Keep open records truly open

Let's say you went to the library to check out a book -- but you weren't allowed to just walk in and pull it off the shelf. Instead, you're met at the door by a stern librarian who tells you that you must submit a formal, written request to see a specific book.

After waiting days or perhaps weeks for approval, the librarian then tells you -- reluctantly -- that you can see the book, but it would take many long hours for another librarian to retrieve it for you, so you'll have to be charged a few hundred dollars to pay for the expended manpower.

And oh, by the way, once you finally get the book, you can read it only at the library, and at certain times the library allows. If one hour a day doesn't work for you, tough luck.

Sounds outrageous, doesn't it?

But that precisely describes the torturous process the city of Augusta forces the public to undergo just to see government records.

This newspaper has exercised its clear right under state law to request access to paperwork generated by the city in the course of it doing the people's business. And in virtually every step of the process, reporters have been met with ridiculous delays, outrageous fees and dumbfounding restrictions.

It seems as if even the tiniest nugget of information that comes from the city has to be washed through the city's cadre of attorneys, who appear to grasp for any means possible to make records difficult to obtain.

Recently The Augusta Chronicle requested particular vendor purchase orders from the city, but was told by a city attorney that it would take 26 man-hours to retrieve 444 documents. It would cost almost $500 to pay the lowest-hourly-paid employee to get the paperwork, which then would have to be copied at a cost of 25 cents per page, the city said. Apparently that's the costly going rate these days for freedom of information.

Even asking to examine records in a city office prompts obstructions. Up until three or four months ago, a citizen off the street couldn't even peek at purchasing documents during normal business hours. Only after-hours access was granted, during which city workers would stay in the office, ostensibly to work late, while the requested papers were perused.

That policy has changed, though. Now, people are granted just one hour a day, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., to look at requested city purchasing files. When the office closes at 5, the people are shooed away.

Such machinations on the city's part have become sadly and maddeningly routine. City officials act as if allowing someone even a look at a few files is the world's most crushing burden -- a Herculean labor that would divert untold numbers of employees from pressing government business.

The situation is so unreasonable that The Chronicle joined a lawsuit against the city to legally fight for access that should've been granted long ago, with little hassle and all due speed.

All of this -- just to glimpse the city's records.

But here's the thing. They're not the city's records.

They're our records. Your records. The public's records.

What exactly is it that seeps into the bureaucratic water that makes government officials think that records are their property? They're not. They are merely the keepers of those records.

And any attempt to shield these documents from public scrutiny is going to be seen -- correctly or not -- as an attempt to hide possible wrongdoing or even incompetence.

The city spends millions buying goods and services. People have the right to know how it is done and done responsibly, fairly and efficiently. However, when the city of Augusta is posed uncomfortable questions these days, its reflexive action is to circle the wagons and erect barriers made out of mounds of paperwork wrapped tightly in red tape.

From what we know of the openness and honesty of Mayor Deke Copenhaver, this can't possibly be the kind of government he wants -- a government that turns a simple request for open records into a trudge through a labyrinth. That's why we're hopeful that he can effect the changes needed to make the open-records process more transparent for everyone.

For now, though, we simply are not always seeing that same openness and honesty we like to associate with our best local officials.

This whole business of fighting to see open records may unfortunately have to play out in a court of law. If, so the city has already lost in the court of public opinion.

Mayor Copenhaver should see to it personally that that doesn't happen.

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