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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

September 26, 2013
Associated Press

Star Tribune, Sept. 26

Last week, Twin Cities television anchor/reporter Jessica Miles filed a federal lawsuit alleging that her driver's license information was illegally searched about 1,380 times and her husband's 92 times. At the federal set amount of $2,500 per incident, the damages could amount to $3.5 million.

And earlier this month, 18 Minnesota residents and former residents alleged that dozens of public employees had looked up driver's license data because the citizens had been critical of Wabasha County. They claim that public officials have accessed their private data for political reasons more than 600 times since 2003. That case could generate $1 million-plus in damages.

The plaintiffs are among dozens of people who have sued a number of local and state government agencies in the past year after obtaining information from the Department of Public Safety that public employees had illegally accessed their private records.

As the number of cases has grown, this page has called for clarification in federal and state rules to better balance privacy concerns with reasonable damages to avoid huge government payouts. Bottom line: Damage amounts per incident should better reflect the harm done.

Any changes should include placing more of the liability on individual offenders, rather than on their government employers. Incidents of illegal data snooping would drop dramatically if the people who broke the law had to pay the penalty.

Local governments are subject to these suits largely because of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), a federal law passed in 1994 after an actress was murdered by a stalker who used public data to find her. The law outlines permissible uses of the data and provides for at least $2,500 in damages for each improper lookup.

The act grew out of the sensible notion that government should release the information states require for a driver's license — name, address, height, weight, age, eye color and a photo — for legitimate reasons only.

Complicating the matter, though, is that the Minnesota cases involve government workers — many from law enforcement — who frequently look up such information in the course of their work.

The rash of lawsuits came after former St. Paul police officer Anne Marie Rasmusson received more than $1 million in settlements after 140 or more police employees looked up her photograph following gossip about how her looks had changed due to weight loss.

In a welcome decision last week, a federal judge dismissed a series of class-action claims against the state relating to a former Department of Natural Resources employee who allegedly snooped into thousands of driver's license records.

The former DNR manager was accused of accessing driver's license records 19,000 times — often while he was off-duty. The suits were brought on behalf of the 5,000 people, many of them women, who received data breach letters because of his actions.

On Friday, District Judge Joan Ericksen granted a motion by Attorney General Lori Swanson's office to dismiss the cases, which could have exposed the state to millions of dollars in damages. The judge wrote that the state could not be held liable for the employee's action because there was no evidence that the state agency "knowingly gave" him database access "for a purpose not permitted" by the DPPA.

The order also cited other federal court decisions saying that there is no constitutional right to privacy for motor vehicle record information.

It is downright creepy to learn that your personal information has been accessed hundreds of times — and mostly by the same person. That's why it's appropriate that the personal liability case continues against the DNR employee.

Ultimately, that is where the blame lies — with the individual offender. Government employers should make it clear that improper information tampering can cause termination. And employees who treat government data as if it were something on Facebook should face consequences.


St. Cloud Times, Sept. 25

Let's strike a balance in energy

Minnesotans probably don't think of themselves as being on the front lines in America's debate about the best mix of sources to meet the nation's power demands. Recent developments, though, show the state is closer than you think.

Challenges involving coal, wind, nuclear and even oil touch the state, which since 2007 has adopted some of the nation's highest standards for shifting to renewable energy sources. The measures mandate utilities by 2025 get 25 percent of total electrical generation from renewables. Xcel Energy has to get 31 percent of its power from renewables by 2020.

Yet amid plenty of ideological debates about each source, proponents and opponents seem to avoid talking in detail about real-world impacts. Look at these examples.

President Obama's administration unveiled new EPA rules last week that would set the first national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants. Coal-fired power plants likely would need to apply expensive new technology to meet the standards, yet news reports note how some of that technology is not fully vetted yet.

Amid that uncertainty, Xcel Energy is trying to determine the future of Sherburne County Generating Station near Becker. Sherco, built in the 1970s, uses up to three coal-fired generators to provide electricity to more than 2 million homes. Some opponents want two of the generators shuttered because of carbon dioxide emissions.

Left unanswered are details about the costs of each approach. How much more will consumers pay for Xcel power if Sherco adds the needed technology? If Sherco is partially shuttered, where will those 2 million homes get their energy? And how much will that cost?

Wind is often touted as an environmentally friendly renewable energy source. On Sept. 6, though, Minnesotans learned that's not always the case when developers of a $180 million wind farm near Zumbrota scrapped the project because of threats to eagles and bats.

Activists concerned about their quality of life and the 48-turbine farm's impact on wildlife fought for five years to scuttle the plan. Unclear throughout this saga were its precise costs and benefits.

North Dakota's oil boom plus the debate about the Keystone pipeline also affect the state, as do discussions on solar, biomass and the like.

Amid those debates, details about direct impacts to Minnesota consumers remain scant. Meanwhile, the state moves closer by the day to 2025. Again, what's the balance? What are its costs and benefits?


West Central Tribune of Willmar, Sept. 26

Farmers need to be part of solution

Here in west central Minnesota lies some of the richest and most productive farmland in America. The Minnesota River and other rivers flow through it into the Mississippi River basin. At the southern end of the Mississippi River is the Gulf of Mexico. At that point, there is a growing dead zone — the size of Connecticut — that is incapable of supporting sealife.

Environmental Protection Agency officials announced Wednesday that the United States is falling short of its goal to sufficiently address Mississippi River pollution. Minnesota and 11 other states along the river will need to accelerate their efforts to cut pollution in this watershed, they said.

The Gulf of Mexico is a long way from west central Minnesota, but this continuing environmental problem is not going away and will impact our region, especially our agriculture sector.

Minnesota has taken its role of the headwaters state seriously and is setting ambitious goals to help address river water pollution sources, along the Minnesota and Mississippi River watersheds.

The state faces a challenging goal of changing land management practices across the millions of ag land in our region and Minnesota.

It is important for farmers and their leaders to be part of the discussion and potential solutions as the state addresses this issue.

Thus, the state must help develop the critical research to find better methods that help reduce all pollution sources, which in turn can make a private-business farmer's investment worthwhile.



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