Sunday, March 15, 2009
Or, is it woeful ignorance of the law? Either way, the corporate newspaper isn't making government transparency any better as Sunshine Week opens to publish articles such as this one today by Chris Joyner that misreads, intentionally or not, both the letter and intent of Freedom of Information laws. Joyner states:
Under state law, officials are allowed 14 working days to respond to a request to see government documents. Jackson officials routinely let all of that time expire before responding.
Wrong. Under state law, government employees are supposed to make government documents available *on request* and within 24 hours. As is the case in many states, the 14-day clause is there to use only when a government agency does not have immediate access to the documentssuch as if if it old and is stored off site or such. THEN they have two weeks max to respond to the law.
Here is the actual language of the law:
§ 25-61-5. Public access to records; denials
(1) Except as otherwise provided by sections 25-61-9 and 25-61-11, all public records are hereby declared to be public property, and any person shall have the right to inspect, copy or mechanically reproduce or obtain a reproduction of any public record of a public body in accordance with reasonable written procedures adopted by the public body concerning the cost, time, place and method of access, and public notice of the procedures shall be given by the public body, or, in the event that a public body has not adopted such written procedures, the right to inspect, copy or mechanically reproduce or obtain a reproduction of a public record of the public body shall be provided within one (1) working day after a written request for a public record is made. No public body shall adopt procedures which will authorize the public body to produce or deny production of a public record later than fourteen (14) working days from the date of request for the production of such record.
This distinction is very important, as our government agencies in the state use the 14-day maximum as a way to hedge on producing information, hoping that the news cycle passes, or that the citizen doesn't want to jump through the hoops and wait.
Responsible government officials instruct employees to product information immediately (unless there is a damn good excuse), and real journalism outlets would never routinely state that the government officials "are allowed 14 days" when that is supposed to be the absolute maximum when retrieving the information is actually a hardship.
But The Clarion-Ledger has stated this for years now, and is making it worse for everyone by doing so, and allowing the governments here to be less transparent than they should be. I explained this to Chris Joyner in an interview (which he eventually quoted out of context in his paper; sigh) years back when The Ledger was fighting with the city over public records, and had their attorneys trying to make a deal that would essentially be binding on the rest of us. The deal was to allow the 14 days.
This is against the very spirit of open records and sunshine laws, and it is very disingenuous for the Ledger to act all high and mighty on the subject when they themselves are making it worse by not standing up and fighting for immediate access to information that we all own. It's wrong.
All that said, the law should be tweaked to make this as clear as possible, and not lead sneaky public officials or naive reporters to believe that "officials are allowed 14 working days," but the Ledger's work in this arena is going to make that harder to happen because government will point back to their reporting.
Once again, the Ledger shows that it has no idea how to serve the community that supports it financially. Very sad.
Bump. This shoddy work infuriates me because it affects us all—journalists trying to do good journalism, and the public who are trying to know what is going on in government.
And look at Brenda Scott's quote: "Fourteen days? I think open government means information should be available when you request it," Scott said. The form of that answer looks distinctly like he asked her if she thought government should respond within 14 days, and she looked at him like he's crazy because she knows what the law actually requires. Every candidate should be asked (and we will attempt to) if they support providing public information on demand (within 24 hours) unless a really good reason can be provided that can't be. Right now, we have a culture of "why are you bothering me?" or "how dare you ask us for THAT?" We got that tone of response from Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann's office when we asked to see copies of Haley Barbour's executive orders pardoning murderers and rapists. (His office send us to Hosemann; ahem.) They were rude about it, then told us it would cost us a couple hundred dollars to get them because staff people would have to take them out of books and copy them. I asked if we could come do that with someone else in the room, and Pamela Weaver said no. Then we got busy with other things. But we haven't forgotten this, and fully intend to go back and test sunshine laws over something so basic, and sue Hosemann if we have to. It's wrong, and it's remarkable to watch a secretary of state act in such a manner. (But you can say that about much of what he's done to date. What a disappointment.)
Quick question -- What does the law say about municipalities charging for documents?