Sunshine Week shows spotty forecast for public right to know

Here we are in the first week of Daylight-Saving Time, and so theoretically we should all be enjoying more sunshine. Metaphorically, however, there is a pall on the landscape.

Sunshine, you see, is word that has come to be adopted by open government advocates as a metaphor for doing the public’s business not behind closed doors but in the full light of day.

Every good cause has a week, and this is Sunshine Week, a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. It was established in March of 2005 with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

And today is National Freedom of Information Day, which was established in the 1970s and tied to the birth date of James Madison, fourth president of the United States and “Father of the Bill of Rights.”

Is a pattern developing?

And yet, in the midst of all this celebration of sunshine and open government, there has been of late an especially troubling spate of anti-open behavior by the political class.

Here are just a few examples: In Portage County, Wisc., the sheriff decided to celebrate the week (well, we really doubt that he knew or cared that it was Sunshine Week) by announcing that “effective immediately the practice of inspecting jail records on weekends is terminated.” Now on its face this would seem to be an order that only affects the troublesome press and gives the sheriff’s staff one less thing to have to worry about on the weekend. But the effect of the order is to give a police official in the United States of America the self-appointed power to make secret arrests — if only for a weekend. Not only would it offend the sensibilities of James Madison, it clearly runs counter to Wisconsin law.

Out in Utah, the Legislature succeeded in a surgical dismemberment of that state’s open record statutes. The bill was introduced, heard in committee, passed out of committee, passed on House Floor, passed out of Senate Committee and passed on Senate Floor in 48 hours. And signed by the Gov. Gary Herbert a few days later. The law places most voice mails, instant messages, video chats and text messages outside the public records law and increases the fees to produce copies of those that remain public.

In Florida, the new governor, Rick Scott, has broken with his predecessors’ practice and announced that fees will be charged for public records, with payment required in advance.

Improvements in Washington

On the federal level, a report shows that President Obama’s administration has improved in its responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests, but hasn’t solved the problem of FOI backlogs. Obama ordered the government to “adopt a presumption in favor” of FOIA requests on his first full day in office in January 2009. A recent test showed that 49 agencies and departments reacted appropriately to records requests; 17 others — including the Transportation Department and U.S. Postal Service — provided no documents. Another 17 agencies — including the departments of Commerce, Energy, Justice and State — provided no final response, and four smaller agencies never acknowledged receipt of the FOIA request. That, however, is an improvement over a year earlier, when just 13 of 90 agencies complied.

Here in Ohio, Sunshine Week opened with a cloudy announcement by Gov. John Kasich that while reporters would be welcome Tuesday when he unveiled his first budget, there would be no audio or video recording for broadcast purposes. In the face of unfavorable reaction, he reversed himself in rather short order.

Ohio’s Yellow Book

On a brighter note, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost opened the week in fine fashion, with the release of an updated Sunshine Laws Manual. This 200-page book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in knowing how government is supposed to comply with the state’s open meetings and public records laws. The book, which as been produced by Republican and Democratic officeholders in the past, has been available in recent years on line.

The book can be viewed or downloaded at Downloading it takes a few minutes since the file is 1.9MB. Scrolling through its pages on the attorney general’s Web site is effortless.

People tend to think of open meetings and public records as things that interest only reporters. But everyone interested in good or better government should be aware of their rights to public information and should be alert to any attempt to curtail those rights. We’ve noted only a few examples of such efforts. History has shown there is never a shortage of elected and appointed officials who think the things they do are nobody’s business.

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