FILE - Open government, freedom of information, FOIA, documents, paperwork

“I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”

– Will Rogers

The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by a reluctant President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966. It required agencies to make records available for public inspection and copying. It also required agencies to make non-sensitive records available "promptly to any person." In 1976, as part of the Sunshine Act, the FOIA was amended and several exemptions were specified. Within the following years all states and the District of Columbia enacted open records laws that granted access to government records. Although these laws were an attempt to make government records more accessible to the public, they did not guarantee it.

“A guarantee is only as good as the one making it.”

– Stan Myers

State and local officials make lofty promises when it comes to ethics in government. They tout the transparency of the legislative processes, accessibility of records, and the total openness of public meetings. But these efforts fall short of providing real transparency or legitimate hope of rooting out corruption or maneuvering for special interests. The follow through by these ethics boards on open records requests is negated by their lack of punishment for breaking the law. It’s as ambiguous as the phrase “change you can believe in.” What good is a law if it’s not enforced? And what good is it if there is no punishment? How can a law even be a law if there is nobody appointed to enforce it?

“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.”

– Louis D. Brandeis

Public officials intimidate anyone who asks to see or copy records when they have something to hide. Since laws regarding transparency are filled with more holes than generic Swiss cheese, they classify everything they wish to bury from the public as confidential. Vermont’s Public Records Act boasts more than 260 exemptions. Virginia’s excludes the regulatory agency for businesses and financial institutions. Louisiana has an exemption for all records of private “discussions” within the walls of the governor’s office. Wyoming withholds all drafted legislation from the public until it is in committee.

“Obedience of the law is demanded; not asked as a favor.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

Independent audits from state FOI coalitions confirm it is a challenge to make local governments comply with open record laws. It revealed Florida lacked competent record keeping of agencies that restricted the public records requests an agency received. The state also could not produce data on the amount it charged to copy records or the total amount it collected in FOI fees. Illinois, which has had notoriously low FOI scores for years, improved slightly in delivering petitioned public records. But they miserably failed the litmus test of posting information on how to get information or what information was off limits.

“It is not wisdom but Authority that makes a law.”

– Thomas Hobbes

Tennessee, the Volunteer State, recently enacted a statute that in theory improved the process of obtaining open records. Yet FOI groups remain unimpressed with the “lock-box” attitude in many agencies. They found no genuine improvement in their ability to obtain records. Citizens must jump through more layers of bureaucracy than a wedding cake to get records from many agencies. New rules have been put in place for a person to show their state picture ID before they can copy files. Tennessee established its ethics commission six years ago, but has yet to issue an ethics penalty to anyone at any level of government.

“If you live outside the law you must be honest.”

– Bob Dylan

Two years ago in a national study of state ethics and transparency laws, Michigan ranked last due to its weak public records law and its absence of laws requiring financial disclosures by lawmakers. Michigan scored 50.5 points out of 100. Other states that received ‘F’ scores were South Dakota, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Maine, Kansas, Delaware, Louisiana, and Nevada. A total of 11 states received dubiously failing grades in this study. Only three states got a C, Rhode Island, California, and Connecticut by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit that tracks ethics in government.

“Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for.”

– Will Rogers

In the past few decades, expectations for government transparency have increased and so have public concerns regarding obstacles preventing rightful access to government records. Because each state passes and enforces its own freedom of information law, there is no unified means to enforce consistent standards for these laws or ensure consistency within states. As a result, the citizens in one state can access information to protect their rights and control government while others are denied this right due to inadequate enforcement of FOI laws. Some laws are so vague in language they even confuse lawmakers, purposely.

“When in doubt do nothing.”

– WC Fields

In this era of online information, some government records are easier to retrieve although most are public knowledge, seen and discussed on social media. Legislation is posted on state web pages. Some officials disclose personal financial interests and candidates reveal donors. Although states devote entire websites to annual budgets that taxpayers are free to view, the average taxpayer cannot decode them. The language is not only agency specific, it is written to cover up a multitude of civic sins sandwiched between the lines. It is easier to read an instruction manual from Red China on how to assemble a mail order gymnasium than for the average citizen to decipher a line item state budget.

"Where there is no accountability, there will also be no responsibility."

– Sunday Adelaja

It has become increasingly apparent that many state FOI laws must be evaluated to protect the basic civil rights of our citizens. Even the definition of a "government record" that would be subject to these laws is more unclear than the air in Los Angeles on a good day. It is important that our citizens are aware elected officials are subject to the same FOI laws as their state agencies. This includes employees of state institutions, and all public universities. Without specific language in the law in each state, FOI laws fail to serve the citizens who request access to them.

“The only way we can keep government accountable to us is to remind them we sign the checks.”

– Aaron Sales

John Adams once told a Boston jury, “Facts are stubborn things.” Responding to public record requests is a government duty. Taxpayers own the government and pay for it and are entitled to accountably for their dollars. It is not a privilege that can be rationed to anyone in any state. Not surrendering data involving daily administrative activities that measure the performance for any organization suggests there is something to hide. What corporation can remain in business if they hide their annual report from investors and stockholders? If anyone denies your request for records, scold them.

"If you can't stand the heat, you'd better get out of the kitchen."

– Harry S. Truman

No one is above the law, especially lawmakers. A government of the people by the people and for the people is accountable to the people. A republican government is obligated to insure the people that their investment is paying dividends on every dollar they invest. If a citizen smells a rat, and it looks like a rat and acts like a rat, they have the right to verify it is a rat and exterminate it. Open records are the only way we can get the facts we need to do this. Every act of denial is an act of guilt. If you are denied access to public records, remind those who refuse your honest request:

“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”

– Thomas Paine

Contributing Columnist

William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, author, and citizen legislator in California for over 40 years. He got his start working to approve California Proposition 13.