Exhaustive data privacy requests have bowhunters up in arms

MAHTOMEDI – The city has been mired in an unprecedented government data practices request unlike any staff has seen. It involves deer hunting within city limits. 

The first request for data, legal under the state’s data practices privacy law, came via email last September after City Council approved three weekend hunts by members of the Metro Bowhunters Resource Base. 

The person making the request, Christopher DeWuske, wanted personnel data under the Act, Statute Chapter 13, that included names and addresses of hunters, when precisely they would be hunting, GPS coordinates of their locations, licenses and other credentials, as well as names of council members and other involved government officials who favored or opposed the deer hunt. 

DeWuske, who listed two addresses of residence on the paperwork, one in Hudson and one in Mahtomedi, said he wanted the information no later than 10 days before the first day of the October hunt.

“We’ve never had a request this expansive,” observed City Administrator Scott Neilson, who admitted he “doesn’t have a clue” why the request was made. He does know how much it has cost the city in legal fees through March: $10,041.

The initial request was followed by a flurry of electronic missives that have lasted months as DeWuske claims reports are incomplete and the city is being dishonest. The city was not in possession of liability insurance certificates until Dec. 8, he said, which is a breach of contract, as no hunting was allowed until the certificate was provided. 

Follow-up data practice requests to City Hall also asked for all data regarding deer going back to 2020, all internal communications concerning his previous three data practices reviews and internal communications about or mentioning him by name. If data wasn’t provided in a timely manner, he expected a line-by-line explanation of which data had been produced, which was in process and which didn’t exist.  

In a Jan. 8 letter to Mahtomedi’s city clerk obtained by the Press, DeWuske requested communications, naming specific individuals, between the city and its employees, the city and the DNR, members of the media, the school board and the Metro Bowhunters Resources Base (MBRB). If his requests failed to meet deadlines, he warned the city it was out of compliance with the law, and said it was a crime to not provide prompt access to data that has been requested, referring to the action as “willful violation of the Act.” 

The nonprofit bowhunters group was targeted, too, when DeWuske was told by the city it did not have some of the data he wanted. 

When he received no response from emails sent to MBRB board members, the city heard about it. In an email to the city clerk, DeWuske wrote that his data practices request was being ignored despite what he called MBRB’s “legal obligation” to fulfill his request for personal information, which included tax returns and letters from the IRS, as well as members’ names and addresses. 

He had “apprised the Minnesota Department of Administration of this breach of state statute,” DeWuske said. 

Eventually, counsel for MBRB did respond. 

Attorneys Tim Keane and Todd Guerrero, specialists in data privacy, told DeWuske that the city of Mahtomedi had already provided him with all the information that he was entitled to under the Act.

MBRB board members don’t know if they’ve heard the last from DeWuske. 

“We’d like to know his motives,” said Joe Palen, a White Bear business owner and 20-year board member. He led the first two archery hunts last fall in Mahtomedi, then canceled the December hunt. “Why is he asking for this information? That’s the mystery.”

Like the city, the bowhunters group has had to pay hefty legal bills to satisfy the request. According to Palen, the MBRB has spent $15,000 dealing with the issue. 

Their main worry is that privacy data of hunters who volunteer for municipal hunts is at risk. 

“So many organizations might have malicious intent,” Palen said. 

So the group reached out to state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, an advocate for sportsmen and a deer hunter herself, to seek legislation protecting such data.

 

House bill revised

HF4603 is a bill designed to protect hunter privacy by prohibiting public disclosure of names. Becker-Finn introduced the bill in March but withdrew it after objections from the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI). 

The representative (DFL-Roseville) said the language proved too broad than what was needed to deal with the Mahtomedi situation.

“When it comes to changing things in Chapter 13 of the Minnesota Data Practices Privacy law, it’s never simple. It’s a notoriously sticky area of law to deal with,” Becker-Finn said. “It’s a balance of individual privacy versus citizen access to know what our government is doing.”

The bill’s language has since been rewritten with help from DNR Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier and will likely be part of the omnibus bill. 

As Becker-Finn pointed out, the legislation affects people who affirmatively volunteer to do something additional than normal recreational hunting and fishing. “The data you share when applying for hunting and fishing licenses is already private,” she pointed out.

Confident there is time to get this done, Becker-Finn added that the Senate is willing to work with her on the legislation. “There is middle ground to be found between those people pushing for this and data activists who were uncomfortable with how broad the language was. There is room to compromise,” she said.

Although it’s too late for the Mahtomedi case, the bill would make sure this doesn’t happen in other cities, Becker-Finn continued. “We don’t want people to stop volunteering for the DNR because they’re afraid of how their data might be shared.”

MBRB attorneys are working pro bono to help get the bill passed. 

 

‘Never seen anything like this’

Both Becker-Finn and MBRB President Deb Luzinski said they’ve never seen anything like the Mahtomedi data request. 

“For the most part, people are comfortable with bow hunters in controlled hunts,” observed Becker-Finn, who called herself a lifelong deer hunter. “It’s not a problem I’ve seen other than the situation in Mahtomedi.”

Luzinski, too, said her group of volunteer archers has never experienced what they consider an invasion of privacy. “He (DeWuske) asked if deer were donated and to whom. He asked about birth control, depredation, disease testings and much more. The hours of administrative work spent on this was insane. One guy’s data requests cost the city and us thousands of dollars.”

She called the volunteer hunter issue a “loophole” in the data privacy act that was discovered after the MBRB hunt.

Weighing in on the controversy was the national Sportsmen’s Alliance, an Ohio-based nonprofit whose mission is to protect hunting, fishing and trapping rights. Spokesman Brian Lynn, vice president of marketing and communications, offered this comment: “The real issue is that while hunter data is normally private in Minnesota, if they volunteer to help government in any way, that privacy standard is waived and their names can be seized by anyone wanting it for any reason, (and without reason). 

“Today’s technology makes it simple to find someone’s address, the school their kids attend, where they work, phone numbers, etc. This applies for anyone volunteering for a town, county, etc. The danger for stalking, harassment or ‘doxing’ is high if someone doesn’t agree with what you’re doing, which unfortunately, happens often when it comes to hunting.”

The metro bowhunters want people to know they follow all game laws and aren’t trophy hunters. “We strive to make this fail-safe and successful. We’ve been providing this service free to municipalities for 25 years,” Palen said. “We’ve never had an issue. This kind of invasion of our privacy is making us rethink providing deer management by hunting in cities and townships under contract.”

The alternative, he added, is for municipalities to hire another means of deer removal that can cost roughly $500 per animal. 

For his part, DeWuske said the requests were filed to ascertain if the city and its volunteers were following their contract. He said they were not. “I also wanted to see what research the city had done in its planning. What is also revealed is an unwillingness to provide transparency to the public,” he said. 

Was all data requested received? “No,” DeWuske said. He contends that the statute is clear that the data is public, writing in an email, “This treats volunteers the same as government employees in terms of data classification, out of a recognition that any individual acting on behalf of the government should have the same basic information, (including their name,) available for public review. If armed volunteers are acting on behalf of the government, they are identifiable for purposes of oversight and accountability.” 

His language looked to be borrowed from written testimony March 29 by MNCOGI addressed to Becker-Finn and members of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law committee.

In that testimony from Board Member Matt Ehling, MNCOGI said making the names of people who participate in certain activities “not public” in all instances could set a precedent that might spread to other areas of government data in future legislation. 

Coincidentally, this isn’t the first DeWuske to file a data practices request. Press archives show DeWuske’s grandfather, Henry DeWuske, former Mahtomedi mayor, led a group of levy opponents in 2010 that combed through thousands of school district emails in search of evidence the April referendum that year was conducted improperly. The group filed a data practices request to view all written correspondence related to the levy dating back to 2007. 

Whether the data issue has come to a close remains to be seen. City Clerk Jerene Rogers said they last heard from DeWuske April 11 when he asked for clarification on some items. He received a response from the city April 14.

It also remains to be seen how the city will thin the deer herd in the future. The deer population is growing in Mahtomedi, as are the deer complaints. 

Before scheduling a hunt in the future, City Administrator Neilson said the city will likely sit down with the DNR and “have a conversation. Are there other options we should look at to decrease the population? There are a lot of deer out there.”

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