April 1997 marked the beginning of a new era of heightened democracy in U.S. local government. In that month, two separate groups laid plans for the first statewide audits of open records.
The first group consisted of 17 students in Professor Linda Levin’s Public Affairs Reporting class at the University of Rhode Island. They traveled to every Rhode Island city and town and requested four documents, including police brutality reports. The compliance rates varied from 100 percent for city clerks to 35 percent for the police.
The same year, seven newspapers in Indiana came together to do a massive statewide records audit. The project exposed widespread failures by government employees to give out public information. At the time, it also stunned other U.S. editors to see papers in a state working together on a project, even carrying each other’s bylines.
These two audits kicked off a six-year blitz in which 26 states have carried out their own open-government surveys. In addition, there have been limited surveys in three other states. These audits have given FOI advocates hard numbers to prove what reporters have always known anecdotally: Even when government is open on the books, the implementation of open records laws often falls short.
Surveys uncover public officials who are behaving like “secrecy czars,” said Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
“Audits remind public officials – and the public – of FOI rights and responsibilities,” said Landon. “Open-government laws are citizen-rights laws; without such laws, secrecy czars cover up policy mistakes and corrupt officials cover up their own lawlessness. Sheriffs and police departments are supposed to be law enforcers, yet audits often show they’re the biggest violators of even the weakest of rules for access and accountability. Citizens must be assured easy access to unarguably public records.
“With continuous FOI training – and that’s what audits should be all about – public officials (even at the police station) will soon discover that open government is good policy and good politics.”
State audits come with a number of benefits, and those benefits vary from state to state – often depending on the results of the audit, how the newspapers in the state cover those results, and the responsiveness of legislators and government officials. (You can read the findings of different state audits at http://foi.missouri.edu/openrecseries.html.) Here are a few examples of what open records surveys can accomplish:
• Reporters and officials learn to distinguish between the state sunshine law and the federal FOIA – except in states like Arkansas and Virginia, where the law is called, guess what, the Freedom of Information Act.
• Surveys expose shameful spoon-feeding arrangements agreed to by capitulating media. With a survey, a wider world can penetrate.
• Surveys break stalemates. A public employee has sworn to co-workers never to talk to that reporter again. Now a surveyor, a third party, presents an opportunity to surrender records while saving face.
• Police get chances to show they are responsive to citizens. They are cooperating with the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, adopting modern record-keeping. Mayberry stereotypes are shattered.
• The seed is planted for younger city employees with tech skills to move into the gatekeeper roles.
• Surveyors and surveyed get trained in the statutes. Each avoided reading them for years, but now each is studying word-for-word.
• Conversation about the changes in the law in the legislative session begins. Annual monitoring of it commences.
• Strongholds of secrecy in the state are identified so now you can know where votes against reform are likely to originate.
• What happens in a survey is news, and at last an FOI news blackout is broken. Otherwise, the most punitive access-killing measure in a legislature many never make the papers.
• A snapshot of FOI benefits journalism graduates. They need to go to a town where they can get records. Only then can they write hard stories and move up in their careers.
Tom Bennett is Georgia Sunshine Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists. He was co-director of the 1999 Georgia open government survey, and an unpaid consultant and trainer for the 2003 Alabama open government survey.
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