A long list of quasi-public organizations that do the public’s business, including state municipal leagues, county associations, university foundations, economic development boards and state worker insurance funds are having a hard time with a new buzzword: transparency.
For decades journalists have been calling it “sunshine” or Freedom of Information. Whatever the name, the concept is clear: Quasi-public and private organizations that do the public’s business should be subject to government open records rules. Particularly, as government privatizes services or shifts more functions to nonprofit foundations or private contractors there is a growing loophole in most state open records laws that needs closing through legislation or litigation.
Fight in Utah
That’s one reason why SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund has joined with the Salt Lake Tribune in its court fight to open the records of the Utah Association of Counties. The association is financed almost entirely with taxpayer money. Some 14 statutes in the Utah law give the association authority to directly affect government policy and operations — from appointing members of the state’s Quality Growth Commission to helping choose what federal actions should be contested by the state. The county association recently spent $200,000 in a failed lawsuit challenging President Clinton’s creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
“As you may know, the UAC has resisted all attempts to open its records to public scrutiny. Most recently, the association denied a request made by the Salt Lake Tribune under Utah’s open records law to obtain UAC’s operating budget,” wrote Tribune Editor Nancy Conway. “The newspaper’s request was made at a time when a top association official had been dismissed amid reports of financial mismanagement. I believe UAC’s business indeed is subject to public disclosure.”
Sunshine on campus
Just over the Rockies in Colorado, University of Colorado officials finally learned that the best disinfectant to the controversy surrounding its athletic program is the bright light of day. Reports in Denver newspapers in late December showed how the university and its private fund-raising partner, the University of Colorado Foundation, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on parties for staff and donors at football bowl games during the past decade. That included nearly a half-million dollars on gifts for football players and staff, including TVs and camcorders, since 1995. The foundation voluntarily released the records, but it edited documents to protect what the foundation called personnel or donor privacy.
“Open the books and let the sun shine in. It’s the surest way out from the under the cloud of controversy that’s hung over the Boulder campus in 2004,” a Denver Post editorial said as the paper called for the Colorado Legislature to permanently open books or organizations such as the University of Colorado Foundation that support state institutions.
In Georgia, it wasn’t athletics but questions about the connections between big donors and sweetheart contracts that helped open up University System of Georgia Foundation records. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that it took strong-arming the state’s attorney general to identify corporate donors who had contributed to the foundation that helps pay Chancellor Thomas Meredith’s salary. The donor records revealed that companies helping to pay Meredith also do millions of dollars in business with the university system.
“The foundation serves a clear public purpose; corporate donors don’t have the right to privacy. The public has an obvious stake in learning which corporations contribute to the man charged with overseeing the state’s public colleges and universities,” the Journal-Constitution said in an editorial.
In the name of development
If universities are prone to secrecy, then economic development groups also should be on the list of frequent offenders. A growing number of local and statewide economic development organizations want to be shielded from the sunshine.
For example, the Ballard County Economic and Industrial Development Board in Wickliffe, Ky., refused to disclose records showing how much the board receives and how it is spent. The board’s attorney contends the group is a private, nonprofit corporation not subject to the open records law because less than 25 percent of its funds are from taxpayer sources. Similarly, other groups involved in economic development, including chambers of commerce and business boosters, have claimed exemptions from open records laws even though government contributed tax dollars to their efforts.
On a larger scale, state economic development corporation officials often claim that they should be exempt from records laws.
Legislation this year in Indiana to streamline that state’s economic development efforts is under scrutiny because a large amount of public money would be funneled through a private corporation. Astute legislators amended a bill creating a private economic development commission to make sure the commission was subject to that state’s open records laws, according to The Indianapolis Star.
In another trend, state-affiliated workers’ compensation fund managers are trying to cut ties with government. Colorado’s quasi-public workers’ insurer offered $15 million a year to become a private, for-profit corporation. Included in the deal would be the end of oversight under the state’ public records law. Legislators in Maine and Minnesota have exempted their state-sponsored insurance funds from public-access laws, according to the Rocky Mountain News. Utah legislators gave that state’s Workers’ Compensation Fund private status and exempted them from open records and meetings provisions.
As governments consider more outsourcing or privatization for things such as parking meters, prisons and records systems, open government advocates should be vigilant.
They should step up to explain how the public loses as officials and private contractors make the case that these operations be exempted from open records laws. Furthermore, as government shifts power and money to private institutions and organizations, advocates should insist that these, too, be accountable to the public by pushing for changes in open records laws or taking the fight to court.
A former reporter and editor, Joel Campbell is the co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and an assistant professor in the Brigham Young University Department of Communications.