Every year, First Amendment freaks like me observe Sunshine Week.
It has nothing to do with flying down to Cabo for some rays. It’s about the power of transparency and a free press to keep your elected and appointed leaders honest.
Across the nation, politicians, journalists, civil servants and good government types will mark Sunshine Week with tributes to the value of conducting public business in the open and handing over public records so citizens can help make our systems work better.
In this era of polarized politics, this is one issue that brings together Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. So these should be the best of times for transparency, right?
In the spirit of Sunshine Week, here’s a look at some of the hottest issues in public accountability these days:
FOIA reform: Will this be the year Congress reforms the crumbling Freedom of Information Act? The death of the most recent effort to reform FOIA is a case study in everything that’s wrong with Washington and, maybe, how the truth always comes out in the end.
Among other things, the bills would force the government to hand over more records by limiting its use of the “deliberative process” clause in the law. Astonishingly, the bills passed both houses of Congress unanimously. Then, in December 2014, House leaders refused to bring it up for a vote.
No one would take the blame for sinking the bills, so the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit group, filed a FOIA lawsuit to pry records out of the Obama administration.
After three months, the records were released last week, and they showed that the Department of Justice secretly lobbied to kill FOIA reform, arguing that it would hamper access to information, not improve it. Some in Congress will try to revive the effort this year.
Opening up records in Minnesota: The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act determines what state and local agencies must hand over, and what they can withhold. Over the years, the Legislature has added so many exemptions to this law that governments have umpteen ways to weasel out of information requests.
Commercial dog breeders, for example, lobbied successfully to have any inspection records of their kennels off-limits to the public. Forget about getting records on undercover police officers — even their salaries.
Even dead people in Minnesota have privacy rights. If the government has information on you that was confidential while you were alive, it’s still secret for years after you’ve thrown off this mortal coil.
Rather than restricting records, it’s time for the Legislature to mandate agencies to put more records online. The “open data” movement has already prompted the city of Minneapolis, MetroGIS and other agencies to do so.
For good measure, legislators could eliminate the biggest public records exemption of all: themselves.
Make body camera video open: Minneapolis has voted to spend $4 million to equip all of its officers with body cameras. But will the public ever get to see any of the video?
The Legislature tried to write rules for body cameras last session, and it’s likely to take it up again now. If legislators allow police to keep that video from public view, body cameras will do nothing to restore the public’s trust in law enforcement.
Lower the cost: Prodding governments to put more data on their websites would counter another disturbing trend. Increasingly, people who ask for copies of public records are told they can’t have them without paying big fees, sometimes in the three and four figures. In the Hennepin County courts, printing out a single court record costs 10 bucks.
In Minnesota, though, citizens have a right to look at the records at no cost. Not so with federal agencies. In September, a records seeker affiliated with the MuckRock website made what seemed like a fairly simple request to the Pentagon: How many “HotPlug” emergency power devices it possessed.
The Pentagon responded in late February. The search would take an estimated 15 million labor hours. The cost estimate for providing the records: $660 million.
Even for the military, that’s a high price for a little sunshine.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.