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Privacy crusader gets open government award

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Rich Neumeister at the State Capitol
Rich Neumeister is a citizen lobbyist who follows privacy and open government issues at the State Capitol. He won this year's John R. Finnegan award for open government.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

As champions go, Rich Neumeister is an unlikely candidate.

His greying pony tail comes and goes, as does his handlebar moustache. He wears a collection of silk-screened T-shirts dating back to the Nixon administration, and gets around in hand-me-down penny loafers. He doesn't own a car, but he's made a living driving a bus and working as a probation officer.

But information is Neumeister's real life's work -- public information, specifically. 

Rich Neumeister's shoes
Rich Neumeister is such a fixture at the State Capitol that he was given a pair of Star Tribune reporter Kevin Duchshere's loafers.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Neumeister said growing up in public housing in St. Paul sparked a keen interest in the interchange between government and the public.

"I would say that's been there for 40 years or more," Neumeister said. "Being a low income kid, living in projects, interacting with government, going to the community center being told you're going to have inspections, and I became aware of government, and paperwork, and all those kinds of things."

Today, he's one of the state's foremost authorities on what Minnesotans know about the government and what the government knows about them. 

He spends much of his spare time at the Capitol trying to nudge state law toward both being more open and better protecting individual privacy.

Minnesota Appeals Court judge Randy Peterson has known Neumeister for decades, dating back to Peterson's days as a DFL state senator.

"People, I think, really underestimate him," Peterson said. "He doesn't play what I would consider the traditional role of a lobbyist. I mean, he doesn't dress the part. He doesn't look the part, but he really is very knowledgeable. I think over the years he's played a significiant role in information policy in the state because he devotes so much time to it."

"I say to Rich's face, 'You know, Rich, you can be a real fly in the ointment here, pal."

Neumeister has worked to make more government records more available and to cut the costs and hassle of getting copies of public information. He's pushed to make public licensing and internal budget paperwork that opens a window on how government works and fought to block access to health and criminal records in the name of privacy.

Not everyone appreciates his efforts, particularly those in law enforcement.

Bureau of Criminal Apprehension superintendent Tim O'Malley said he has great respect for Neumeister's commitment. 

But he said the public might be better served if, for instance, more open data could help police track down the subjects of protection orders, a common tool in fighting domestic violence. He also said making public more police records could compromise efforts to thwart serious threats to public safety.

Neumeister is squaring off against the BCA on those very issues right now.

"I say to Rich's face, 'You know, Rich, you can be a real fly in the ointment here, pal," O'Malley said. "And he acknowledges it."

But O'Malley and others also concede that Neumeister's cause is authentic and a worthy one.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher has known Neumeister for decades. They attended college together at what is now Hamline University in St. Paul.

Even after extensive investigations into efforts to disrupt the Republican National Convention last summer, Fletcher said he has some of the same doubts as Neumeister regarding a law that would expand intelligence gathering by police.

"It's been easy for law enforcement to just throw his name around in a fashion that sounds like an obstructionist," Fletcher said. "But I've found myself coming to consensus with Rich."   And it isn't just government information that Neumeister has played a role in defining.

Don Gemberling was a top official in the state office that guides information policy and spoke often with Neumeister. 

Gemberling remembers a discussion that led Neumeister to propose a law that would give employees of private companies in Minnesota the right to see their own personnel files. 

"He did the work to make sure that it actually went into effect," Gemberling remembers. "And it was not an easy task. The chamber of commerce didn't like the legislation, you know the big gun Minneapolis lawyers showed up to talk about how it would ruin business as we know it. But today, with some exceptions, if you want to go see your personnel file, then you can do so."

Gemberling nominated him for this year's Finnegan award for that and other efforts. 

Neumeister is grateful for the recognition, but said that's not what keeps him going back to the Capitol again and again.

"It's important that government be held accountable as best as it can for citizens, whether it's one citizens, a group of citizens, or an organization," said Neumeister.