Openness, transparency and frankly, to be honest

Bletner, Rhonda

By Rhonda Bletner
Editor
The Mountain Press (Sevierville, Tennessee)

In recognition of Sunshine Week, a week that emphasizes the importance of open government, The Mountain Press shared some guest opinions to demonstrate our support. Those guest opinions illustrate the significance of government transparency, and it’s equally valuable here in Sevier County. So is the role the newspaper has in maintaining a democratic government.

Sunshine Week is also a reminder that citizens’ participation and rights are also critical to a democracy. Citizens participate, of course by voting, but also by becoming informed, debating issues, and attending community or civic meetings.

Community members are not often seen at local government meetings unless the meeting directly affects them, but they do participate if they read the newspaper’s reports of those meetings and are thereby informed.

Journalists are tasked with identifying issues that concern the local population and gathering information by interviewing officials or other appropriate parties involved in the issue, and by also gathering relevant data to write articles that inform the public.

That information gathering works best when governments and newspapers mutually respect and adhere to the best practices of open government.

In April 2010 The U.S. Department of Justice released its ‘Plan for Open Government” and put forth its ongoing efforts to increase transparency in government.

The department’s explanation of the plan stated, “The Department of Justice has long had a special responsibility for open government because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Freedom of Information Act is a key tool for transparency in government. It is often through the FOIA that the public learns what the government is doing and holds the government accountable for its decisions and actions.”

This month the U.S. Department of Justice issued new policy direction for compliance to FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, even assessing fees for unmet deadlines.

All 50 states have enacted open records laws similar to the FOIA. In Tennessee, it’s called the “Tennessee Open Records Act.” Public records and open meetings help provide accountability by elected and appointed officials. Of course, it’s a given that those officials are responsible for their actions because they are in office in service to the people.

The more accountable officeholders are, the more mindful they are of their relationship to “the people,” the more transparency they can achieve.

What’s the point?

The point is journalists understand our rights as citizens to information. Journalists work at obtaining and sharing information every day. It’s a service and a responsibility to the community, and it’s not always easy.

Journalists need to be transparent, too; and Sunshine Week reminds us of that responsibility.

Too often we report stories with quotes, or statements, made by elected and private individuals, that were emailed to us. Those statements are very likely accurate; however, they represent a “prepared” statement. They aren’t remarks we gathered while interviewing someone first person. If we’re transparent, our readers should know we didn’t actually speak with the source.

Sometimes we receive remarks attributed to our desired source, but that are actually written by a public relations representative. Our readers should know that and it makes us more accountable to our audience.

The statement is likely a good, representative statement, but it is not a candid statement.

In an effort to be transparent, because if we expect transparency from our officials, we in turn should be transparent and responsible to our readers, the citizens those officials represent.

We intend to express that in our writing. If we obtain a quote from an email or through a press release (a submitted article) we will state that in our report so our readers understand the quote material was from a prepared statement.

We want to be as transparent and open as we expect our government to be.

Posted in Resources

Federal grant funding obscures how government is funded, diffuses accountability

DaveDaley-croppedBy DAVE DALEY

For close to a year now, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has been wrestling with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to obtain a report on what steps, if any, HUD took to stop misuse of more than $2 million in taxpayer funds by a Wisconsin tribe.

The issue seemed simple enough: A routine audit found irregularities in how the St. Croix Chippewa tribe in northwestern Wisconsin used $2.3 million in 2015 in HUD grants meant to help the poorest in the tribe find decent housing. The 2015 audit of the tribe found that:

  • More than $776,000 in back rent was owed the tribe and probably never would be collected.
  • The tribe’s Housing Authority awarded $308,000 to contractors without following rules on how vendors are evaluated and selected.
  • 80 percent of the authority’s tenant case files did not have the required income recertification information needed for a tenant to qualify for rent-subsidized housing.

The audit also uncovered a mystery — $85,000 in loans, which the auditor said were from the “HCRI loan program,” were made by Housing Authority officials to themselves. HUD has no such loan fund, however. HCRI is a state program — the Housing Cost Reduction Initiative. But, a state official said the last HCRI grant to the St. Croix Chippewa was in 1992.

The same findings had been made in 2013 and 2014, apparently with no effort to follow up by HUD, until they were reported in a WPRI story. Then HUD assigned a team to review the audit and produced a report that, presumably, outlined what changes HUD ordered to correct the problems.

WPRI filed a request in May for the report under the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law that requires federal agencies to make records available “promptly.” That was nine months ago. WPRI is still waiting.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said it’s par for the course.

“Federal agencies have over time adopted a culture of contempt for the public’s right to know,” he said. “They (federal agencies) don’t make handling records requests a priority, they don’t do it well and nobody holds them accountable.”

It’s especially difficult for the public, journalists and even politicians to track the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal grants distributed to states, local governments and private entities. Those grants account for a huge portion of federal spending — $628 billion in all — and one-third of Wisconsin’s budget, paying for everything from Medicaid to schools to roads.

But try to follow the money and you can find yourself in the back alleys of government — alone and in the dark. And that’s by design, some say.

The grants-in-aid system “is just a political ploy to reduce responsibility for people who are blowing taxpayer money,” said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute and editor of DownsizingGovernment.Org. “The entire purpose is political — to give politicians credit for spending and reduce political responsibility and give politicians at all three levels of government more talking points. It actually reduces responsibility.”

David French, a writer at the National Review, agrees.

“Congress has intentionally abdicated authority” to the Washington bureaucracy, he wrote recently. “We like to think of our nation’s public servants as virtuously toiling away for the public good, and many of them do. Many, however, do not, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to hold them accountable.”

It’s a familiar story to anyone who tries to track federal grants-in-aid spending, which is controlled not by elected officials who are supposed to be responsive to voters, but by a large faceless and mostly unaccountable bureaucracy.

“Some of the worst, most inefficient bureaucracies I’ve heard about over the years include HUD and the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” said Edwards. “Personally, I find it sickening that these bureaucracies aren’t responsive to the citizens and journalists.”

Dave Daley is a reporter for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s Project for 21st Century Federalism (wpri.org). He was a statehouse and federal courts reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Posted in Resources

PIO Censorship in the Era of Trump

Kathryn FoxhallBy Kathryn Foxhall
SPJ’s FOI Committee

President Trump has already labeled major press outlets the “fake news media” and the “enemy of the people.” His administration has blocked major news outlets from a briefing because it didn’t like what they published.

With that in mind, the public should understand “censorship by PIO” at the federal level: For years, in many federal agencies, staff members have been prohibited from communicating with any journalist without notifying the authorities, usually the public information officers. And they often are unable to talk without PIO guards actively monitoring them.

Now, conversations will be approved or blocked by people appointed by the Trump Administration, some of them political operatives.

The information about the “administrative state” that impacts our lives constantly is under these controls. They also cover much of the data through which we understand our world and our lives.

In January, according to the Washington Post: “Trump called the government’s job numbers ‘phony.’ What happens now that he is in charge of them?”

Some of us may feel less comfortable with Trump people controlling this information flow. But actually a surge in these controls has been building in the federal government and through the U.S. culture for two decades or more.

In many entities, public and private, federal, state, and local those in power decree that no one will talk to journalists without notifying the PIO. Congressional offices even have the restrictions.

They are convenient for bosses. Under that oversight staff people are unlikely to talk about all the stuff that’s always there, outside of the official story.

Beyond that, PIOs often monitor the conversations and tell staff people what they may or may not discuss. Frequently agencies and offices delay contacts or block them altogether. An article on the Association of Health Care Journalists website, advising journalists about dealing with the Department of Health and Human Services, says, “Reporters rarely get to interview administration officials…”

Remember, those HHS people journalists can’t talk to are at the hub of information flow on what works and doesn’t with Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid. Or they know whether there are other perspectives on the numbers the agency publishes. Not to speak of the understanding about food and drugs, infectious disease, and medical and health policy research. Many of them could quickly stun us with the education they could give, if they were not gagged.

Another fact that gives pause is these restraints are just for journalists. There are no special rules or offices to stop staff people from having fluid communication with lobbyists, special interest groups, contractors, people with a lot of money, etc.

Fifty-three journalism and open government groups wrote to President Obama asking him to lift the mandate that PIOs be notified of contacts and the related restrictions in federal agencies. We met with people in the White House in 2015 to leave that message for the President. A year ago we pleaded in an editorial that Obama not leave these constraints in place, given the authoritarian rhetoric on the campaign trail and the fact no one can know how these controls will be used in one year or 20 years.

We wonder how former Obama officials feel now about their medications, given that FDA officials can’t talk without Trump controls.

But is it ever even rational to just believe staff people who are under such coercion?

Some journalists –- given our proclivity for believing we always get the story — profess to not be concerned about the PIO controls, saying people on the inside will leak. But do we have any sense of how often that happens? Do we have a 75-percent perspective on an entire agency, or a 2-percent? Nobody leaked when EPA staff people knew that kids in Flint were drinking lead in water or when CDC had sloppy practices in handling bad bugs.

Meantime, we have much more to worry about than just the gagged feds. In surveys sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, over half of political and general assignment reporters around the country said their interviews must be approved at least most of the time. Seventy-eight percent said the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers imposed on reporting and 73 percent said the controls are getting tighter.

Education and science reporters cited similar controls.

Perhaps most chillingly, 56 percent of police reporters said they can never or rarely interview police officers without involving a PIO.

Almost 80 percent of police PIOs said they felt it was necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with police officers. Asked why, some PIOs said things like: “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”

However, people in power characterize it, censorship is a moral monstrosity. It leaves people on the inside to control information with their own ideas and motivations. It debilitates all of us with a lack of understanding or, just as bad, skewed information. It takes away trust in our systems. It puts democracy itself in question.

Understandably in shock at President Trump’s attacks on the press, some feel these PIO controls are not a primary priority. Actually, this era makes it clearer than ever why we don’t need to leave these networks of controls to people in power.


Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at kfoxhall@verizon.net.

Posted in Resources

Photo: In Texas, government denials of record requests have soared

(For a full-size photograph, click the thumbnail below.)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-FILE - In this May 25, 2016 file photo, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announces Texas' lawsuit to challenge President Obama's transgender bathroom order during a news conference in Austin, Texas. In Texas, reporters seeking public documents and data are increasingly running into a road block: the state attorney general's office. The agency is the arbiter of the state's open records laws, yet in recent years has been flooded with requests from governments at all levels seeking to withhold information. The agency almost always allows them to do so. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-FILE – In this May 25, 2016 file photo, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announces Texas’ lawsuit to challenge President Obama’s transgender bathroom order during a news conference in Austin, Texas. In Texas, reporters seeking public documents and data are increasingly running into a road block: the state attorney general’s office. The agency is the arbiter of the state’s open records laws, yet in recent years has been flooded with requests from governments at all levels seeking to withhold information. The agency almost always allows them to do so. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Posted in Toolkit

Photos: Trump’s actions raise fears about access to government data

(For full-size photographs, click the thumbnails below.)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-Dr. Garen Wintemute an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, poses for a photo at the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. Wintemute, who has researched gun violence and firearms industry, worked with colleagues to download public records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other federal agencies after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. He and others feared the information might disappear from federal websites. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-Dr. Garen Wintemute an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, poses for a photo at the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. Wintemute, who has researched gun violence and firearms industry, worked with colleagues to download public records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and other federal agencies after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. He and others feared the information might disappear from federal websites. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, shows the website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, on a computer in the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. On the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Wintemute got a call from a colleague, who reported that the White House had removed a climate change page from its website. Fearing that federal data on gun violence might soon similarly vanish under a president with close ties to the National Rifle Association, Wintemute called together his partners at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. He then ticked off the records he wanted to archive. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MARCH 13, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, shows the website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, on a computer in the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. On the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Wintemute got a call from a colleague, who reported that the White House had removed a climate change page from its website. Fearing that federal data on gun violence might soon similarly vanish under a president with close ties to the National Rifle Association, Wintemute called together his partners at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. He then ticked off the records he wanted to archive. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Posted in Toolkit

Why Freedom of Information Faces Problems, and How Experts Say Those Can Be Solved

Cuillier mug newton mugBy David Cuillier and Eric Newton

People must be able to get facts from their government to make smart decisions and hold public officials accountable. Politicians from both parties agreed on this long ago when they first passed federal, state and local open government laws.

But the things people build — be they bridges, roads or freedom of information laws — wear out without regular maintenance. That’s why Sunshine Week exists, to remind us that it takes effort to keep freedom working. “The natural progress of things,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”

Jefferson, our third president and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, still sounds right more than two centuries later. A timely piece of evidence is “Forecasting Freedom of Information,” a study of more than 300 of those who seek (or provide) public records, released Sunday, March 12, by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Half of those surveyed said that access to public records has gotten worse during the past four years, and nearly 9 of 10 predicted that under our new national leader access will get even worse.

The previous presidential administration, while saying it would be more open, was considered by many freedom of information experts to be too secretive. The new presidential administration has started out by questioning core elements of the machinery of liberty — the courts, the media, and freedom of information itself.

“What I hear from reporters in Washington and my students is that exemptions are being used in way too many cases and delays are still very long,” said Leonard Downie, former Washington Post executive editor and current Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I hope the door doesn’t get shut tighter.”

Rising denials are particularly acute at the local level, where daily newspapers have cut some 20,000 journalists in the past 10 years. More than half of those surveyed — 56 percent — predicted local and state information will be harder to get in the next four years.

What is going wrong? Survey subjects reported long delays, documents excessively censored, costly copy fees, out of date technology and, too often, public officials not knowing about or caring to follow their own freedom of information laws.

How can it be fixed? Expert advice ranged from use of digital tools that make it easier to request records to tougher laws that penalize violators. One of the ideas is aimed directly at you — how to expand Sunshine Week and other efforts to show the value of open government.

Why should you care? Because no matter who you are and what you believe, you have the same right as everyone else to ask for and get public information. Whether you seek government efficiency or just the location of your properly line, you should have access to all the information the law allows.

This Sunshine Week, take a minute to learn more. The open records laws are listed by the Reporter’s Committeee for Freedom of the Press. State groups are listed at the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Visit the Sunshine Week web site. Want to file a records request? Try Muckrock. Take a minute to thank the  American Society of News Editors and many other groups (from librarians to good government organizations) that make Sunshine Week possible.

Each spring Sunshine Week honors the March 16 birthday of James Madison, our fourth president, called “father of the Constitution” for his key role in writing and promoting the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. “I believe,” Madison wrote, “there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

What our founders are saying seems clear: We must watch over freedom if we wish to keep it. The same idea applies to open government. Keeping freedom fresh is up to you, your friends and your neighbors. Let’s face facts: Our right to vote isn’t worth much if we don’t know what’s really going on.

______

David Cuillier of the University of Arizona School of Journalism wrote “Forecasting Freedom of Information”; Eric Newton of Arizona State University was consulting editor.

Posted in Toolkit

Photo: Media groups push back after fake news defined US elections

(For a full-size photograph, click the thumbnail below.)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016 file photo, Edgar Maddison Welch, 28 of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police in Washington. Welch, who said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place, fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant on Sunday injuring no one, police and news reports said. Fake news, social media bots, a post-fact world. One of the great lessons of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is that people could not _ or would not _ distinguish between actual news stories and fabrications. (Sathi Soma via AP)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-FILE – In this Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016 file photo, Edgar Maddison Welch, 28 of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police in Washington. Welch, who said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place, fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant on Sunday injuring no one, police and news reports said. Fake news, social media bots, a post-fact world. One of the great lessons of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is that people could not _ or would not _ distinguish between actual news stories and fabrications. (Sathi Soma via AP)

Posted in Toolkit

Photos: Advocates say First Amendment can withstand Trump attacks

(For full-size photographs, click the thumbnails below.)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 file photo, demonstrators stand with U.S. flags and signs in a show of solidarity with the press in front of The New York Times building in New York. The White House banned several major news outlets, including The New York Times and CNN, from an off-camera briefing, known as a "press gaggle," two days earlier. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-FILE – In this Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 file photo, demonstrators stand with U.S. flags and signs in a show of solidarity with the press in front of The New York Times building in New York. The White House banned several major news outlets, including The New York Times and CNN, from an off-camera briefing, known as a “press gaggle,” two days earlier. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-In this Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 photo, reporters raise their hands as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer takes questions during a daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. In 2017, journalism marks its annual Sunshine Week at an extraordinary moment in the relationship between the presidency and the press. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017 AND THEREAFTER-In this Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 photo, reporters raise their hands as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer takes questions during a daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. In 2017, journalism marks its annual Sunshine Week at an extraordinary moment in the relationship between the presidency and the press. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Posted in Toolkit

Amid attacks, journalists need to focus on Trump’s actions

Slug:
BC-US–Sunshine Week-Rhee Column,ADV12

Headline:
Amid attacks, journalists need to focus on Trump’s actions

Summary:
A president who is all over the map on policy is so single-minded about going after journalists every chance he gets. In this new reality, reporters need to be aggressive, but also careful. Journalists can’t get too defensive, or distracted from doing our jobs, or lose sight of what Trump is actually doing _ giving Wall Street free rein, looking out for the wealthy and tearing down government.

Extended Headline:
A president who is all over the map on policy is so single-minded about going after journalists every chance he gets

Editors Note:
( ); FOR RELEASE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017, AT 12:01 A.M. EST.

Urgency:
Non Urgent

Byline:
By FOON RHEE

Bytitle:
The Sacramento Bee

Pub Eds note:
EDITOR’S NOTE _ One of a package of stories marking Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information.

As I’ve listened to President Donald Trump go on tirades against the “very dishonest” media, I’ve tried not to take his criticism personally.
Lord knows, I’ve made my share of mistakes in my career. But they’ve never been on purpose, or out of malice.
In fact, after more than 30 years, I can still remember the phone call from a grieving relative when I misspelled a name in an obituary (I wrote Ronald instead of Roland). This was before articles were published online, so print newspapers were the permanent record. The man’s family had to live with my error. However Trump bashes journalists, he’ll never make me feel as bad as I did back then.
So here’s the truth:
The press is not the opposition party. The media is not the enemy of the American people. Negative stories are not fake news.
And when Trump keeps making these claims, he isn’t just attacking the press; he is chipping away at one of the pillars of our democracy.
It means something that a president who is all over the map on policy is so single-minded about going after reporters every chance he gets. In a recent tweet, Trump raised the stakes, calling the media “a great danger to our country.”
At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Trump again bashed “fake news,” though he’s the one with only a passing relationship with the truth. He complained about leaks and anonymous sources, though his administration is perfectly happy to take advantage of both. He even claimed that the media says its coverage can’t be criticized because of freedom of the press.
“I love the First Amendment; nobody loves it better than me,” he said. “Nobody.”
He has chutzpah, I’ll give him that.
But what’s more alarming is that he also said the media “doesn’t represent the people, it never will represent the people and we’re going to do something about it.”
It’s not clear what the president plans. He talked during the campaign about changing the law so that it’s easier for politicians to sue for libel and slander — a terrible idea that would discourage robust reporting.
And what if an unhinged supporter takes Trump’s rhetoric seriously and literally and physically assaults a journalist? What will the president say then?
Trump is choosing a phrase — “enemy of the people” — that has been used by communist dictators and Nazi propagandists.
Unfortunately, only a few Republican leaders stood up to that attack on a free press: “Without it,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, “I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”
Trying to control coverage, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has called only on friendlier media outlets at some news conferences. He took it a step further during a recent question-and-answer session, blocking reporters from several major news organizations that have had critical coverage of Trump, including looking into the administration’s Russia connections.
Another part of the White House strategy, it seems, is to trap reporters. When there are leaks, officials sometimes wait until after the news story is published to respond. This apparently happened earlier this month when The Associated Press reported that a draft memo showed the administration was considering calling up National Guard troops for immigration raids.
It’s a cynical ploy. The administration can see how popular its ideas are and pull them back if they’re too controversial. When the most extreme versions don’t happen, it further damages the media’s credibility. And if the public is unsure about what’s real, it opens up more room for Trump to do what he wants.
So reporters need to be aggressive, but also careful. Journalists can’t get too defensive, or distracted from doing our jobs, or lose sight of what Trump is actually doing — giving Wall Street free rein, looking out for the wealthy and tearing down government.
This is going to be a long struggle, day after day. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, made that clear, declaring at CPAC that the war with the media is “not going to get better. It’s going to get worse.”
Yet, times of crisis like this bring clarity. Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, said Sunday on CNN that the mission of news organizations is clearer than it has been in years — to hold Trump and others in power accountable.
He’s absolutely right, but it’s more important for the public to support a free press. And this would be a good time, with Sunshine Week, the annual recognition of the importance of a public’s right to know, beginning Sunday.
It’s encouraging that a new poll found that Americans trust their favorite news source over Trump, 67 percent to 29 percent.
It’s also great to hear from people like Charles Marchant of Placerville: “I just want to say thank you for being here, for doing your job and for doing your part in our democratic system,” he wrote in a letter to the editor.
“I write not to grind any particular ax, but to let you know I do NOT consider the press my enemy. I value the hard work you do, which is a vital role in our society.”
Thanks a lot, Mr. Marchant. We’ll keep doing our best, whatever President Trump throws our way.
___
Foon Rhee is an associate editor and editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/foonrhee

Posted in Toolkit

In Texas, government denials of record requests have soared

Slug:
BC-US–Sunshine Week-Texas Records,ADV12

Headline:
In Texas, government denials of record requests have soared

Summary:
The public records law in Texas says government officials typically must have the state attorney general review decisions that deny public access to records. The number of those denials has jumped from 5,000 to more than 27,000 in 15 years. Some experts say the prevailing attitude among governments in Texas has turned from a presumption that records should almost always be available to a belief that officials should release as little as possible.

Extended Headline:
The public records law in Texas says government officials typically must have the state attorney general review decisions that deny public access to records

Editors Note:
(Eds: With AP Photos. ); FOR RELEASE SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2017, AT 12:01 A.M. EST.

Urgency:
Non Urgent

Byline:
By TERRI LANGFORD

Bytitle:
The Dallas Morning News

Dateline:
DALLAS

Pub Eds note:
EDITOR’S NOTE _ One of a package of stories marking Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information.

DALLAS (AP) — When Texans ask state and local officials for public records detailing their operations, more and more the answer is no.
The reason why is in dispute, partly because of the lack of some public records.
Among the materials that are, in theory, publicly available: checks cut by a school board, tapes of 911 emergency calls, text messages between city council members.
A quirk of the Texas records law, adopted almost 45 years ago, says that when officials deny the public the right to see something, they usually have to run that decision by the state attorney general’s office.
The number of those denials has been soaring. In the fiscal year that ended in August 2001, governments forwarded about 5,000 denied record requests to the attorney general’s office for review. That number had jumped to more than 27,000 in 2016. Much of the increase has occurred in the last decade.
The overall number of denials is actually larger than the data indicate. More than 80 agencies and local governments have gotten permission from the attorney general to automatically deny certain kinds of requests, such as those that reveal a person’s birth date.
Some experts say the prevailing attitude among governments in Texas has turned from a presumption that records should almost always be available to a belief that officials should release as little as possible.
“I think more governments have become more desirous of withholding information, many of them out there have a knee-jerk reaction,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which is largely supported by journalism organizations.
But lawyers and government spokespeople say they are being flooded with demands for documents, many of which don’t exist or that legally they aren’t allowed to make public.
“Requestors are submitting more requests,” said Justin Gordon, the open records chief for the Texas attorney general’s office.
Reporters say one reason may be that officials have started demanding that they file open-records requests for information the government used to release without question.
Getting to the truth is tough, in part because no statewide data exists on the total number of requests, so there is no way to know if the overall number is rising as fast as the attorney general reviews.
It’s also unclear if certain kinds of requestors — such as reporters, private citizens, public-interest groups or businesses — account for an outsized portion of the denials.
The attorney general’s office told The Dallas Morning News it could not release the names of those asking for records without weeks of review to ensure that every original requestor is not covered by privacy exemptions. For example, if the original requestor was a victim of a crime, his or her name could not be released.
The office says it does not keep tabs on how many requests involve certain kinds of information, and does not analyze the outcome of its reviews. It does post its rulings online, but in a format that is difficult to search and does not include the names of requestors.
In at least some cases, the office makes government officials release some of the information they want to withhold, according to a review by The News of requests for the month of July going back more than a decade. But how often that happens is unclear.
The two most populous cities in Texas, Dallas and Houston, actually referred fewer cases to the attorney general in 2016 than they did in 2005. But some smaller cities and large suburbs, especially in North Texas, submitted far more, The News found.
Plano, the fast-growing suburban city 20 miles northeast of Dallas, asked for 85 reviews in 2015, up from none in 2005, according to state records.
City attorney Paige Mims said officials are simply following state law and that many denied requests involve police records.
Curtis Howard, legal adviser for the Plano Police Department, said the percentage of referrals had been holding steady at about 11 percent a year, but the sheer number of requests has jumped in the last few years.
In 2015, Howard and his staff fielded 5,670 requests for records from the police agency, he said. In 2016, that number rose to 7,055 requests, a 24 percent jump.
For the most part, police arrest records can be released, as long as someone has been charged, he noted. But arrests that do not result in a conviction or acquittal are not required to be made public.
Police record requests are made by the media for newsgathering, but also by private citizens for use in divorces, vetting of potential employees and litigation.
In Killeen, 60 miles southwest of Waco near Fort Hood, the number of information requests and the number of initial denials are rising fast.
The city received 1,811 requests in 2010 and initially denied 173, or 9.5 percent, and forwarded those to the attorney general for review. Six years later, the number of requests had grown to 2,910. Of those 603, almost 21 percent, were sent to the attorney general.
Traci Briggs, Killeen’s deputy city attorney, said many of the records people request are complaints that can’t be released under privacy rules, describing them as “who turned in my dog, who reported the water dripping behind my house” records.
Others pertain to one of the broadest exceptions to the public-records act, which allows law enforcement to keep information sealed if they think making the material public would interfere with a criminal investigation. They do not have to prove that there is, in fact, an investigation underway.
Killeen recently got permission to automatically reject requests that fall under the open-investigation exemption, though it must continue to release basic information.
Last year, The News and other media organizations filed dozens of open records to the Dallas Police Department for information involving the July 7 ambush that left five police officers and suspect Micah Johnson dead.
Little has been released other than the 911 calls and initial warrant information. The police are citing the open-investigation exemption. Last October, the attorney general’s office sided with the police.
A pair of Texas Supreme Court rulings in 2015 have further undermined the public’s access to government records by placing information about many private business deals with governmental entities off-limits.
In Boeing vs. Paxton and the Greater Houston Partnership v. Paxton, the Texas attorney general concluded that information about Boeing held by the Port Authority of San Antonio should be publicly released. But the aviation manufacturer sued, and the Texas high court sided with Boeing’s argument that making public the information at issue would give its competitors an advantage.
That ruling has had a chilling effect. The city of McAllen used this ruling to keep secret how much it paid singer Julio Iglesias to perform at a Christmas parade. Houston used it to keep secret the number of permits issued to ride-sharing service Uber.
State Sen. Kirk Wilson, D-Austin, told a recent legislative hearing that governments used the Boeing decision to deny about 600 requests for public information in Texas in 2016.
“It’s impossible for me to imagine how a final contract with the government shouldn’t be made public,” Watson said.
In the case involving the Greater Houston Partnership, the nonprofit that handles economic development for the city convinced the court that because it does not rely solely on public money, it is not subject to the state public records law.
Legislators have introduced bills they say will help to restore access that the court rulings removed. Some would force government agencies to release all final contracts. Others would require a private entity to comply with open-records law if it provides services once provided by a public agency.
Gordon, the head of the attorney general’s open-records division, said the two rulings have decreased transparency but have done little to impact the workload for the 59 staffers in his office.
Has the staff of the office increased to handle the surge in denials? Unclear. The agency instructed The News to file an open-records request to get an answer.

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