School boards and other government bodies required to admit the public to their meetings have come up a cute, but not especially persuasive, way of doing their business behind closed doors: By not calling their meetings "meetings."When a bunch of government officials sit around a table and talk about government business, common sense, Webster's dictionary and 20-20 vision say that's a "meeting." Regrettably, some government officials who distrust the public's ability to maturely deal with information -- or who realize their behavior is so deplorable that it can't withstand public scrutiny -- will go to extraordinary lengths to argue otherwise.They'll claim to be holding a "working session" or some other euphemism that sounds less "meeting-like." That may be reassuring for their consciences, but it's rarely a legally adequate justification to shut the public out.Recently, a Rhode Island judge ordered that state's Board of Education to invite the public to an "informational retreat" where board members were scheduled to discuss high school graduation requirements and standardized testing.
A Colorado city council drew the ire of open-government advocates this summer by voting to ban members of the public from snapping photos of public records to avoid paying copying charges.
Next to waiting for the cable TV installer, there's not much more irritating for us first-worlders than waiting for the public records that never come.Many state open-records laws require an agency to respond to a request for public documents within three, five or 10 days.
At the University of Oklahoma, if you ask for the chance to inspect your own education records, the university knows just what to do.
Government obfuscation in the face of requests for public records can be irritating. At times, maddening.
Summertime means most state legislatures have called it quits for the year, which means it's timely to assess where the public's right of access to meetings and records has advanced and where it has declined.Here are a few examples of newly enacted changes in state open-government laws that journalists should be aware of.
Remember that iconic scene in "All the President's Men" where hours tick by at the Library of Congress as reporters Woodward and Bernstein flip through mounting piles of index cards, each one memorializing a book requested by the White House?Chances are if Post reporters need that same information today, it's kept in an Excel spreadsheet that can be sorted, searched and alphabetized in a matter of seconds.Electronic databases are making it possible for journalists to analyze and present information that previously would have overwhelmed the limits of human patience.
A public university system sets up a fundraising arm to collect donations, entirely staffed by public employees and operated out of a government office building.If you don't see how that fundraising unit can be exempt from the disclosure laws that apply to government agencies, you're not alone.Neither did the attorney general of North Dakota,Wayne Stenehjem, who told the North Dakota University System that the records of money collected and spent by the North Dakota University System Foundation are a matter of public record and must be disclosed on request.In a ruling issued June 25, Stenehjem explained that there is essentially no separation between the university system and the privately incorporated "foundation" that the university system established in 1991 as a vehicle for receiving donations.The analysis was pretty much of a no-brainer, since the foundation has no staff or offices of its own, is run by board members who overlap with the State Board of Higher Education, and exists almost exclusively for the purpose of providing a vehicle to reimburse university system officials for expenses beyond what state law allows.
A century ago, a crusading Connecticut newspaper editor helped bring to justice the murderous owner of an old-age home, relying on death certificates that showed boarders at the facility had a suspicious habit of dying from poison.The story of Amy Archer Gilligan -- who died in a state mental hospital in 1962, having been incarcerated 43 years for murder -- inspired the (exceedingly) dark comedy play and film, "Arsenic and Old Lace."And now, it has inspired something more: A sensible ruling that harmonizes state freedom-of-information law with federal health-care privacy law.Privacy laws are widely mis-cited to obstruct journalists' access to public records, and none more flagrantly so than HIPAA, the federal health care privacy statute.