Citizens get short shrift from officials on public information

Monday, November 2, 1998


After the votes are counted in precincts across the nation tomorrow, the
pundits and politicians will no doubt decry poor voter turnout and blame it
on poor citizenship.


Few will mention, however, that one of the primary reasons citizens don’t
get more involved in their civic duties is the way they are treated when
they seek information about the way their government operates.


The truth is that most public officials actively discourage citizenship at
its most important intersection: between the individual citizens and the
local offices and agencies where political policies and decisions translate
into the reality of daily life for voters and taxpayers.


One would think that public officials would be delighted when private
citizens walk through their doors in search of records and documents. After
all, such visits should be regarded as an affirmation of their value and
necessity, as well as an opportunity for enlisting supporters and allies.


Instead, the private citizen more often is treated as a meddler, a
nuisance, an interloper, someone who must be sent packing with as much
haste and as little information as possible.


The most recent hard evidence of this attitude among local government
officials is an audit of their responses to citizen requests for
information in all 135 cities and counties in Virginia. The state’s
newspapers conducted the audit to see how well public officials
complied with the state’s freedom of information law by sending out
employees to request records and documents as ordinary citizens.


The results were dismal. Almost half of the time, requesters were unable
to get the information the law said they should have access to. Often, they
were subjected to interrogation or outright hostility from officials and
employees at school boards, administrative offices, health departments and
police and sheriff’s departments.


Requests for law enforcement information, arguably the most important
information a citizen can seek, were most often denied — only 16% of
the time were requesters given the information the law says should be
publicly available.


The local officials’ responses to these information requests ranged from ignorance of the law to “a gleeful disregard” of it, reported Pamela Stallsmith in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Many of the requesters had to return to offices several times or found themselves being routed through a maze of bureaucracy, often finally being told the information was not
available.”


Often, officials demanded the requesters’ names, addresses and phone
numbers, as well as their motives. In one case the requester’s race was
demanded. Virginia law requires that the information sought in this
audit should be made available to any state resident who asks for it,
regardless of reason.


“How would you like it if somebody came to your house and asked to see
your personal records?” a sheriff’s officer in Northumberland County asked
in denying a requester the right to see the department’s crime log.


In another county, a sheriff’s dispatcher acknowledged the requirements of
the state’s law, then said, “But this is Bath County.”


In New Kent County, a sergeant began shouting when asked for the crime
log. He said it was not a public record, “Not in New Kent County, not
today.”


A secretary in Isle of Wight County yelled at the requester and when asked
whether the requested document was a public document said, “It might be but
I’m not going to give it to you.”


A Russell County health inspector wanted to know why the requester wanted
a report. When the requester explained that she was a concerned citizen, he
asked, “What are you concerned about?”


And so it goes. In Indiana and Rhode Island, similar audits of local
officials’ attitudes toward providing public information to the public
yield very similar results. Time after time, citizens encounter difficulty,
delay and denial in trying to find out information vital to evaluation of
government policy and performance, even though the law and court decisions
say they have a right to the information.


It is particularly ironic that so many public officials in Virginia —
home of the Jeffersonian principle of an informed citizenry — don’t
know or won’t acknowledge the right of the people to information that they
pay to collect, and for whose benefit it was collected in the first
place.


The point of citizens’ participation in their own governance is to make
government policies and actions more understood and, thus, better
supported. The key to an involved citizenry is an informed citizenry.


Public governance is not a private party. Everyone is invited. Government
officials, particularly at the local level, need to recognize that when
taxpayers and voters keep getting turned away at the door, it won’t be long
before the party becomes a wake for the demise of good government.


Paul McMasters can be reached by e-mail at
pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.