Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Time for Some Sunshine

It's kind of appropriate that as I catch some rays during my spring break, journalists everywhere observe Sunshine Week (March 12-18) in order to remind the public how vital open government is to our society.

All over Texas, news outlets remind us why governments should be forthcoming with public records. The Brownsville Herald links open government to a free country:

A nation that keeps its people informed of its actions generally pursues policies that the people support and are willing to defend. Secretive governments usually exist in the most tyrannical regimes, where paranoid leaders shroud themselves in secrecy. ...

All too often — especially in the Rio Grande Valley — ... [o]nce in office, controlling millions of dollars in tax funds and able to determine who gets chunks of it, many public officials become power brokers who steer public assets and contracts to friends, family and political allies.

Unfortunately, I haven't found much more from Valley media about Sunshine Week. Elsewhere in the state, the Houston Chronicle asks students to submit open records requests to their schools:
The project reflects the importance of such requests in professional reporting. Court filings, verdicts and salaries of public employees are all delicate materials that many in power would prefer to keep to themselves. But these data tell the public how their taxes are spent and laws administered. Public documents are often the only clues that resources are being misused.
The Dallas Morning News edititorializes about how open government laws protect ordinary Texans' right to know vital details such as police reports, school administrator salaries and pollution sites:
Texas' muscular open-records law is the citizen's biggest advocate in dealing with such matters of public interest, all of which would be documented for the common good by people paid with tax dollars.
The Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress explains the Texas Public Information Act and reminds us that taxpayers pay public employees' salaries, and therefore we have a right to know how our money gets spent:
If you have a problem with sharing your work and speaking to the public, there’s probably a job for you at Halliburton, but not with a city or school.
The Beamont Enterprise points out that open government laws apply to everybody, not just journalists:
While reporters file many of the requests government agencies receive, parents, teachers and everyone else have as much right to that information as the media.
And the alt weekly San Antonio Current offers some tips for filing open records requests because:
Citizens have a right to complete government information. Public federal, state, or local agencies should not be able to withhold information because it is embarrassing or inconvenient.
This post grows long because I hold this subject very dear to my heart. I'll post more later, but let me leave you with this:

Attention, public employees and elected officials: They are not YOUR records. Those documents belong to ALL OF US. We paid for 'em, so hand 'em over.


Blogger Shaine Mata said...

I thought it was going to be about Spring Break... good one. I'll give it a try and request information just for the sake of it.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Mack Harrison said...

Excellent! I'm glad I inspired you. Please let me know how how the powers-that-be handle your public information request. That goes for everyone else who tries to get info out of a governmental entity -- tell us what happens.

12:12 PM  
Blogger JB said...

Doesn't there need to be *something* said for the underpaid government employee who *sometimes* has great difficulty dealing with public harassment in the form of FOIA requests?

1:42 PM  
Blogger Mack Harrison said...

How is it harrassment when you ask a public worker to do his or her job by releasing information that belongs to the public in the first place?

4:20 PM  
Blogger pugsley dibrute said...

In my neck of the valley, we have very highly paid and highly incompetent PR people who run the shows at the PUB, BISD, City of Bro. the BPD , Public health dept.,etc..I can go on and on. Some dept. heads are illiterate and I know why they won't speak ibn public. They sound like they just snuck across the river. This seems ONE of the true reasons for the stonewalling for the release of public "right to know information ". They even attend lavish conferences sponsored by the TML on how to avoid and frustrate reporters and cub reporters as myself. This is more evident in the recent withholding of the autopsy report of the bridge shooting of the 17 yr. old car thief. Among other crooked misdeeds by people who supposedly UPHOLD and ENFORCE the "law" . Yes, indeed its time for sunshine !

7:40 AM  
Blogger JB said...

That's a pretty static view, Mack. But, if it was true that government workers had to respond to every FOIA filed by any Dick and Jane, then the AG wouldn't have scores of opinions detailing when governments do not need or should not comply with public access requests. There is harassment.

I have been on both sides of this issue. I have seen where officials stall or deny requests in attempts to cover up wrongdoing. I have seen government employees inundated with frivolous public information requests, just to clog governmental systems. I was just asking for a little sympathy on the latter.

It's clear the media has a bent angle on this one.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Mack Harrison said...

Sorry, most of the FOI requests that "clog the system" do so because the government (public) employee deliberately stonewalls by requesting an attorney general opinion on information he knows should be released. In fact, a top administrator at McAllen ISD told me that was the standard procedure when dealing with records requests -- "Let 'em wait." So as a taxpaying member of the public, of course I have an angle on this. THEY'RE OUR RECORDS, DAMMIT.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Mibble said...

I agree and disagree with Mack and his insight into FOIAs and Open Records requests. Thing is - in Texas at least - you cannot FOIA a State or Local government. FOIA only relates to the Federal Government. Texas Open Records Requests are similar to FOIAs - and yes some agency staff do seem to sit on them, while others are overwhelmed by sheer volume of requests. As a person who works in the records management field I can honestly say that many times you find staff members assigned records management/ file clerk duties that are also 'dumped' on to fill record disclosure requests...this with little or no training. We live in a litigious nation - and as a prior Local, State and current Federal employee I too would refer these types of requests thru the legal channels to make sure I was not opening up myself or my agency/department etc to undue legal recourse by inappropriate disclosure.

I am not justifying the existance of what I term 'bonehead' employees. I am just stating that not every instance of non-immediate response gratification you might have been unfortunate to receive was due to an incompetent horder of public information.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Mibble said...

And as an addendum - about the clogging of the system...

There are people (john and jane q. public) that do nothing but send in meaningless requests - HOPING that someone cannot or will not fill their request. They do this in order to document the 'inadequacies' of the entity and then begin a legal proceeding.

My advice if you honestly and genuinely need information:

1. Find out what the government entity requires for the request
a. a specific form
b. a specific letter
2. Acquire that form or generate that letter
3. Be specific in what you are looking for
a. correct name(s)
b. specific location(s)
c. specific date(s) or date ranges
d. any other kinds of identifiers that would narrow your request and facilitate the searching by the government staff
4. If a fee is required for copying - send a check in for $5-$10 dollars - if they don't need to charge you copy fees the agency will send it back - if they do they will send you a portion back or request more funds.
5. Be patient - YOU are NOT the ONLY person requesting information.

IF YOU HANDWRITE YOUR REQUEST SPELL CORRECTLY AND LEGIBLY!!!! Include your phone number and an alternative number.

6. For your own benefit - and yes 'bonehead' employees do exist - keep a file at your office or home with copies of your request

And realize this - most documentation is aggregate unless there is a specific person involved. Normally you cannot receive specific information about another private citizen (unless they give their permission).

If that so and so at the Driver's License Office upsets you and you want specifics like - name, pay grade, address and all that so that you can do what you feel you need to do - expect not to get that kind of detail. You may ask for Name and generalized information like, 'What is the average paygrade for a Licensing Official who works at XYZ site?'

Hope this brings a little insight and helps some, and again remember we are living in a time when identity theft as well as litigation is a regularly occuring event. No government entity - local, state or federal has a line item for litigation/settlement in their budget. So the more we see them relinquish information so readily the greater the chance for something bad to go wrong...and who pays the taxes that pays the settlement? WE do!

6:00 AM  
Blogger Mibble said...

and Mack...you should give me your phone number!!!

...unless of course you like me communicating here with you??

Skreeeeeeeeeeetle Mork Mork

6:01 AM  

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