Happy Sunshine Week Puts Spotlight on Expense and Weaknesses of Laws

Back in September of 2014 I wrote an article called Are Georgia Sunshine Laws under Assault?  Skip ahead to today which is Happy Sunshine Week! and I think the answer is a definitive yes. It is harder and more expensive than ever to get the information you have a right to see under the law and it is getting worse by the year.

The biggest assault is coming in the form of the price for requesting any records. Governments at all levels are charging such exorbitant prices that few people can afford to make any requests at all.

It is now harder and more expensive than it has ever been to use public records to hold the government accountable. Authorities at all levels are purposefully undermining the efforts of watchdog groups, journalists, and concerned citizens to keep tabs on corruption and spending.

I have encountered this all to frequently myself. What should be a quick search and retrieval for anyone remotely competent on a computer and understands boolean searching turns in to an all day ordeal. A three minute job is instead quoted as four hours of manpower. But don’t bother filing a complaint because it will be ignored and the government knows there are no penalties for violations.

Other roadblocks include choosing to print the documents instead of simply copying them to a flash drive or the cloud. They do this because they want to make it as hard as possible to do keyword searches on digital data. In print form you will need to use a scanner and convert the documents to digital form first.  Then you will need to use OCR software before you can perform searches. OCR converts the scanned photos of the documents into text.

Government agencies will also just use stall tactics. They ignore your request in hopes you will go away and give up out of disgust. Redacting is another great technique. It adds to the cost if they claim they need a lawyer to redact sensitive information. 99/100 the information redacted is done so unnecessarily but that just helps inflate the cost to discourage people from even trying.

The right to know what public officials are doing, how they’re going about it, what money they are spending and why … that right belongs to all citizens. Government works better when the people who put it in office and pay for it with their taxes have an unobstructed view of what it is doing. All that information we are requesting was already paid for by our taxes.

No Penalties or Prosecution in Georgia for Violations

Our Attorney General Sam Olens was nicknamed the Sunshine AG because he sent his assistants all over the states educating people on their rights under Sunshine laws. He talked a big game and bragged about how he would make Georgia open. The only problem it seems is it was all for show. Records 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 and the AG himself has fought against whistleblower cases and open record requests.

Attorney General Sam Olens claims he is our state’s government transparency advocate, when, in fact, AG Sam Olens filed FOUR “Responses in Opposition” in Fulton County Superior Court to keep evidence of criminal activities by his defendants – the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and administrators at Middle Georgia State College (formerly Macon State) – sealed from public view.

The attorney general’s office said the purpose of the mediation program is to avoid going to court. Stefan Ritter, a senior assistant attorney general who oversees the program, noted the office has successfully mediated the vast majority of the complaints without having to file criminal charges.

“It’s true that we don’t have special resources set aside for these cases, and the Law Department in general is swamped. It would be very difficult for us to litigate the cases with the resources we have,” he said. “But that wasn’t the intent of the program – it was to avoid litigation by serving as an impartial mediator.”

“If there’s no real penalty, and we have no enforcement of that penalty, we have no protection,” said Cynthia Counts, a First Amendment attorney in Atlanta. “And there’s no greater threat to democracy than when the government is acting in secret without any accountability to the public.”

 

Make it So Expensive That They Give up

Michael Felberbaum wrote a fantastic article called Big Fees to View Public Documents Discourage Public Access. In the article he gave these examples to make his point.

  • In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback’s office told The Wichita Eagle that it would have to pay $1,235 to obtain records of emails between his office and a former chief of staff who is now a prominent statehouse lobbyist.
  • Mississippi law allows the state to charge hourly for research, redaction and labor, including $15 an hour simply to have a state employee watch a reporter or private citizen review documents.
  • The Associated Press droppeda records request after Oregon State Police demanded $4,000 for 25 hours of staff time to prepare, review and redact materialsrelated to the investigation of the director of a boxing and martial arts regulatory commission.

Who beyond the very wealthy or big corporations will have enough money to request any information under Sunshine laws. It seems that Sunshine laws work great for the wealthy but not so great for the average citizen.

Final Thoughts

The first thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with your rights under the law. This handbook is a great place to start. When you are ready to file a request be as specific and detailed as possible to help reduce the cost. That handbook link also includes a sample request form towards the end.

The next thing we need to do is demand that politicians strengthen not weaken current laws to make it easier and less expensive to get the information we request. There is no reason that all data cannot be stored and accessed on the cloud from our homes. Certainly some private information that needs to be redacted can be the exception but that is a very small percentage of the data.

It is ludicrous that government agencies are wasting time and resources to print out hundreds of pages when all they need to do is create something akin to Dropbox or iCloud has done with public folders and give us a password to view what we request from home.

We need Silicon Valley to step up and teach these government luddites how much easier and cheaper it would be to move FOIA requests into the 21st century. But then, they probably already know that and the real reason for the high costs and delays is to discourage requests. If they made it cheaper and easier the public might find out about a lot of things they would prefer to keep in the dark. It seems our government talks a good game, but when push comes to shove they have an allergy to the sunshine.

 

About The Author

Reply