Top secret – Sunshine Week stresses importance of open government
If you’ve ever wondered about the number of alligators on Cherokee property that have been sold, how much money the Texas Lotto generates, the subjects of Texas Alcohol Beverage complaints, or the levels of air pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants, the information is available through the state’s Open Records Act.
| counterpoint |
from the editor
Open records aren’t solely the purview of journalists; citizens have the same rights to this information as the press. Sunshine Week, March 12-18, is intended to shine a light on open records and meetings, but also to raise awareness about government transparency and secrecy. Unfortunately, the American public cannot follow the paper trails of corruption and cover-ups that go unchecked behind governmental closed doors. The Bush Administration is considered one of the most (if not the most) secretive governments in presidential history, and the evidence is more than anecdotal. According to a report by Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, the U.S. government generated 14 million new secrets in 2003 — 60 percent more than two years earlier — at a cost of $7.5 billion to secure the classified information. By comparison, in 2003, the Bush Administration requested just $1.9 billion for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program.
Open Records resources:
In 2001, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo to federal agencies telling them to look at legal ways to deny Freedom of Information Act requests, rather than to presume the information was public. Among the secrets: 27 pages missing from the congressional inquiry into September 11. The names of oil, gas, and coal moguls who met with Vice President Dick Cheney as he and his posse crafted the National Energy Policy. In the name of national security, environmental information about contaminated military bases, accident protocol at nuclear plants, and even the contents of railroad cars can be kept from the public.
If your open-records request is fulfilled, much of it could be blackened out. On the state level, Texas Attorney General office statistics show that in fiscal year 2005, the state spent 6,958 hours - the equivalent of nine months — redacting information. That year, state agencies received 3.1 million open records requests, a steep decline from the 22.4 million requests filed in 2002.
Citizens have a right to complete government information. Public federal, state, or local agencies should not be able to withhold information because it is embarrassing or inconvenient. If you’d like to petition your government agencies for information, here are some tips for filing open-records requests:
• Be specific, yet inclusive. For example, ask for “all communications including, but not limited to, inter-agency, intra-agency, and external e-mails, letters, transcripts, video or audiotapes,” pertaining to your topic.
• If your request is denied, ask for the legal citation justifying the denial.
• Government officials cannot ask why you’re requesting the information.
• Local and state agencies generally have 10 business days to fulfill your request or to update you as to when your request could be complete. Be prepared to wait longer for federal documents.
• Local and state agencies charge 10 cents a page for copying. For large copy jobs, agencies can charge for hourly labor. If you feel the charges are excessive, you can appeal to the state attorney general. Remember, you can inspect the documents without incurring a charge or possibly copy them yourself to avoid labor costs. Consider bringing your own copier or portable scanner. •
By Lisa Sorg