Government should open meetings, unlock records

Friday, March 18, 2011

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Editor's note: This article originally ran yesterday in USA Today.

The Tea Party Patriots are divvying up members of Congress.

The advocacy group is assigning its members to track every member of the House and Senate, monitoring their every legislative move.

“We have millions of manpower hours and thousands of people willing to do heavy lifting,” Shelby Blakely, the project organizer, told USA Today.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has announced its “Citizen Vigil for the Greater Good,” using volunteers to closely monitor special interests in their role in shaping legislation.

All over America, taxpayers concerned about government spending or overreaching are demanding greater scrutiny. They want to know how decisions are being made and what those decisions mean for the community.

The good news is that governments can be more responsive and accessible to the people they serve by embracing two easy low-cost principles: Open the doors to public meetings. And unlock the public's records.

Let it flow
This is Sunshine Week, a national effort organized by the American Society of News Editors, the news media and open-government advocates. It's an annual reminder of the importance of the free flow of information in a democracy. Taxpayers hire public employees to serve and protect, not to keep secrets from them.

We don't know as much about government actions as we should because many institutions still cloak their activities by closing certain public meetings and limiting access to documents. Federal and state laws give governments the right to withhold information under certain circumstances, but officials often overreach, keeping the public's business out of the public eye. “It's part human nature and part power” when officials fail to disclose information to the public, says Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “Public officials are fearful that if they've made a mistake, they'll get into trouble if it gets exposed, so they try to hang onto everything.”

This is not the exotica of WikiLeaks, diplomatic cables or classified information. Most public records requests address the meat-and-potatoes of government operations.

It was a public records request that led Los Angeles Times reporters to disclose that Bell, Calif., was paying its city manager almost $800,000 a year and its city council members about $100,000 each, compensation made possible by converting Bell into a charter city. When reporters first asked for documents detailing the compensation, they were stonewalled. “Literally every day, I'm calling the city clerk,” reporter Jeff Gottlieb told National Public Radio. “I really don't want to sue you, but we will, and when we go to court … we'll ask the judge to make you pay our legal bills, because that's what the statute says.”

The documents were eventually handed over, bizarrely enough, in a city park. The disclosures led to the arrest of eight Bell officials on corruption charges. The Los Angeles Times was able to ferret out this abuse of government power because of a strong public records law. But those laws are always under fire, largely by state legislators who want to limit public access:

  • The Associated Press released a 50-state overview of freedom of information last week, concluding that “efforts to boost openness often are being thwarted by old patterns of secrecy.”
  • Last week, the Utah Legislature set July 1 as the start for a sweeping set of exemptions that would bar the public from seeing legislators' text messages or the content of voice mails, as well as any communications between legislators and the public. The bill also would bump up the fee for access to public records.
  • A bill was introduced last month in the Georgia legislature that would keep secret any discussions with a company considering moving to the state, with the public being informed only after a deal was cut. A similar bill proposed in Tennessee would allow local governments to keep those negotiation details secret for up to five years.

Freedom-of-information advocates have long fought these battles, but they say there has been a perceptible public shift that will help ensure future access.

For years, the nation's news media have campaigned to keep public meetings open and records accessible. Now citizens are joining that fight. “I would attribute that to the addition of the word 'transparency' to the political lexicon,” says Gibson, who has worked on freedom-of-information issues for almost three decades. Even as cash-strapped news organizations scale back some of their legal fights to access records, others are stepping up. Last year, the Knight Foundation provided a $2 million grant over three years to the National Freedom of Information Coalition to help fight these battles in court.

What taxpayers need, deserve
Most important, though, are the many voices demanding greater government accountability. Disclosure strengthens democracy and allows us to assess a community's path in an informed and constructive way.

Taxpayers need to know who is on the public payroll and how much they're making. They need to understand what projects the community is committing to, and their potential impact on the public and its pocketbook. They deserve to see public issues aired in open sessions, with proper notice and the opportunity for input.

The best town councils and local governments see public access and public service as one and the same, and their communities are much better for it.

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