Recent events show why the need for open access to information and government accountability are as relevant as ever.
As Sunshine Week rolls on, incidents in state and local governments around the country exemplify why media organizations and advocacy groups continue to fight for the public's right to know as an essential element of an effective and unrestrained press.
The national event — which began March 11 and runs into the weekend — is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press as a way to bring attention to the public records laws that make many news stories possible and that, increasingly, fuel apps and websites.
New examples of shortcomings and misdeeds in government are uncovered daily, wherever a legislative body evades standards of transparency or a public servant attempts to skirt the public's scrutiny. Against that backdrop, Sunshine Week's over-arching message is: Continue to make the most of First Amendment. As the late academic and New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Sunshine Week organizers highlight instances of sometimes unwarranted exceptions to that government ideal and demand transparency on behalf of all parts of government, even lawmaking bodies.
In California, the war over information continues as the state government abides by one set of public disclosure rules, while the legislature abides by another, more permissive set. The California Public Records Act was signed into law 50 years ago and provides that all government agency records are to be made public, with a few exceptions, including the legislature.
Several years after California's public records act was passed, it passed another law called the Legislative Open Records Act, which permits lawmakers to keep many records secret that the rest of government is required to reveal.
Records of complaints to the legislature, including those of misconduct by lawmakers, and investigations by the legislature are among the concealed items. Such protections for lawmakers are common, and can be found in other states and in the federal Congress.
Last month, the Washington state legislature attempted to pass a law to exempt itself from the state's 1972 Public Records Act, but Gov. Jay Inslee’s office received more than 20,000 calls and emails and he vetoed the bill.
“Transparency is a cornerstone of a democratic government, and I’m very proud of my administration’s record on public disclosure,” Inslee, a Democrat, said in a statement following his veto. “I believe legislators will find they can fulfill their duties while being fully transparent, just like state and local governments all across Washington.”
Florida lawmakers are chipping away at a public records law widely considered one of the most transparent in the country. Nearly a dozen new exceptions are slated to become active after this year's legislative session, the Miami Herald reported on Sunday, including protections for personal information of victims of mass violence, the identities of armed school staff trained under a new "guardian" program, and the blueprints of some healthcare facilities. Republican Gov. Rick Scott has already signed off on some of the transparency rollbacks, which have been generally supported, even by those who didn't support the programs that made them necessary.
Calls for increased transparency come from within government and out as scandals abound regarding the ownership of information and "the right to know." While Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has been cleared by the state attorney general of charges associated with using encrypted messaging app Confide for concealing government-related communications, he remains under investigation for other things, including the use of Confide by other members of his office and a 2015 an extramarital affair during the course of which he was charged by a grand jury with a felony invasion of privacy charge.
Sunshine Week’s promoters point to situations like those in Texas and Florida, where exorbitant costs are cited as a common reason why reporters can’t get access to information. While reporting on the story of sexual assault in prison, MuckRock reporter Nathanael King asked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for records that would substantiate rumors about the assaults. The department told him it would cost him more than $1.1 million for the release of the 260,000 pages of records related to his request. The department also noted that it would take 61,000 man-hours to process his request.
A similar story was observed last year when Tim James, an officer of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, beat a handcuffed teenager and was arrested for his actions. It was subsequently revealed that his record contained a history of violent incidents and at least 11 complaints, with his most stringent punishment being a 10-day suspension. When an attorney hired by the family of the beaten teenager asked for records, the Sheriff's Office said it required a fee of more than $314,000. When met with complaints of the high fee, the sheriff complained that it would take too long to search through its 1,600 square foot storage room for the requested records.
While many government agencies are direct in their unwillingness to share information freely, others go out of their way to appear transparent, but with little substance behind the effort. As part of Sunshine Week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation cheekily awarded Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed the "Best Set Design in a Transparency Theater Production" award for last year releasing almost 1.5 million documents related to a corruption probe in an effort to show that he supported government accountability.
“The documents filled hundreds of white cardboard boxes, many stacked up waist-high against walls and spread out over rows of tables in the cavernous old City Council chamber,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Leon Stafford wrote. “Reed used some of the boxes as the backdrop for his remarks, creating a 6-foot wall behind him.”
But as journalists began to dig through the boxes, the extent of the mayor's gesture was diminished — many pages were blank, fully redacted, or contained print that was too small to read.
Many politicians — usually Democrats — are pushing for greater transparency. But as Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican, recently showed, the spirit of open government can be found on both sides of the aisle. Colyer signed executive orders last month demanding more transparency from his state agencies.
“Transparency is key to better accountability, and accountability is the key to real results,” Colyer said in a legislative address last month. “Let’s make this happen.”