Laws on Open Government Often Fall Short

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 11, 2007; 5:51 AM

-- Though laws in every state say government records and meetings must be open to all, reality often falls far short: Laws are sporadically enforced, penalties for failure to comply are mild and violators almost always walk away with nothing more than a reprimand, an Associated Press survey of all 50 states has found.

Even in the handful of states that monitor such cases, when citizens appeal over lack of access to information, the government usually wins _ and keeps public business secret.

Why does it matter?

Advocates for open government say public trust is at the heart of our democracy, that scrutiny keeps public officials honest, and that information is the foundation of informed debate.

"We're in an era, clearly, where there's a lot of distrust in government," said Bill Chamberlin of the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida. "The more the public officials are open in their conversation and show the documentation that they're basing decisions on, it's going to help the public have faith in what officials are doing."

The AP's survey _ conducted to coincide with Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort to draw attention to the public's right to know _ gathered material from each state on its open government laws and penalties. Additionally, for the years 2004 to 2006, it sought more detail on open government complaints in states with the best record-keeping. The AP found that fewer than 10 states effectively track what happens in such cases.

Looking more closely at those monitoring efforts, a snapshot emerges: Oversight agencies and attorneys general are more likely to rule in favor of government offices that keep documents secret and doors closed. And when they rule that the law was broken? The overwhelming majority of decisions bring a "don't do it again" warning.

In Fort Smith, Ark., a resident fought to learn what city officials were doing when they secretly decided to buy a vacant downtown building. David Harris proved in court that the officials broke the law, but the state Supreme Court last year declined to levy the only punishment possible _ the $10,000 in legal fees it cost Harris to make his case.

And in southern Connecticut two years ago, the water authority that oversees a small lake stonewalled a former member who sought financial audits, then went behind closed doors to settle policy on winterizing boats. After the former member complained, the state oversight commission ruled that the authority violated the law, but rejected a request for a civil penalty and instead told officials to make the documents available and be public about their business.

"There is largely a culture in state and local government that violating public meetings and open records laws is not the same as committing a crime," Chamberlin said. "It's largely treated as a nuisance rather than a law."

Those charged with enforcement of open government laws strongly disagree.

They take the law very seriously, they say, but contend a reprimand is usually punishment enough for a local council member or village mayor who is guilty only of misunderstanding the law.

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© 2007 The Associated Press