Let’s take a look at issues of government openness that have come up recently across the country. There are usually lots of useful comparisons to be found.
From Columbia, Missouri, an interesting column on a city policy to always charge for public records despite a state law providing for public interest fee waivers.
The city ordinance, passed by the Columbia City Council, mirrors state law and allows for waivers. The city policy, which all staff must obey, says the opposite: Never will a fee waiver be granted (unless the cost is less than a dollar).
Of course, the city policy doesn’t quite put it so negatively. Trying to put the best spin on things, it reads, in part: “It is the City’s practice to consistently collect fees.” The policy statement, issued as revised on Feb. 16, 2009, does note that state law and city ordinances provide the opportunity to waive fees, but the city doesn’t.
Down in Florida, the State Attorney is investigating possible sunshine law violations by two Miami Beach city commissioners who made a move to fire the city manager. The story from the Miami Herald puts sunshine violations in the category of “public corruption,” an association that we typically don’t make here.
From the Panama City News Herald, also in Florida, a proposal to clarify that the state’s public records law applies to an incoming governor’s transition records.
Florida’s laws governing public records should apply to elected officials as soon as they are certified winners of their elections. That means their communications with their staff and other officials as they prepare to take office should be subject to the same scrutiny as if they were already sworn in.
It’s a principle that generally has been affirmed through case law. But following the deletion of several of Gov. Rick Scott’s post-election/pre-inauguration emails, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, wants to explicitly make the state’s Sunshine Law applicable to political transitions.
“There seemed to be some question as to whether the governor’s transition records were public records technically or not, and I feel that they ought to be,” Gaetz told The Florida Current.
In Memphis, as here in Hawaii, local officials are asking the state legislature to exempt them from parts of the sunshine law. From a Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial:
We sympathize with local officials who are envious of the freedom enjoyed by their counterparts in Nashville and Washington to go behind closed doors and strike deals. A more perfect — transparent, that is — system would not permit that to happen.
But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to weaken the public’s involvement at one level of government so that all levels of government will be equally weak. Transparency strengthens democracy.
From the Marietta Times, in Marietta, Ohio, a proposal to put a notice on all public job applications that applicants names, along with their applications, are subject to public disclosure.
Aside from education and training on the Sunshine Law, we think there’s something else officials like Matthews can do to make future situations like this easier, for both the people who applied and those seeking public records.
Why not include on job applications or notices that since the person is applying for a public position, his or her name and application will become public record and could become public knowledge? Those people won’t have the same expectation of privacy that applying for a job in the private sector affords those applicants.
Many people who don’t work in the public sector are uninformed about the details of public records laws and may not otherwise realize that the information they’re providing is legally available to anyone who requests it.
If that’s included in the job description, then everyone knows exactly what they’re getting into when they apply and there will be no surprises.
From the Pueblo Chiefton in Colorado, a familiar sounding situation: “Gov., leaders dodge open budget promise–First Amendment lawyer says last year’s process was illegal.”
Legislative leaders and Gov. John Hickenlooper would not commit to a more visible debate as they craft the state’s next budget.
Last year in the heat of budget negotiations Joint Budget Committee members ducked into their conference room together, met in unadvertised gatherings in the governor’s office and sometimes disappeared into party leaders’ lairs. A First Amendment lawyer said they violated Colorado’s Sunshine Law.
“Whenever two or more of them convene for purposes of public business, they are supposed to meet in public,” Tom Kelley, lawyer for the Colorado Press Association, said at the time.
JBC members at the time rejected the notion that they had violated the law because their formal votes and decisions happened at public meetings. Hickenlooper came to their defense.
And back to Florida one last time for a Sarasota Herald-Tribune report on issues surrounding the use of Facebook by public officials.
Seemingly innocuous posts could become minefields of litigation under Florida’s tough public records laws, which require everything on an elected official’s or government’s page to be carefully catalogued. If elected officials are caught chatting about anything which may come up later for a vote, they could land themselves in legal trouble.
With Hawaii’s Office of Information Practices set to unveil its legislative proposals to bring the sunshine law into the internet age, these are issues we will soon be grappling with.