This is an opinion of the Commissioner of Administration issued pursuant to section 13.072 of Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13 - the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. It is based on the facts and information available to the Commissioner as described below.
Facts and Procedural History:
For purposes of simplification, the information presented by the person who requested this opinion and the response from the government entity with which the person disagrees are presented in summary form. Copies of the complete submissions are on file at the offices of IPA and, except for any data classified as not public, are available for public access.
On July 31, 2000, IPA received a letter from Helen Patrikus and Stephanie Preble. In this letter, Ms. Patrikus and Ms. Preble asked the Commissioner to issue an advisory opinion regarding their right to gain access to certain data maintained by Ramsey County.
In response to Ms. Patrikus and Ms. Preble's request, IPA, on behalf of the Commissioner, wrote to Terry Schutten, Ramsey County Manager. The purposes of this letter, dated August 7, 2000, were to inform him of Ms. Patrikus and Ms. Preble's request and to ask him to provide information or support for the County's position. On August 11, 2000, IPA received a response from Harry D. McPeak, Assistant County Attorney. A summary of the facts of this matter follows.
Ms. Patrikus and Ms. Preble are amateur genealogists. Their research has included inspection of vital records in Ramsey County. According to them, Ramsey County recently implemented a new policy regarding access by genealogists to vital records. They wrote: "[t]he County does not allow genealogist [sic] to inspect public records without first paying a fee." They provided a copy of the policy, entitled "Genealogy Requests," which states the following:
Verification only request, includes view only -
Fees are set as follows: $8 per application processed when complete information is provided. A $20 per hour search fee is charged if incomplete information is provided. (Fees will be prorated)
In his comments to the Commissioner, Mr. McPeak wrote: "[i]t is the County's position that plain reading of [section 144.226, subdivision 1 (e)] requires that the fees in question be collected when inquiries such as though [sic] made by Ms. Patrikus and Ms. Preble are submitted to the County." (Emphasis his.)
In their request for an opinion, Ms. Patrikus and Ms. Preble asked the Commissioner to address the following issue:
Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, section 13.03, subdivision 3 (a): "[i]f a person requests access [to government data] for the purpose of inspection, the responsible authority may not assess a charge or require the requesting person to pay a fee to inspect data."
Section 144.226, subdivision 1 (e), provides:
The fee for the verification of information from vital records is $8 when the applicant furnishes the specific information to locate the record. When the applicant does not furnish specific information, the fee is $20 per hour for staff time expended. Specific information shall include the correct date of the event and the correct name of the registrant. Fees charged shall approximate the costs incurred in searching and copying the records. The fee shall be payable at time of application. [Emphasis added.]
There is no definition of "verification" provided in the statutes governing vital records. (See section 144.212, and Rules promulgated by the Minnesota Department of Health this year, 24SR1379.) There is also no guidance provided by a court ruling. Black's defines "verification" as "[c]onfirmation of correctness, truth, or authenticity, by affidavit, oath or deposition." (Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition. West Publishing Co., St. Paul, Minnesota, 1990.)
Mr. McPeak said the County is required to charge the fees in question for "inquiries such as [those] made by Ms. Patrikus and Ms. Preble." He did not explain what it is in the nature of their request that requires "verification." According to Ms. Patrikus and Ms. Preble, they asked to inspect vital records; they did not ask for copies of the data. There is no indication that they asked for verification of anything. They asked only to inspect public data.
Pursuant to Minnesota Rules, Part 1205.0300, subpart 2, "[t]he responsible authority shall provide access to public data to any person, without regard to the nature of that person's interest in the data."
It should also be noted that the 2000 Minnesota Legislature amended Chapter 13 to require that, unless specifically authorized by statute, government entities may not require persons to identify themselves, state a reason for, or justify a request to gain access to public government data. (A person may be asked to provide certain identifying or clarifying information for the sole purpose of facilitating access to the data.) The new language, which is codified at section 13.05, subdivision 12, went into effect on August 1, 2000. (See Laws for Minnesota 2000, Chapter 468, section 6.)
Accordingly, absent a specific authority to equate a request to inspect vital records, which are public government data, with a request for verification of same, we must conclude that Ramsey County may not assess any fee in response to a request simply to inspect vital records.
Based on the facts and information provided, my opinion on the issue raised by Md. Patrikus and Ms. Preble is as follows:
David F. Fisher
Dated: September 19, 2000