Coalitions made up of media organizations, attorneys, special interest groups and average citizens have found success in improving open government and open records issues across the nation.
Key to the success of these organizations have been dedicated cores of individuals committed to making them work, a broad base of support that spans beyond the media and a well-defined mission that can bring groups with various agendas together for a single cause.
About half the states in the nation now have open government foundations, according to Forrest “Frosty” Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition For Open Government and a board member of the National Freedom Of Information Coalition. The national coalition serves as a resource for the state groups and provides grants for projects or start-up efforts.
“I think one of the real pluses of what we have been doing the past six years in Virginia is not just the coalition, but building relationships,” Landon said. “When a 9-11 comes along, if you have that relationship established, you have a far better chance of avoiding the worst kind of knee-jerk, ill-considered shutdowns of all our public information that otherwise might seem like an easy Band-Aid when you have bad guys like Al Qaeda around.”
That’s one of the reasons why Maryland has formed a steering committee to start its own Foundation for Open Government, according to Tom Marquardt, executive editor of the Annapolis Capital and co-chairman of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association’s Freedom of Information subcommittee.
“I think the importance of having the group formed is you don’t have to wait for a crisis to get together and share ideas,” he said. “If we get to know each other in simple times, when there is no crisis, we will be all that stronger when something does come up of substance.”
Coalitions played an important role in limiting the impact of, or turning back entirely, legislation aimed at closing off access to public records following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government has been in existence for less than a year, but had a major impact on legislation aimed at limiting access. In New Mexico, there was no effort to close down records following Sept. 11, a fact that New Mexico Foundation for Open Government executive director Robert Johnson attributes, at least in part, to his organization’s efforts.
“I think that after 12 years, we’ve established enough of a presence in the legislature that they knew if they tried it we would be up there with guns blazing,” he said.
Most of the organizations got started because the states either had weak open records/open government laws, or officials weren’t paying attention to the laws that were already on the books.
Johnson said that in New Mexico, the state’s open records and open meetings laws were so poor that something had to be done.
“The primary purpose of the group was to give oversight and observe compliance with these laws,” he said. “Another primary purpose was to bring about improvements in the laws.”
About 71 percent of New Mexico’s FOG membership comes from the general public. The group is overseen by a 25-member board made up of representatives from journalism, education, attorneys and the public.
Johnson said the best advice for starting a group is to tap a retired newspaper person to lead up the organization because they are familiar with access issues, they understand the press, and they can give guidance to reporters seeking advice. Being retired, they also have the time to commit to the organization.
Getting major newspapers or chains in the state to sign on is also a major benefit.
Landon said that in Virginia, the political landscape was changing in the mid-1990s, and the press was not being successful in its open government efforts.
“We were losing too many fights in the legislature and in the courts, and it was being cast simply as a conflict between the press and government,” he said. “Lost was the idea that FOI was on the books as Virginia law.”
A group of editors, along with members of the state press association’s FOI committee, heard about the successful efforts of a similar group in Florida and brought that group’s executive director north to speak at a newspaper conference.
“From that spark, the actual nitty-gritty of the organizational effort and fundraising followed,” he said.
Building the coalition came with those initial key participants drawing on their contacts within the state and then expanding from them.
The coalition now counts the state’s librarians and several First Amendment lawyers among its membership, as well as two past governors – one Republican and one Democrat – who were recruited to endorse the effort. The former Republican governor sits on the board.
Founding partners range from media giants such as Media General and Landmark Communications to the Wise County Clerk of Courts and the League of Women Voters.
Florida’s First Amendment Foundation got started in the mid-1980s and hired Barbara Peterson as executive director about a decade later.
In New Jersey, co-founder and vice president Douglas Krisburg said a loose coalition of citizen groups had already formed under the name OPRA, for Open Public Records Act, and in the past year became the non-profit New Jersey Foundation for Open Government.
The group includes many of the same organizations as others, including the bar association and press association, but also includes the citizen group Voices and Common Cause among its members.
WHO CAN PARTICIPATE?
Bringing together diverse groups with widely different agendas can be a difficult task. Some groups have excluded government bodies, while others have welcomed them to the table.
Johnson, in New Mexico, said there was some initial concern about allowing government groups into the foundation.
“Some people thought it was sort of like letting the camel’s nose under the tent,” he said. “But in reality it helps us educate them. And if a county violates the public records act, having them as members isn’t going to change what we try to do to change it.”
Hollie Manheimer, executive director of Georgia’s First Amendment Foundation, said coalitions need to adjust when their membership has competing interests.
“A successful group needs to be flexible,” she said. “You need to know your limits and accurately indicate what your capabilities are.”
In Virginia, Landon said the board of directors has the ultimate word on membership, but to date no one has been turned away.
“But we make it very clear in a membership statement that any member has to support our focus on easy access to public meetings,” he said.
A diverse organization takes away the common argument that many journalists encounter while battling access issues – that FOI is only a press concern. And having government agencies represented helped Virginia when anti-terrorism legislation was introduced following the Sept. 11 attacks, Landon said.
“The Municipal League came into the next meeting of the Freedom of Information Council, and they had a draft of a bill to deal with all the new problems of sensitive information getting out when there are terrorists,” Landon said. “It was too broadly written. There were too many loopholes. But we had a work group and we came together.”
He said the Council was able to address the government’s concerns with narrow exemptions that didn’t open gaping holes in the state’s access laws.
In Georgia, Manheimer said the group usually will be asked to comment on any proposed legislation and offer suggestions.
WORK WITHIN RESOURCES
Broad coalitions and established relationships can help in opening access to public records and public meetings, but it also helps in efforts to fund the organization.
In Florida, Gannett, the Florida Press Association and the Florida Broadcasters Association were among those giving some initial start-up money. Other major newspapers in the state also pledged support, and the organization has been able to build up a solid trust fund.
Virginia’s coalition also received a lot of funding and start-up support from the major media outlets in the state.
Other states have had varying degrees of success raising money. Those with fewer resources often do with part-time help or with no paid staff, which can place an additional workload on the board or general membership.
Most organizations bring in some money through educational efforts or by publishing manuals outlining their state’s open records or open government laws. Many offer themselves as a resource to individual citizens and put on workshops for civic groups interested in access.
“Individual citizens have a heck of a time if somebody in government decides to stonewall them and say ‘sue me,’ “ Landon said.
Manheimer said she crisscrosses the state putting on programs and workshops in open government.
“Anybody who wants me, I’m there,” she said. “I’m shooting for one a week.”
In New Mexico, Johnson said his organization has become a resource for journalists and citizens when issues of access arise.
There is no single model of success for these organizations, but all share the essential ingredient of people committed to open government and open records, and all are forging relationships and promoting education beyond their individual medium, making them a force for legislators to reckon with when issues of openness arise in their state.
Jim Lee is editor of the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Md. He is a member of the steering committee organizing an open government foundation in that state.