An incident that happened while I was an editorial page editor at a small newspaper in Utah illustrates a problem we have in promoting open government laws.
The editorial board discussed how the Juab County Planning Commission chose to visit a controversial animal rendering plant in small groups, thus allowing them to legally avoid being accompanied by reporters.
As I argued for an editorial condemning the flagrant violation of the spirit of the Open and Public Meetings Act, one of the members of the board thought it wasn’t a subject worthy of our consideration.
“That’s something only reporters worry about,” he said. “It’s not the public’s problem.”
That’s a dangerous attitude.
If people think those laws are only for reporters, chances are they may not use them. Or worse, they may not care if councilmen and commissioners break them or legislators completely dismantle them.
Journalists are usually the ones at the barricades when government tries to close down information. While we argue that the public is the ultimate beneficiary of the law, we may look like we’re arguing for special legislative privileges.
Many bureaucrats make it difficult for a person to exercise rights under the law. People who don’t know their rights are unlikely to complain when they get trampled.
So, what can we do about it?
1. [b]Lead through example
Do stories about ordinary people who use government records to fight city hall or to help their families and neighbors. Check with community activists to find out what they are doing with open records.
2. [b]Educate the public
When was the last time you wrote about how to obtain a public document, or which documents are public? If we can tell people how to make holiday treats, use electronic voting machines or drive through a roundabout, we can surely tell them how to request a public document.
3. [b]Hit the streets
Several years ago, the Utah Headliners Chapter, Utah’s SPJ chapter, launched the “Tour de FOI,” a series of public workshops on Utah’s open government laws. SPJ officers visited Ogden,
Salt Lake City, Moab and St. George to show ordinary people how to file records requests and to challenge illegally closed meetings.
The presenters also distributed an FOI manual on compact disc, so people could read the laws for themselves and use them.
4. [b]Build coalitions
While journalists will still be the first ones into the breach when open government is threatened, we also need to build coalitions with different groups to effectively fight these battles and show the public that these laws are for them.
5. [b]Press for change
We should press for laws that make the appellate process simple for the average person. And if a broad-based coalition argues for the law, legislators can’t claim that reporters are seeking greater privilege for themselves than the public.