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Monday, March 14, 2011

Forecast mostly cloudy across USA

Sunshine Week

Heading into Sunshine Week, many open-government advocates across the country feel they have much more to bemoan than they have to celebrate.

Even if no court or attorney general ever chastises Wisconsin’s Republican legislators for violating open meeting law notice requirements, the convoluted web of parliamentary rationalizations surrounding their vote last week is still beyond ordinary comprehension.

Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has signed into law a measure that now means that fewer than half of all U.S. state legislatures hold themselves to the same levels of transparency they prescribe for others.

Worse yet, open government laws in state after state, whether their reach goes to lawmakers themselves, are being damaged and weakened with increasing frequency by new exclusions, loopholes and crazy exemptions that promote more secrecy and a lot less transparency.

President Barack Obama’s openness pledge has garnered a lot of attention, with advocates questioning whether it was a false promise and whether his professed belief in transparency will ever make its way through the vast federal bureaucracy.

But at the state and local levels, there has been little notice of an ongoing frontal assault on open, accessible government. When viewed comprehensibly and nationally, what has been happening in state legislatures all across the land has been downright scary.

David Cuillier, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona whose specialty is open government, said the sweeping new changes to Utah’s Government Records Access Management Act, which goes by the folksy-sounding acronym GRAMA, will leave Utah residents with less access to information about their government than residents of Australia, Ireland, Mexico or even Albania.

“I’m guessing most countries have better FOIA laws than what Utah will have,” said Cuillier, who had based the first observation on a quick, informal survey.

Utah’s new law exempts virtually all electronic communications – including voice mails, instant messages, video recordings, text messages and even e-mails. Utah bureaucrats with something to hide will have carte blanche discretion to discourage records requesters with high copying charges and unexplained delays.

But as bad and disappointing as their actions were, the Utah lawmakers weren’t alone in waging their war against openness.

In Tennessee, open-government advocates are fighting proposals that would permit withholding of all 911 dispatch records and allow local governments to decide on their own how much they disclose about tax breaks and enticements for “economic development.” Another change would allow charging requesters for the time it takes government staffers to obliterate the records they request with markers, Sharpies and other redaction tools.

In Maine, a new governor who promised the most transparent administration ever has created a new business advisory council that would hold its meetings out of public view.

Virginia open-government advocates fought off a legislative proposal that would have allowed state agencies to seek anti-harassment court orders against records requesters who burden them too much.

If you are given to conspiracy theories – and I’m not usually prone to them – one might fear that somewhere out there is an evil operative pulling the strings and calling the shots. Perhaps the secret strategy of that sinister, behind-the-scenes champion of government secrecy was coaxing Utah’s and Wisconsin’s leaders into overreaching to such an extent that no one would notice what’s happening elsewhere.

I only wish I was just saying this entirely in jest. Be assured, though, there are powerful special interests who favor keeping citizens in the dark and allowing governments to operate behind closed doors.

Maybe I shouldn’t begrudge power grabbers the satisfaction that comes with successful parliamentary maneuvering. But in a year of so many challenges to openness and transparency, the public should be wary of any new tricks for those hostile to “sunshine.”

Ken Bunting is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.