Close your eyes for a moment and hear the refrain of Aquarius by The Fifth Dimension, “let the sun shine, let the sun shine, the sun shine in.” Consider it the anthem for this week: Sunshine Week. It has nothing to do with the fact that we’re back on daylight savings time, this Friday is the first day of spring, or that we’ve been starved for the sun throughout this trying winter.
Sunshine Week was the creation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to call attention to the need for greater accountability by government through public records disclosure. This is the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, and it coincides with National Freedom of Information Day today. Examples abound of how government at all levels routinely confounds people with legitimate requests for government documents. Government stonewalls in many ways, from claiming the documents aren’t available, to creating enough loopholes and exemptions to public access requirements to make the Freedom of Information Act meaningless, to charging so much per page that dissemination is prohibitive, to redacting the allegedly sensitive information on documents so that the pages you receive are virtually all blacked out. The following links to a Miami Herald story covering five FOIA request horror stories from around the country.
But these aren’t just stories happening elsewhere. Local and state governments in Massachusetts don’t make it easy for people seeking public disclosure. First in so many ways, it’s embarrassing that The National Freedom of Information Center has given Massachusetts an “F” for its public records law and its execution. For example, Secretary of State William Galvin’s office has sided with local police departments deciding to withhold arrest records of police officers, even those charged with drunk driving.
The Globe’s Todd Wallack found that Galvin’s office can take months to respond to a person’s appeal of a government agency’s rejection of a FOIA request. And, when the Public Records Division finally replies, it tends to side with the government agency. Only 27 percent of those seeking public records had their requests satisfied.
Now, obviously under pressure from the Globe and other media outlets, Galvin says he’ll propose a ballot initiative to tighten the Massachusetts law and increase penalties for agencies and individuals who flout it. A ballot initiative is a cumbersome process, and, since it couldn’t appear until November 2016 at the earliest, a ballot measure could turn out to be just another government form of foot dragging. The legislature should clearly move on the issue before the next statewide election to tighten our public records law, increase penalties for failure to provide requested records, cover legal fees for people wrongfully denied and lower what agencies can charge for providing records.
The media can’t play their rightful role in aiding the public’s right to know, and we can’t be a responsible citizenry without better access to public information. That will require a substantial reduction in obfuscation, obstacles, and other government displays of officious passive-aggressive behavior.
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