Open government laws play a vital role in giving citizens access to information about the inner workings of their government and the decisions elected officials make.
This week news outlets, civic groups and public records junkies across the country are celebrating these laws as a part of Sunshine Week—an annual initiative launched in 2005 in support of the public’s right to know. It was inspired by Sunshine Sunday, a campaign the Florida Society of News Editors started in 2002 after some state lawmakers pushed to add new exemptions to Florida’s public records law. Now, for one week out of the year, organizations nationwide host workshops, panels and other events to discuss freedom of information issues and promote the importance of government transparency.
Holding Government Officials Accountable
I admit I’m likely more passionate about open government laws than most. When I worked as a news reporter open meetings and public records laws allowed me to cover elected officials’ discussions at city council and school board meetings and obtain documents about how government leaders spent taxpayer dollars.
Uncovering the Truth
Since transitioning to the corporate investigations field, I’ve used open records laws to acquire critical information for our cases—although exactly what information local governments are required to release varies by state.
Clients come to us with concerns about an individual who has threatened them, their family members or their employees. Often one of our first steps is to submit freedom of information requests to local police departments for records that may shed light on whether an individual has a history of violent or other concerning behavior. Many times police receive complaints or calls for service that don’t lead to criminal charges. These incidents would not be documented in a court case, but often we can still obtain information about them through a public records request. Information from these requests may also reveal whether a person has a history of filing a large number of complaints with police, helping us gain additional insight into their past behavior.
We’ve also submitted public records requests to help support clients during pending litigation. For example, while assisting with personal injury or other similar cases, we’ve requested records of 9-1-1 calls to determine if there was a pattern of people getting hurt at a particular facility or to substantiate, or refute, a subject’s version of events.
Efforts for Reform
Although information gleaned through public records requests has aided many of our investigations, the nation’s open government laws aren’t perfect. News organizations around the country have revealed weaknesses in state and federal public record laws and reported on government agencies that were unresponsive to records requests. Yesterday, the U.S. Senate took a step in the right direction by passing a bill that would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, the law that gives individuals the right to request federal agency records. The Senate now has to resolve its differences with the House, which passed a similar proposal, before President Barack Obama can sign it into law.
However, there’s still more work to be done. In November 2015 the Center for Public Integrity, where I once worked as a reporting fellow, released the results of its investigation into state laws and systems designed to “deter corruption.” All but six states received a failing grade in public access to information. The highest-ranked state, Iowa, got a C-. Reports like this demonstrate the need for continued efforts to shine a light on government and to make public information truly public.