County Board questions staff on transparency violation


(6/9/2021)

by ZACH KAYSER

 

It appears responses to data requests from Winona County residents will continue the same way as before, despite a successful legal challenge brought on behalf of City Council Member Michelle Alexander last August regarding mayoral election results.

Following a recount, Alexander lost the primary by five votes to Scott Sherman, who eventually became mayor. The data practices request centered on which absentee ballots had been rejected by election officials. Alexander’s attorney, Reid LeBeau, sought to review the rejected ballots to ensure that the county had not thrown out valid ballots. 

The county was fined $200 and ordered to pay up to $6,000 in legal fees after an administrative law judge found they had failed to comply with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act in their response to the request by LeBeau. The law mandates that government bodies must in general release any public information when requested, and in a timely fashion. 

At the request of county board members, County Attorney Karin Sonneman presented a review of the case in April. She said that as the designated compliance official for the county, she ultimately is the one who must take responsibility when there are problems regarding compliance. Sonneman does this in addition to her duties as lead prosecutor of the county for criminal and other cases, as well as representing and advising the county on general legal issues. Sonneman said at the time of Alexander’s request, the county was fielding many other data requests related to the election. “At that time, and even now, the county received numerous, countless requests for data practices,” she said. “But in particular, this was during the 2020 election, there was a lot of interest and concern from certain quarters about whether there was fraud going on in elections.” 

A data request from the Post to see all the data requests filed in August appeared to partially back up Sonneman’s assertion. There were four requests that month, including one from the campaign of Donald Trump that sought 41 different sets of data related to election procedures, such as how Winona County ballots are handled after being submitted by voters, how the county checks ballot validity, and other details on election security. 

Since Alexander was not the subject of the data she was requesting, the county was not obligated to respond in a 10-day time limit that would be effective if Alexander had been requesting data about herself, Sonneman said. Instead, the time limit was simply a “reasonable” length of time, which is undefined in Minnesota law. Alexander conceded the primary election, and the county assumed that meant she didn’t want the data anymore, failing to check with LeBeau and Alexander. “The lesson learned from this is, not to assume that they don’t want the information, but to respond accordingly,” Sonneman said. 

County Board Chair Marcia Ward asked Sonneman if there were any possible reforms that would prevent a similar incident from happening again.

“It would be nice to have more staff, but that probably won’t happen,” Sonneman said. She added that she anticipated a greater volume of requests in the future, especially when the Winona County Sheriff’s Office starts using body cameras while on patrol. Her office had consulted with Mark Anderson, county director of information technology, about the possibility of buying software that would manage data requests, she said. 

Contacted last week, Commissioner Marie Kovecsi said there had not been any discussion on the subject of data practices since the April meeting. Commissioner Steve Jacob said he considered the matter of Alexander’s request to be closed as long as Alexander herself was not pursuing it further. “Up until this issue, I felt like the county had been doing a lot better than what they had been doing five and 10 years ago,” he said. 

Jacob said he wanted the county to operate under the presumption that data should be released to the public, but it appeared to him that Sonneman wanted the opposite. At the April meeting, he had pointed out that Alexander apparently requested the data in order to determine if she would contest the election, and the county’s tardiness would understandably be frustrating. 

"If you come within two votes … I can understand wanting information in respect to that election and apparently they didn’t get it and that’s why we were fined,” Jacob said. Sonneman countered by saying the county would have had to come up with the requested data in two days, were it to have delivered it to Alexander and LeBeau before she eventually conceded. 

Local@winonapost.com

 

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