Tensions rise over access to local government

By Adam Geller

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 15 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The state-level tensions between journalists and officials over openness coincide with similar, but more widely known friction over access to federal government information, said Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group.

McCall said federal agencies regularly cite supposed exemptions to public records requests despite the Obama administration's stated dedication to openness. She pointed to her organization's pursuit of data on radiation emissions from full body scanners used to screen air travelers. Much of the request, filed in 2010, was turned down by agencies arguing it was part of the "deliberative process" of government decision-making. A district court judge upheld much of that stance, but the group appealed and reached a settlement last year that led to information being released.

"I think it's just a general reluctance to accept accountability for the policy decisions that are made within the government," McCall said. "You know, it's difficult for there to be any public outrage if the public doesn't know about the policy decision."

John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that pushes for open government, said officials have become increasingly skilled at "co-opting the language of openness" without following through.

"It's so easy to make a plan (for openness) ... and then to call that progress, while at the same time refusing to release certain documents that there's been a history of releasing, and that's certainly been our experience at the federal level," he said.

Meanwhile, at the state level, some laws on openness have failed to keep up with changes in technology, said Emily Shaw, who oversees state and local policy for Sunlight. Laws on the books to require the retention of paper records have not been updated to deal with email, she said.

And incremental but deliberate changes in state and local policy are decreasing transparency, editors and open government advocates say.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam's first executive act in 2011 eliminated requirements that he and top aides disclose outside income. In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage exempted a new business advisory council from the freedom of information law, citing a need for "candid conversations." In Arkansas, legislators have added exceptions to the public records law, including one disallowing release of the names of juveniles involved in traffic accidents, after lawyers called students who were on a bus that crashed.

"I just see the access being chipped away at," said Albarado, the Arkansas editor. "As a journalist and as a citizen who believes in openness, it just means that, OK, we're letting the emotional impact of a single incident effect a much broader philosophy of being open about what your government is doing and the records that it keeps."

Adam Geller can be reached at features@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/adgeller.

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