Government transparency is in some ways the opposite of government waste: Everyone claims to support transparency, and it seldom happens by accident.
Recent bad examples abound, from Hillary Clinton’s deleted "private" State Department emails to Jeb Bush’s accidental disclosure of several individuals’ Social Security numbers in emails released from his tenure as Florida governor.
President Barack Obama boasts of leading "the most transparent administration in history," a claim clashing with the operations of his Internal Revenue Service and his State Department under Clinton, as well as his push for Obamacare and other major policies.
Citizens expect to know how their money is being spent — and how politicians reach decisions on spending it — not just in Washington, D.C., but at the state and local levels, too. Absent Clintonian stonewalling and destruction of records, the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is meant to ensure this is possible.
Government agencies are required to provide access to records maintained under retention schedules set by FOIA or state law, so long as requests are clear and not overly broad. State and federal laws also set guidelines for disputing rejection of requests agencies deem unreasonable.
When public officials destroy, deny the existence of, or refuse to provide access to records, FOIA at least provides a process that helps watchdogs expose those abuses.
Increasingly, government records that were once only accessible by submitting a FOIA request are available online. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, for example, recently published extensive state spending data at OhioCheckbook.com.
State laws based on the FOIA model vary, and local disclosure processes depend on state sunshine laws. Laws on reporting and public disclosure of lobbying also vary at the state level.
Open-government groups, including Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, make open record requests less daunting, but the easiest way to determine how a government office handles requests is to contact the agency in question.
In Ohio, Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office provides an explanation of state sunshine laws. Sunshine law training for state and local officials is open to the public, and even offered online.
In central Ohio, the Delaware County Commissioners have implemented a 26-page public records policy to comply with state law.
Under the county’s records policy, each office is to designate an individual who will be responsible for record retention and responding to public requests. Paper copies cost a nickel per page, documents copied to disc cost $1, and there is no charge if requested records can be provided by email.
"Any person, including corporations, individuals, and even governmental agencies, may request public records, and will be allowed prompt inspection of public records and copies within a reasonable amount of time upon request," the county policy dictates.
"No specific language is required to make a request for public records. The requestor must, however, identify the records requested with sufficient clarity to allow the Board and/or Delaware County to identify, retrieve, and review the records," the policy continues.
The commissioners’ office fulfilled 97 requests last year and had completed 16 requests this year as of March 13, Delaware County communications manager Teri Morgan said in an email to Watchdog.org. What did compliance with state record law cost county taxpayers?
"The county is not allowed to charge for indirect costs, so there is not a record of the cost of the time spent," Morgan explained.
Asked for comment on how people can get prompt access to county records, Morgan said, "I wish people would just ask for the document they want, rather than try to turn it into a fishing expedition."
When FOIA requests work as intended, they’re that simple — someone asks to see a document, and within days or weeks gets access to a copy — with any private information redacted — at minimal cost and minimal expense to taxpayers.
Jason Hart is Watchdog.org's Ohio-based National Labor Reporter. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jasonahart.
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