Are citizen journalists giving the Freedom of Information Act and similar open records laws a bad rap?
You’d think so after listening to officials complain about “fishing expeditions” by citizens seeking records on everything from “smart” meters to parking meters. There’s even a bill in the Legislature seeking to curb “unduly burdensome” requests.
I’ve talked to quite a few citizen activists seeking advice over the years on how to go about getting records. And the common thread is that they felt stonewalled by the government agency after putting in an informal inquiry so they turned to a more formal and much broader request.
Granted, having to produce memos dating back to 2002 on Flagstaff’s sale of reclaimed wastewater to Snowbowl can mean a lot of time and copier ink.
But in the digital age, agencies shouldn’t have much trouble retrieving memos, emails and data simply by coding in a few key words.
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As for redacting documents to protect the privacy of citizens, most citizens are now aware that if they are communicating with a public agency or official – especially an elected one -- they are creating a public record.
Conversely, most public employees, whether they like it or not, are told at hiring that their emails and even their salaries and benefits are a matter of public record just for the asking.
Does that mean those records are fair game for journalists, citizen or otherwise? Those of us in the mainstream press who have daily contact with public officials usually don’t need to put in formal FOIA requests, much less go on fishing expeditions. Officials usually benefit by getting as complete a picture about a controversial issue into the newspaper as possible -- and besides, a reporter is likely to get it eventually anyway. The city of Flagstaff even sends to reporters and editors ( I am one) copies of the city manager’s internal memos to the council – they are likely to turn up on councilmembers’ blogs anyway and it saves time instead of filling individual records requests.
Where things get tricky is when private citizens through no fault of their own come into contact with a public agency – usually as crime victims or witnesses in a police report. Nationally, some citizens and even public officials have been caught up in National Security Agency surveillance sweeps that are only tangentially related to national security. Should those citizens and officials be identified in the interest of making police and NSA operations more transparent? And what should journalists do with that kind of information -- is the public prepared to handle secrets about their government that could undermine vital and sensitive community and national interests?
That’s a question the next Hot Topics Café will tackle under the title “You can’t handle the truth: Do citizens have a right to know everything their government does?” Catch it this Wednesday, March 4, at 6 p.m. at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Meanwhile, watch for state and regional stories about transparency in government during National Sunshine Week beginning March 15.