-mail between himself and other public officials.

“I’m all for transparency and openness,” Hosch said. He said he would not share personal correspondence between private individuals without their consent, nor would he provide his personal calendar, which includes his family’s doctor’s appointments.

Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican, said making everything open could discourage constituents from contacting their legislators.

“These sometimes can be women who might have a batterer in their house,” he said, “and because of the potential harm to them if it got out publicly, it could have very dire consequences.”

Mark Anfinson, an attorney who frequently handles cases for news organizations, said the Legislature has been fairly transparent in his experience. But he said because people so infrequently want information about their legislators, there’s no clear-cut answer to whether they can have it, he said.

Rich Neumeister, an open-government activist and regular presence at the Capitol, said it’s easy for the public to watch meetings, read bills and get face time with the people who wrote them. But he said something as simple as not being able to find out whom legislators are meeting with makes it difficult or impossible to know who is influencing them behind the scenes.

“We need to know how we can redress our grievances and petition the government to redress those,” Neumeister said. “We need information.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (6)
  1. AHHHHHH? A batterer in the house????? Yeah, because the domestic partners always run and call a senetor or someone else in the capitol building. This jerk face should be publicy beat himself so he understands what this is all about. They need to be open for the public eye and what ever else may come up! They are for the state afteer all not??? I know they are treated the other way around but I think it is time for a change! Kudos to the man from St. Joes for his ideas. That is the way it should be done. And if anyone is really worried about person information on a “public” calender……..DON’T PUT PERSONAL INFORMATION ON IT! You have a phone?? They have appointment calenders………and they work great too. USE THEM! Still can’t believe that bone head scrotum face said that he couldn’t do this because he is watching out for domestic abuse victoms! GOD!!!! HOW LOW HAVE GONE?

  2. TypesFromHome says:

    I had to go back and check if the article said the party affiliate of the legislator that used the battered women’s privacy as a reason not to be transparent. And, yep, I guessed right! It was a Republican!

    As a previous public official, I didn’t realize our State legislators had different Data Practices Laws applying to them than do mayors, county commissioners, etc. It’s time to change that! Like married to the truth above said: Don’t put personal information on a public calendar. I’m sure each legislator could afford one of those $1.19 little personal pocket sized calendars to note their personal appointments on. Besides, they have a secretary or some such staff person to keep track of that stuff anyway, don’t they?

    I assumed if I wrote a letter to my legislator or sent them an e-mail that it WOULD become part of the public record. At least all those nut jobs out there who just want to cuss out the legislator will know that their poorly worded letter won’t be seen by anyone other than the legislator and his/her staff. What a relief for them, I’m sure! LOL

  3. helper says:

    Yeah Republicans are such a sad sorry group of ignorant people.

  4. Jake says:

    Gee, which party was in charge of the Legislature when this rule was passed 40 years ago? If 15 other states have this same rule, how many are ‘blue’ states?

  5. Cher says:

    Let’s see Newt Gingrich says his affair was caused because of his committment to the government. This one says he can’t give up information because it could be a battered wife. This gets crazier by the day! These guys report to us and I bet there is not one record of ours they wouldn’t have access to! You can see my records, I can see yours. I pay for my insurance. You pay for your insurance. I don’t get a raise? Sorry, neither do you guys! I don’t eat out, you bring a bag lunch like the rest of us working stiffs! PERIOD! Let’s call it the Responsibility Act!!

  6. JRay says:

    Their calendars? I can’t get my state Senator or Representative to answer E-mail questions regarding why they take the stands that they take on some of the recent issues brought up in the legislature. (Eagan, both Republicans). I don’t know if this has anything to do with battering or perhaps who they might be meeting with but it sure is interesting. I plan on some follow up questions too and expect to get no response. Makes me curious as to which people they are serving.

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