WASHINGTON (AP) — Newspapers were once the dominant force in dislodging documents and other records from reluctant federal government agencies, but a new crop of media players, advocacy groups and corporate interests now drive the release of information.
The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 was first envisioned as a tool for traditional media to seek documents, data and information they deemed important to public interest. It also was meant to allow ordinary Americans to seek information from the federal government about themselves.
Nearly a half-century later, news organizations continue to paper federal agencies with written and electronic requests for records and other information under FOIA, a review of agency logs shows, though they are cash strapped and less likely to press their claims in court.
Meanwhile, over the past decade there’s been a surge of requests from bloggers, advocacy groups, corporate lawyers, researchers and even foreign nationals tapping the promise of open records.
It means that the information obtained under FOIA may reach the public in a raw, less contextual form, or through a particular political prism. Or it may not reach the public at all.
Here are the Freedom of information issues in all 50 states:
Lawmakers are trying to shield the identities of companies and individuals who provide the state with the drugs used for lethal-injection executions. In mid-March, the state House of Representatives approved a bill that included the secrecy provision for drug suppliers. The proposal now goes to the state Senate.
Even without the legislation, the Alabama Department of Corrections has refused to release information about the suppliers of drugs. The prison system, in refusing a records request from The Associated Press, cited a confidentiality order in a lawsuit filed by an inmate challenging the lethal injection method. A lawyer for the inmate has disputed that the order prohibits the release of the information.
The corrections department also declined to provide information about the execution protocol, including the training of people who administer the intravenous lines and perform consciousness checks.
A department official, in a response to a records request from the AP, said the prison system considers the information confidential.
Republican state Rep. Tammie Wilson has proposed legislation that would remove certain criminal cases from the state’s online court-records system. Applicable cases would be ones that resulted in a person being acquitted of all charges or having those charges dismissed, or in which someone was acquitted on some charges and had the remaining charges dropped.
Wilson said the court-records site can be difficult to navigate, creating confusion over the final disposition of cases. That has had an effect on some people looking for jobs or apartments.
The hard copies of the cases would remain available.
The Legislature last year passed more sweeping legislation that would have made all such records confidential, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Sean Parnell as overly broad. Wilson’s bill has not yet had a hearing.
The public’s access to the workings of government is under attack on several fronts in Arizona, including in the courts and Legislature.
The lack of transparency was notably on display in recent months during the Jodi Arias murder trial, the state’s highest-profile criminal trial in years. Large segments of the case unfolded in private, including the highly unusual move by the judge to kick the public out of the courtroom so the convicted murderer could testify in private.
At the Legislature, new rules were enacted in the Arizona House to give Republicans more latitude in closing their caucuses to the public. With police shootings in the news around the country, lawmakers also are considering a proposal to let police agencies withhold for 90 days the identities of officers who are involved in incidents that resulted in serious injuries or death.
Another bill would keep private the names of lottery winners for 90 days.
Lawmakers in recent years have been citing privacy and safety concerns in proposing bills to restrict access under the state’s freedom of information law, which was considered one of the toughest in the nation when it was adopted in 1967.
They proposed more than 20 changes this session. The governor already has signed one of those into a law, a bill that shields some municipal utility records. Other changes they are considering would prohibit the public release of certain information about schools and former public employees.
Other bills that would have curtailed “unduly burdensome” information requests or reduced transparency at government meetings were withdrawn.
Lawmakers made two amendments during their previous legislative session in 2013, both of which became law. Those changes shielded portions of accident reports and information about concealed-carry licenses.
The law that outlines public access to records within the California Legislature remains riddled with loopholes, decades after it was written to provide more visibility into how business is conducted at the statehouse.
Lawmakers’ daily calendars, showing who they meet with and where they go, are not available for public review unless the office holders release them voluntarily. Correspondence, such as when a lobbyist writes a legislator, also remains out of public reach.
Most state agencies are subject to the California Public Records Act. But the Legislature is exempt from those requirements. It operates under its own, narrower set of rules — the so-called Legislative Open Records Act.
Noting wildly varying fees to access public records in Colorado, a law enacted last year caps research and retrieval fees at $30 an hour.
Some agencies, including the state Department of Law, were charging more than twice that, saying attorneys would have to review the documents before their release.
Before last July, Colorado law said research fees should be “reasonable and nominal,” but the standard was broadly interpreted.
“We need to give uniformity and predictability to citizens,” said Peg Perl, lawyer for Colorado Ethics Watch, which backed the bill.
Some agencies still charge the public for staff time even to determine what an open-records bill would be, though. For example, the Law Department recently quoted AP $350 just to determine how much it would cost to see communications with federal authorities on marijuana. The agency insists those fees are necessary.
“It’s appropriate to have a conversation with the requestor and make sure they’re prepared to pay the bill” for a hefty request, said Law Department spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler.
Copying public documents in Connecticut courts can be an expensive proposition at $1 a page, a fee set by state law that is double what cities and towns can charge and quadruple what state agencies collect.
Open records advocates say high fees can discourage access to public documents and that copying records should not considered a government revenue source.
State lawmakers and then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. increased the fee in 1992 from 50 cents to $1 a page when they approved a massive fee increase bill during a budget crisis.
The $300,000 a year the Judicial Branch collects from the fee goes to the state’s general fund. Judiciary officials note that fees can be waived for people declared indigent, and many documents can be viewed for free at courthouses or online.
Some state agencies in Delaware fail to comply with requirements for identifying their Freedom of Information Act coordinators and tracking FOIA requests.
An Associated Press review of state agency FOIA logs shows significant differences in the amount of detail they include, and several agencies didn’t meet a statutory deadline of 15 business days to respond to or at least acknowledge requests for the logs. A 2012 law also requires each agency to identify a FOIA coordinator on its website, but some still do not.
Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office is preparing for new mandates under legislation passed last year that will require it to publish a manual for agency coordinators every two years and to hold annual training seminars.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
The District of Columbia receives nearly 1.3 million 911 calls a year, and city officials insist that audio from those calls is public information. Yet the public rarely gets a chance to hear them.
Officials with the District’s Office of Unified Communications and reporters who cover public safety in the city say requests for audio of 911 calls are routinely denied. The city says calls are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act when they concern a matter under investigation or they contain personal information about a caller or a patient.
The last time the city released audio of a 911 call was more than a year ago.
In Maryland, officials routinely release 911 calls within days of high-profile incidents, redacting personal information if necessary.
Florida’s court clerks are leading the nation in making electronic state court records available to the public online. But in the process, they’re creating two-tiers of public viewers with varying privileges based on how much information users are willing to provide about themselves.
Any member of the public will be able to look up most criminal and civil cases over the Internet anonymously in most Florida counties, once the clerks’ online records go live later this year. But to access probate and family court records online, people will need to submit a notarized application and get approval from the clerks’ offices.
In a few counties, applicants will pay a subscription fee, but in most counties all they need to provide is information about themselves, according to plans being implemented by 59 of Florida’s 67 clerks.
Lawyers are challenging a secrecy law banning Georgia’s government from releasing key details about where it gets the drug used in lethal injections.
Kelly Gissendaner was scheduled to die by lethal injection March 2. She was convicted of conspiring with a lover in 1997 to kill her husband.
However, corrections officials decided at the last minute to delay her execution because the lethal injection drug appeared “cloudy,” raising questions about whether it would work properly.
Lawyers for Gissendaner want to know where the drug came from so they can assess whether its use might cause unconstitutional pain and suffering. Facing a drug shortage, state lawmakers passed a law that prohibited the government starting in 2013 from releasing any information about where it gets its death penalty drugs.
Debates over which meetings of state lawmakers and various public bodies should be open to the public have been playing out in the Hawaii Legislature this session. So far, those who want to shine a light on public boards are winning.
A bill being considered in the state Senate would shed light on the executive sessions during which board members meet in private. It would require boards of public agencies to report any discussions or final actions taken during those meetings.
Lawmakers have killed or watered down two proposals that would have made it easier for board members to conceal what they do.
For decades, Idaho has relied on private contractors to carry out government functions ranging from running prisons to providing Internet access to public schools.
Idaho’s Public Records Law clearly states that no matter who holds the documents, public records are always public. But the reality is murkier.
The Associated Press sent public records requests to five major companies with current or former state contracts, each worth millions of dollars. All of the requests were denied outright or deflected to the state agencies holding the contracts — even though those agencies don’t necessarily have access to the pertinent records.
Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke said lawmakers are looking for ways to improve contract oversight, but the state relies at least partly on journalists to expose problems with government vendors.
Not all state contracts, meanwhile, include provisions requiring the contractor to turn over public records.
During the past five years, the Illinois Attorney General’s office has been swamped with 15,000 requests under a landmark reform that added an independent review process to Illinois’s otherwise restrictive Freedom of Information Act. According to information obtained by The Associated Press, the attorney general’s staff has yet to answer thousands of those appeals.
Data obtained from the attorney general show there are 500 outstanding requests from 2011 and 2012 alone, including more than 400 from private citizens. It raises questions about the effectiveness of FOIA for citizens who have to wait years for an answer, and why state officials have not provided the necessary resources to make the added review work.
A bill that aims to simplify school management by cutting obsolete or duplicate rules in education also could change how public records are handled by all types of Indiana agencies.
The measure would allow government entities to charge a searching fee for records requests that take longer than two hours to fulfill. Current law says agencies can only charge for copying a record, which is a minimum of 10 cents per page.
The increase in cost comes as states such as Michigan and Maryland are aiming to make record requests less expensive.
Supporters say educators are bogged down with regulations that divert staff and money from the classroom. Critics say the measure could discourage in-depth requests and give officials another tool to fight transparency.
The bill is currently under consideration in the House.
Did the Iowa State Patrol discipline two supervisors who committed off-duty misconduct? What is a powerful utility lobbyist saying in private about the director of the Iowa Energy Center to his boss at Iowa State University? Did an instructor at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy really resign to spend more time with his puppies, as he claims?
The public will never know. All of those sensitive and potentially embarrassing inquiries were shut down in recent months by government agencies that cited the same legal rationale for keeping the public in the dark: Iowa code 22.7(11). Departments routinely cite that exemption for “personal information in confidential personnel records” to reject requests that involve an agency’s management, discipline, handling of complaints and other subjects about taxpayer-funded employees.
State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and state Rep. Jim Ward, both Democrats, are pushing bills that would extend the state’s Open Records Act to specifically cover government officials’ emails on private accounts if they are about state business. Neither bill has yet to receive a hearing.
The measures are a response to disclosures that Shawn Sullivan, budget director for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, used a private email account at least twice in December to circulate a summary of budget proposals being considered by the administration to others, weeks before they were unveiled to lawmakers.
Those receiving the emails included two well-connected lobbyists.
Sullivan has said he used his private account because he was working from home. Brownback’s administration does not have a formal policy on use of private email accounts for state business.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of personal email during her time as U.S. secretary of state is drawing attention to officials who conduct public business on private email accounts and whether the public should have access to those communications.
The city of Louisville recently had its own controversy over the use of private email accounts by officials. It came to light when a former city employee said sewer district officials were skirting open records laws by using private email and text messaging. Mayor Greg Fischer later declared that all people serving on a board or commission should be given an email address for communicating about city business.
First Amendment lawyer John Fleischaker says as public business is increasingly conducted over email and mobile devices, the threat to transparency and public access grows.
A public records exemption pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal is keeping more budget documents hidden from public view, even as the state grapples with a $1.6 billion deficit.
Executive branch agencies are claiming the exemption to hide their working papers of where and how they would have to cut services and programs to cope with looming cuts.
Jindal supported legislation in 2009 that rewrote the public records exemption for the governor’s office. The rewrite included a provision that shielded for six months any budget documents that provide “pre-decisional advice and recommendations to the governor” from any department headed by a gubernatorial appointee. The move extended a new exemption across most state agencies.
A dozen of Jindal’s cabinet agencies claimed that exemption in response to public records requests from AP seeking more details about the types of cuts that have been considered to balance next year’s budget, refusing to provide any information about their ongoing negotiations.
There already are roughly 500 exceptions to Maine’s public records law on the books, but that number could grow if efforts in the Legislature are successful this year.
When the Freedom of Access Act was adopted in 1959, all records were considered open as long as they are used for governmental business. Since then, lawmakers have made hundreds of changes to weaken the law.
This session, lawmakers will consider several proposals that further restrict access. Records that describe materials transported by trains and personal information about library patrons are among those that would be off-limits if the legislation becomes law.
The Department of Public Safety also told reporters two months ago that it wants to withhold certain information from 911 calls about victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Lawmakers are considering legislation that would update the Maryland Public Information Act in a way that increases transparency.
The changes would cap fees, close loopholes and create a compliance board to handle disputes between the public and government agencies. The State Public Information Act Compliance Board would have five members, appointed by the governor, to help resolve fee issues. An ombudsman-type position also would be created to help guide information requests from the press or public and offer advice to government agencies filling those requests.
The bill was generally well-received during recent testimony before a Senate committee. It drew some criticism from opponents, who say local governments are struggling to fill requests based on their budgets and staffing.
Massachusetts judges are sealing court documents with increasing regularity, forcing news organizations and First Amendment groups to wage costly legal battles.
Some high-profile examples include successful fights to make search warrants and other related records public in Aaron Hernandez’s ongoing murder trial, as well as the February shooting of two Coast Guard officers and a local police officer on Cape Cod.
Advocates say lesser-known cases also have become problematic.
But not every incident of sealed court records raises red flags: Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial is one in which confidentiality is likely warranted, say advocates. And not all judges are erring on the side of secrecy. In one case, a judge denied a bid by defense lawyers to keep their client’s videotaped police confession secret.
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act covers state departments, local governments and schools but does not cover the governor, lieutenant governor, their offices or legislators.
Some lawmakers and open records advocates say there should be no protected class and say it’s time to remove the exceptions.
A bill introduced recently in the state House would include those current exceptions under FOIA, although its prospects are dim.
Michigan is just one of two states in which those offices are exempt.
The paper-trail hunt to shed light on Minnesota government decisions is increasingly missing a key element: the paper.
As more deliberations occur via email, text messaging and other paperless platforms, there is less left for the historical record. That is in part because state data retention laws have not kept up with technology or the changing habits of those in power.
Minnesota’s main records-retention law hasn’t had a major update in more than three decades and was last revised in 2007.
It leaves a lot of room for interpretation about which electronic records should be preserved and for how long. There is no central repository for e-materials beyond those selectively turned over to the Historical Society for posterity. And there is little recourse when electronic records get purged.
Those who request public records are required to pay all the costs of producing them, including staff time to find documents and redact information. The resulting charges have become a significant barrier to access.
A law signed by Gov. Phil Bryant last year was supposed to ease that problem by requiring state departments to charge for staff time using the lowest-paid contractor who is able to respond to the request.
But big fees can still be an issue. In September, for example, the Department of Education demanded $2,103 when AP requested documents relating to departmental reorganization efforts. The charge included hourly rates ranging from $33 an hour to $143.
Officials in Ferguson, Missouri, were inundated with thousands of open-records requests following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a city police officer, creating a massive challenge for the town near St. Louis.
Ferguson City Attorney Stephanie Karr says she often worked from morning until midnight, seven days a week, trying to keep up with requests from media, bloggers, activists groups and residents. She says some of the requests were part of an organized effort to be disruptive — but she still responded.
The Missouri attorney general’s office received several complaints from media outlets that Ferguson was charging excessive fees for records requests. Karr says the city charged nothing in the first few weeks after the shooting, and now charges only what is appropriate under state law.
Lawmakers are considering a broad rewrite of Montana’s open record laws that would prohibit state and local agencies from destroying public records until they can be saved electronically. House Bill 123 cleared the House last month.
Sponsor Donald Jones, a Republican, says the measure would ensure that government officials electronically preserve records for future reference.
The bill also requires that notes or minutes be kept when public bodies or commissions meet in private executive sessions. Those notes would not automatically be made public, but could be released under court order.
The governor’s budget office says the bill would make it more complex to maintain records and prove costly for state agencies.
Nebraska is seeing a growing push by school boards and the University of Nebraska to hide the identities of candidates who apply for administrative jobs.
The issue has surfaced in the Legislature several times, most recently with a bill that would have allowed school boards to discuss finalists for superintendent jobs in private.
Last year, opponents managed to beat back a bill that would have kept secret the application information of finalists for University of Nebraska president, vice president and chancellor.
Cost and confusion can be obstacles to obtaining public records in Nevada, where officials sometimes quote high fees for research, redaction and copying.
Nevada Press Association chief Barry Smith says he thinks some officials use a provision letting them charge fees for time spent producing a document as a moneymaker — or a barrier to access.
Wes Henderson, at the Nevada Association of Cities and Municipalities, denies government officials try to gouge people on freedom of information requests. State lawmakers are considering a measure to let agencies charge a per-page fee for electronic documents, plus additional fees for a request requiring more than 30 minutes of effort.
The state has open record laws, but officials say it might be unique in the U.S. for not defining what a public record actually is.
Lawmakers in New Hampshire this session debated a bill to increase the costs for obtaining public records. The legislation would have allowed public bodies to charge for time spent responding to requests under the state’s Right to Know law.
Advocates say it would have provided a modest way to compensate public agencies that must have employees spend time fulfilling requests for documents. The bill’s opponents said it would have made it harder to access public information.
Under existing law, public bodies can charge for the cost of making copies. The bill would have kept the first hour free of charge and capped the hourly charge at the minimum wage rate.
It was tabled in mid-March by the House, but could be revived next session.
More than a decade after lawmakers passed what they promised would be stronger open records policies, New Jersey residents and journalists complain about a lack of transparency from Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, slow responses from state agencies and an even longer and more drawn out appeals process.
The state’s Open Public Records Act is supposed to make any document not covered by a list of 24 exemptions easily accessible by anyone who requests it. But those who have faced long delays or been forced to go to court say it’s not that simple.
Ed Barocas, legal counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey, says state agencies seem to take a default position of releasing as little information as possible.
Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg says that she is working on updates to the open records law that she hopes to introduce this month. She says lawmakers are considering dedicating money to set up a website for municipalities to set up online depositories for public records.
Putting information online should save considerable time and energy for both government agencies and the public, she says.
Access to public records in New Mexico varies by county and town, and few records are available online.
Court documents, police reports and other records can be obtained only in person in many New Mexico counties. Officials charge by the page and sometimes will only mail them.
Some police agencies and county courts will email documents when requested, but it largely depends on the department or official tasked with giving out information.
Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation of Open Government, says the inconsistency makes it hard for reporters to do their jobs but also hampers efforts at transparency.
Authorities overseeing New York’s Freedom of Information Law say the public deserves “and urgently needs” more and clearer information about what the police are doing.
In a new report, they are calling on the governor and Legislature this year to remove secrecy that surrounds some activities in police departments across the state.
The Committee on Open Government said the law currently provides the public with far less access to information about the police than virtually any other public agency, even though officers interact with the public daily “in a more visceral and tangible way than any other public employees.”
As a candidate, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory repeatedly preached transparency. But now that he is in office, those seeking access to public records are often met with months-long delays and demands for payment.
McCrory’s staff has interpreted a one-sentence clause in North Carolina’s public records law as providing broad authority to assess a “special service charge” on any records requests they say take too much staff time to process. Invoices totaling hundreds of dollars have also been assessed for requests for digital copies of emails that have routinely been produced by past administrations without charge.
The fees appear to run contrary to the primary principle expressed in North Carolina’s public records law, which says government documents “are the property of the people” and that copies should be provided “as promptly as possible” at “free or at minimal cost.”
Agencies can charge under the law for expenses related to the actual cost of duplication, such as the cost of sheets of paper or a CD. Lawyers representing some of the state’s largest newspapers and broadcasters have advised their clients that the demands for payment for staff processing time are “unjustified, improper and in violation of the law.”
But even when media organizations agree to pay the fees under protest, there is no guarantee they will get the records in a timely manner. AP has unresolved public records requests with the McCrory administration going back to September 2013.
North Dakota is said to have some of the most transparent open meetings and records laws in the country, but some legislators believe the rules need more teeth.
A bill proposed in the state House of Representatives would have imposed a $500 civil penalty on a member of a state governing body who violated the laws more than once. It was prompted by numerous open meetings violations by the state Board of Higher Education.
The proposal was rejected by the House, but supporters believe the timing was wrong. They say they will continue to push for consequences for those who violate the law.
Questions are being raised about access to public records in Ohio when private companies or proprietary software is used to manage the records.
Last year, the state attorney general determined that a county recorder did not have the authority to charge a monthly subscription fee to individuals to view records maintained online by a private company.
But in 2013, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a southern Ohio county’s determination that providing map records to a real estate appraiser carried a $2,000 price tag because proprietary software was needed to produce them.
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, says public access to information should be negotiated whenever government entities negotiate contracts with private vendors.
Oklahoma’s Open Records law requires prompt and reasonable compliance with requests from the public, but the act does not define exactly what “prompt and reasonable” means.
While some state agencies comply with requests within hours, others have taken months to respond.
Records requests submitted to the governor’s office and several state agencies over last April’s botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate have yet to be filled.
Gov. Mary Fallin’s spokesman, Alex Weintz, says the office takes the law seriously, but also says some requests require tens of thousands of documents to be read to make sure sensitive and protected material isn’t released.
Mark Thomas of the Oklahoma Press Association says agencies should be prompt, but those requesting the records should be patient, especially for labor-intensive requests.
News organizations in Oregon report that government bodies increasingly charge high fees for access to public records, despite requests to waive them in the public interest.
Oregon’s public records law gives public bodies the power to recoup their costs for pulling together, copying and redacting public records of confidential information. If the public body wants to hire a lawyer to review the redactions, the costs quickly rise.
After a three-year court battle for access to concealed weapons permits, The Mail Tribune newspaper in Medford faced a demand for $18,000 from the local sheriff. By then, a teacher had lost her lawsuit seeking permission to bring her gun to class, so the newspaper dropped its request.
The Oregonian newspaper in Portland asked the Oregon Department of Energy for databases on business energy tax credits and loans granted to solar energy projects from 2003 to 2013. The department responded that would cost $9,830 for staff time and legal review. The newspaper scaled back its request to a database costing about $500.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said she is organizing a task force to propose updates to the public records laws, because she is concerned: “it often takes too long and costs too much to obtain records that shine light on the workings of government,” she said.
Pennsylvania’s open records law has been hailed as a success since a major update six years ago, but some argue it’s time to modify it again. At least seven proposals to amend the Right-to-Know Law are pending in the Legislature.
Pennsylvania had ranked among the worst states when it came to giving people access to government records and information before the changes.
But that was before the legislative overhaul that took full effect in 2009, establishing an open records office and creating a presumption that most government documents are public.
Now the experience of the past six years, and particularly a large and growing body of court rulings, are generating concerns that there are growing limits on what the public can obtain.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has distinguished himself from his predecessors by cracking down on violations of the state’s open government laws, filing more public records lawsuits than previous attorney generals.
But ACLU Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown says there is more to be done, citing an audit last year by a nonprofit group that identified more than 50 potential violations of the state’s Access to Public Records Act. The group filed 14 complaints with Kilmartin’s office in December.
Brown says some agencies have violated the laws multiple times but have received warnings rather than being prosecuted.
Kilmartin says his office has a “strong track record” of upholding the laws, noting that his office spearheaded the changes to the open records law in 2012.
Advocates for open government say South Carolina’s public records law is being eroded by court decisions, loopholes and government attempts to ignore it.
Again this year, some are trying to strengthen the law and respond to state Supreme Court decisions that appeared to eliminate requirements for county councils and other boards to post agendas of their plans before meetings and for coroners to release autopsy reports.
The session started with lawmakers calling for changes. Two months after lawmakers returned to Columbia, the bills have made some progress, but are currently stuck in committees.
South Carolina Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers says legislators won’t be interested in passing them unless the public demands it.
The fees that individuals must pay in an effort to obtain government records in South Dakota vary widely across the state. People requesting records sometimes are asked to bear the costs of research time for government attorneys who determine whether a record is public under state law.
David Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, says individuals have been asked to pay up to $75 an hour for the research time. He says it is reasonable to expect people to pay for the cost of printing or making digital copies of records, but not for staff time.
A citizen-versus-city battle is being waged in Chattanooga by a proponent of open government who is challenging the process of granting financial incentives to private companies seeking to build or expand operations in the city.
Helen Burns Sharp says she has spent about $100,000 of her own money in fighting the approval of tax increment financing of $9 million — plus interest — for developers who want to build a road in a golf course subdivision.
She sued the City Council, the County Commission and Chattanooga’s Industrial Development Board, claiming they approved the deal without holding public hearings.
A judge nullified the deal in 2014, but Sharp filed another lawsuit after the development board re-approved the deal without a vote from the council or commission.
The Legislature is considering giving state agencies and other governmental entities the option of ignoring out-of-state open records requests.
The bill is sponsored by first-term Republican Rep. Mike Schofield, a former legal adviser to former Gov. Rick Perry. It’s too early to tell if the bill will pass.
If it does, Texas would join seven other states that have imposed limits on non-resident open-records requests. The restrictions have held up in court.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in a case involving a Virginia law that states do not violate the Constitution when their public records laws bar non-residents from obtaining government records.
Such prohibitions affect out-of-state media outlets seeking information about potential candidates for higher office, such as president or Congress.
Four years ago, Utah lawmakers encountered a backlash when they passed a law that shielded legislator’s voicemails, text messages and instant messages.
They bowed to the intense public outcry and took the unusual step of repealing the law. Since then, legislators in the conservative state have been taking steps to demonstrate to residents they want to make public records more transparent and open.
A state government records ombudsman was created in 2012. A new state open records portal launched this year provides one-stop shopping for records from the state’s executive committee. This year, a lawmaker has proposed a bill that would allow a state records committee that hear appeals to grant fee waivers during the review process.
But residents and reporters still run into problems with some agencies that try to overcharge.
A special legislative committee spent four years combing through Vermont’s law books trying to find and catalog the more than 250 exemptions to the state’s Public Records Act scattered throughout the statutes.
During that research, lawmakers made a startling discovery.
An untold number of public records exemptions — reasons government agencies can use to deny access to documents — had never gone before the government operations committees in the House and Senate that normally review them.
Instead, they had been included in rules issued by executive branch agencies.
A bill recently sent to Gov. Peter Shumlin would send word to the government operations committees when such exemptions are sought as part of executive-branch rules.
Virginia law allows reasonable charges not to exceed the actual cost of accessing, duplicating, supplying or searching for requested public records. However, agencies cannot charge extraneous fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records.
Sometimes, there is no cost to obtain public records. Other requests might be met with a request for thousands of dollars.
To get electronic copies of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s daily calendar for nearly 10 months, officials told the AP earlier this year that it would need to pay about $500 upfront. That’s because McAuliffe’s counsel said staff would have had to search, review and possibly redact certain calendar entries.
In another instance, the University of Virginia Medical Center requested nearly $860 upfront for about 1,700 documents in response to a request from the AP for emails discussing possible Medicaid expansion.
An advisory council is in the middle of a three-year study of Virginia’s freedom of information laws, in the hope of making them less restrictive.
The Seattle Police Department has launched a YouTube channel to distribute video collected by officers’ body cameras.
The department says the idea for the channel sprung from a “hackathon” Seattle police held with computer experts in December. The goal was to reduce the amount of time it takes to release videos to the public by addressing redaction and privacy requirements.
Videos released through the department’s new YouTube channel are intentionally blurred to protect privacy and without audio. People can request more clear versions of the video through public records requests.
Seattle police have said they hope greater distribution of video of their work will help restore public trust in a department that is under federal oversight following a Justice Department report that found officers routinely used excessive force.
Two threats to government transparency loom large in West Virginia: One deals with a recent court decision allowing agencies to charge hourly fees for locating documents; and the other deals with bills introduced in the Legislature with built-in exemptions from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Last April, the Supreme Court ruled that government agencies can charge an hourly fee for locating documents under the act.
Among the bills this Legislative session with built-in exemptions are those addressing regulation of above-ground chemical storage tanks and concealed handgun carry permits.
Freedom of information advocates in Wisconsin say the state’s law leaves too much room for slow response times for those filling requests.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, says some requesters wait months for documents. The state statute says those receiving requests are to fill them as soon as practicable, but that term leaves room for interpretation, Lueders says.
During his campaign, state Attorney General Brad Schimel said he would work to protect freedom of information. Schimel did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls asking whether he would amend the statute.
Lueders says unless Schimel provides guidance to those filling requests about the maximum wait time permissible or a court rules in favor of someone seeking documents, a more definite standard is unlikely.
Wyoming has a legal provision that keeps the public in the dark about sexual assault charges. State lawmakers are concerned about protecting the reputations of suspects arrested in such cases and have resisted pressure from prosecutors to change the law.
In Wyoming, a person’s name is made public after they are arrested on any charge but sexual assault. The identity of sexual assault defendants remains secret until a circuit court judge decides there is enough evidence to proceed to trial in district court.
Efforts in the Legislature to change the law have failed.