So little time and so many great stories about Freedom of Information. That’s how I felt as I did a database search of hundreds of news articles and editorials that appeared during Sunshine Week, March 13-19. By any measure, the week was a success in terms of educating the public about open government and making government officials stand up and take notice. Along with solid reporting and writing, news organizations got officials to officially recognize the week and prompted public discussion.
SPJ was a proud co-sponsor of the event with The American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press and hundreds of other news organizations and journalists contributing. The effort, which grew out of Florida’s Sunshine Sunday, ought to become an annual event.
For me, the best part of the week was reading stories about real people – not just journalists – who fight to get access to government meetings and records. My hope is their stories inspire regular folks to join the FOI cause at a time when access is eroding. With that in mind, here’s five FOI hero tales reported during Sunshine Week:
Open Meetings Warrior
John Schuette has spent two years and $3,000 trying to get courts to enforce Ohio’s Open Meetings law, according to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
Schuette lives north of Columbus in Liberty Township, in Delaware County. He wants his township’s leaders to reveal what happened during two 2002 meetings held to discuss a merger with the nearby city of Powell. Two of the township’s three trustees connected to the meetings said they were acting as private citizens. They said the secret meetings were private gatherings so Ohio law doesn’t require records be kept.
Schuette sued Liberty Township, but a trial judge threw out the suit. He ruled that a quorum of an elected body may meet to gather information. After an appeal to a state Court of Appeals, Schuette was back in trial court. When trustees said no meeting minutes existed, Schuette abandoned the complaint. He filed the suit with the Ohio Supreme Court, where it awaits a decision.
Schuette just wants officials to do what the law says.
“I can read what the Ohio Revised Code says,” Schuette told The Plain Dealer. “I don’t like to see elected officials abuse their power. They take an oath to uphold the law and they are violating it.”
Memphis’ Average Joe
Joe Saino is not your average guy.
According to the to the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, Saino requested public records last fall from the City of Memphis, but to no avail. Then the self-described ordinary citizen filed suit in Chancery Court, declaring he was entitled to the information under the state’s public records law.
Pressured by the suit, city officials handed over the documents and paid $288.50 in court costs when Saino agreed to drop the case.
“Most people would be intimidated,” said Saino, a retired electrical engineer.” When officials stonewall, people don’t know what to do.”
California’s “Mr. Sunshine”
In Southern California, Rich McKee, a 56-year-old chemistry professor, has sued 17 government entities over access. For his tenacity, a local newspaper has dubbed him “Mr. Sunshine.”
A Sacramento Bee reporter wrote the following:
“His track record: 12 wins, two losses, three cases pending. He has sued cities and school districts, water districts and a board of supervisors. He once sued his own colleagues at Pasadena City College, where a sabbatical review committee was trying mightily to keep its deliberations secret. Put that in the win column for McKee, a man who doesn’t like secrets.”
McKee is suing the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors because of meetings practices, including a closed meeting where supervisors voted to close the trauma unit at a local hospital.
“It was something that was, wow, near and dear to a lot of people in L.A. County, who would’ve liked to have had some open discussion on this before it was simply a done deal,” McKee told the Sacramento Bee.
McKee often braves freeway traffic to visit governmental entities that may have violated the state’s open meetings law.
Speaking to the Bee, Terry Francke, founder and general counsel for Californians Aware, a nonprofit group that advocates for open government said, “I don’t know anyone else remotely like him.”
McKee, who sought Francke’s guidance 12 years ago when he pursued and lost his first case against the Glendora City Council, is now president of Californians Aware. He became the first nonjournalist to lead the California First Amendment Coalition three years ago.
Allen Dyer’s fight to stop the Howard County Board of Education from meeting in secret has made him a catalyst for a new Maryland law, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“I wasn’t used to thinking that elected officials were violating the law,” Dyer, 57, who has twice unsuccessfully run for a seat on the School Board, told the Sun. “I figured that if they were doing it, it had to be legit.”
Dyer says he’s collected 7,000 pages of documents that show a pattern of secrecy. In particular, he took aim at the board’s practice of “pre-meetings.” He has sued over their use of such meetings, but the board invoked an “executive function” clause in the law. The clause allows closed meetings for some administrative purposes.
Dyer told the Sun that executive function is a “gigantic loophole … It’s sort of like a get-out-of-jail-free pass. They don’t have to keep any records, so who knows what they’re doing.”
A judge dismissed Dyer’s case in 2003, saying the secret meeting didn’t personally affect him, but the Sun reported the state Court of Special Appeals is considering the matter now, and attorneys expect a ruling soon.
Meanwhile, Dyer’s case attracted allies in the General Assembly, prompting a law that allows Maryland residents to sue if they suspect a government body met illegally, not just an action that personally affects them.
Republican Gov. Robert Erlich is among the new law’s critics. Ehrlich vetoed the legislation last year, but the legislature overrode the veto in January.
Coal industry watchdog
After years of poring through government records, West Virginia resident Julia Bonds told the Associated Press she is still learning how to use access laws to track developments in West Virginia’s coal industry.
“It’s all in the question you ask,” Bonds, who works with the nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch in Whitesville, told the AP. “You have to be almost an expert in certain things to know what to ask for.”
The group, formed in 1998, monitors mountaintop removal mining and logging in southern West Virginia. It recently joined with two other groups to monitor mining waste. Members rely on the state’s open meeting laws and state and federal records laws.
“There are things that go on in the coalfields every day. If we don’t ask the right questions, no one will tell us,” Watch member Bo Webb told the AP.
Joel Campbell, a former newspaper editor and reporter, is an assistant professor in the Brigham Young University Department of Communications. He is co-chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.