Quit clouding open government

Keep the sun shining on public records

The public is singing Let the Sunshine In .

Bureaucrats are trying to drown that out with their rendition of Dancing in the Dark .

What part of "open records" fails to sink into the skulls of so-called public servants? Far too often, when members of the public want to examine information that by law should be readily available to anyone, the process becomes a trudge through a red-tape labyrinth in which government employees hope fervently that inquisitive citizens will get lost or perish.

This week is Sunshine Week, observed nationally to emphasize the powerful principles of open government and freedom of information.

The principles are so simple -- yet government can make them so difficult.

Remember that tall tale spun by President Obama and his staffers -- that his administration would be the most transparent in U.S. history?

Here's how it's worked out so far, more than two years in: Requests under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act have risen, but government responses to those requests have dropped .

An Associated Press investigation found that "the administration refused to release any sought-after materials in more than 1-in-3 information requests ... ."

What does the government think this is, the Freedom From Information Act?

On the state level it's even worse. This is what the AP found in Georgia: "(R)ecords show the state has not criminally prosecuted any open records or open meetings complaints since the attorney general's office began mediating those cases in 1998."

In at least a dozen cases, when there were probable openness violations, the attorney general's office simply declined to pursue any action.

How shameful and pathetic.

And here in Augusta? You could fill several pages -- and we have -- to list the number of times this newspaper has butted heads with the local government just to get access to even the most mundane open records.

The biggest, most persistent clog in the pipeline of public information has been Augusta's chronically reticent Law Department. Information requests that come its way tend to become overwhelmed with ridiculous fees and plodding timetables for release.

Thankfully, the process has gotten a bit quicker here. New rules passed last year permit city department heads to release information that before had to go through the Law Department. A couple of department heads either still don't know this, or don't care.

Georgia's new attorney general, Sam Olens, has been pressing for increased fines against people violating the state's sunshine laws. Now the fine is $100. Olens wants it upped to $1,000; if it's violated again within 12 months of the first offense, it would shoot up to $2,500.

That's an admirable start, but include this if you want the proposal to have real teeth: Require the fine to come directly out of the offender's pocket.

And incredibly, legislation has been introduced this year in the Georgia General Assembly that would provide less public access to public information.

Senate Bill 159 essentially would give private interests their own cloak of invisibility. If a company wants to locate in Georgia, this bill would wrongly keep secret any information about those companies seeking state economic incentives.

Senate Bill 249 would allow local governments to post meeting notices solely on their websites instead of in newspapers. So if this becomes law, and you don't have a computer, smart phone or e-tablet? Tough luck, citizen. No info for you.

The journey to get open records shouldn't resemble a trudge up Mt. Everest. Citizens should be cruising in comfort on a conveyor belt.

They're not the government's records. They're our records. And they're best read in warm, healthy sunshine.

Legislation could enhance, restrict access
Records request issues persist; bills can be hefty

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Fri, 12/09/2016 - 23:31

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