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Data requests show cities can't keep email addresses private

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Minnesotans who have signed up for online alerts from their municipal government might be surprised to learn their email addresses cannot be kept private.  

Cities throughout much of Ramsey and Washington counties recently received requests to turn over all the email addresses they have collected. Experts on Minnesota's Government Data Practices Act say the addresses are public information, and there is little cities can do to shield them. 

"It's unfortunate and really nothing you can do about it," said Brent Engebretson, a Roseville resident who recently learned his email address had been disclosed.

Roseville released some 4,000 addresses in response to a data practices request received last month. The list consisted of residents who had signed up to receive email alerts about city council meetings, street maintenance and more than a dozen other topics.   

"If I had my choice, I would not make this information available," city spokeswoman Carolyn Curti said.  

But Roseville was legally required to hand over the information. In Minnesota, all government data are presumed public unless they're specifically classified otherwise under state law.

"Generally speaking, if someone were to make a request for email addresses at a government entity — local or state government entity — there's nothing that classifies your email address as anything other than public," said Stacie Christensen, an attorney with the state's Information Policy Analysis Division, or IPAD, which helps officials understand their obligations under the 1979 Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

  Roseville wasn't the only city to be asked for its email lists. MPR News contacted more than half a dozen cities that received identical inquiries. Each request came from a man named Kevin Berglund, who did not respond to phone calls and or emails seeking comment.

So far, the other cities have been less cooperative than Roseville. St. Paul has yet to respond. Woodbury, Stillwater, Falcon Heights and several others told Berglund his request would be time-consuming to fulfill. Some demanded Berglund pay thousands of dollars to cover the staff time before they went digging through their computer systems. They have yet to hear back from him.

  But they all acknowledge Berglund has a right to the data, with Maplewood as the one exception. Berglund is a Maplewood resident and a controversial figure in local politics. A group of city employees once took out a restraining order against Berglund, though a judge later threw the order out. City Clerk Karen Guilfoile was one of those city employees, but she said that was not why she rejected Berglund's data request.  

She pointed instead to the privacy policy posted on the city's website.

  "It says your email address will be kept confidential, and it will not be sold or disclosed to others or used for unsolicited mass mailings or spam," Guilfoile said.

  Under state law, that policy offers little protection.

  "You can't have a privacy policy that's in violation of state statute," said Don Gemberling, secretary of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and the former head of IPAD. "All that does is it's going to put them in a terrible bind because they're in violation of the statute."

  It's unclear what Berglund plans to do with the email addresses. But his requests target cities throughout Minnesota's 4th Congressional District. Berglund's wife, former Maplewood Mayor Diana Longrie, is running for the U.S. House in Tuesday's DFL primary. Longrie declined to say whether the requests are connected to her campaign.

  Incumbent DFL Congresswoman Betty McCollum holds the seat Longrie is seeking. McCollum said regardless of why Berglund wants the email lists, the Minnesota Legislature should change the law to foil future requests like his.

  "If I sign up to get a snow emergency alert or if I sign up with a school district to get the lunch menu, I certainly didn't sign up for the school district or for the state or for my municipality to turn around and give my email address to anybody who wants it," McCollum said.

  The legislature has routinely amended the Data Practices Act over the last 30 years, usually to make more government data private.