On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

One software engineer's fight for transparent government

Share story

You can get a decent idea of how much Tony Webster cares about open governments from this tweet.

Webster, an independent journalist and freelance software engineer, uses public records requests to report on an array of topics, often with a focus on Minnesota government. The Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists recently gave him the Peter S. Popovich Award for his work fighting for First Amendment rights.

He's currently preparing for a Minnesota Supreme Court case that could have big implications for electronic records laws. The issue: whether it's valid to ask the government for emails by topic or keyword.

It all began when Webster was looking into whether local governments were using technologies to identify people by their face or eyes, for example. Webster found that most places were doing no such thing.  

But his data request to the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office was different. Sheriff Rich Stanek's office gave Webster the runaround for months, Webster said, before telling him the request was "too burdensome."

The sheriff's office initially said it would take them some 10,000 hours of work — 15 months of around-the-clock work — to comply with Webster's request.

Webster's request involved a search for emails, public records he needed for his research. The argument the search would take so much time didn't make sense to him.

"I've used email before, but also as a software engineer I know it's not that hard to search your email," Webster said.

He tried working with the sheriff's office to limit the request. Nobody responded, Webster said, so he sued and won. Twice. 

"Once they were under oath and on the stand they said, 'Well, it's not actually 10,800 hours — it's 18 hours," Webster said. 

Webster said he's thankful to have pro bono attorneys to help his case. Taking it to trial court then appeals court and now the Minnesota Supreme Court would normally cost tens of thousands of dollars, or more. MPR News, along with other news outlets in the region, has filed a legal motion supporting Webster's case against Hennepin County.

 Editor's note (July 7, 2017): After this show aired, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office replied in a statement:

"The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office recognizes the important legal questions surrounding the case of Webster v. Hennepin County and Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, and will continue to work through the courts to get these issues resolved for all concerned parties.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office preserves all business, personnel, and law enforcement information as required by Minnesota Statutes, without exception, and makes those records available to the public upon request.

The Sheriff's Office has produced thousands of responsive documents pursuant to the underlying data request in this case."

Tom Weber has invited Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek to join him on a future show. A spokesperson for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has said a representative of the department will join us to discuss the case when it has worked its way through the courts.