Chariho School Parents’ Forum

March 28, 2007

Sunshine Week

Filed under: Uncategorized — Editor @ 12:45 pm

Today I was approached by a resident of Chariho asking for some information.  Information that I have not able to get myself. 

When I got home, I saw a comment posted here also asking how citizens can get information.   Coincedentaly, March 11-17 was Sunshine Week, an initiated by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Here is a March 11th article addressing some of these issues.

What you have a right to know and how you can get it

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Associated Press

Here is a guide to understanding the so-called sunshine laws that deal with open government, how you can use them and what to do if you hit obstacles.

The first thing to remember is that you have a right to know.

Government documents — budgets, environmental studies, contracts — are yours to see. The same goes for meetings of elected bodies. If your town board or city council is meeting, you are allowed to sit and listen.

There are exemptions — times when documents or meetings can be closed — such as when it comes to security issues or private employee matters. But for the most part, open government laws guarantee that you’re entitled to know what your government is doing.

Let’s say now that you want a specific piece of information — a town budget or a list of city council members’ salaries, for instance.

The simplest way to get it is to ask for it, which often involves going to the relevant government office and verbally making your request.

If the officials you’re dealing with turn you down, you can politely remind them of your state’s sunshine law and cite its statute number. Sometimes that’s enough to make them more cooperative.

Let’s say officials still say no. Then you can make a formal, written request for what you want: Cite the law, what information you seek and, if your state has a time-limit to answer you, remind your officials that they only have so many days to respond in writing. Make sure to keep copies of or notes on every request you make.

Now if officials still say no, they must give a reason. If you don’t believe those reasons fit the exemptions in the sunshine law, you’ve still got options. But what path you choose depends on the state where you live.

Some states rely, at least in part, on the attorney general’s office to investigate.

Does all this sound intimidating? Don’t worry, there’s help available.

Many states have nongovernmental resources that can help you in composing a request for information. A list of such groups can be found at the Society of Professional Journalists at http://www.spj.org/foicenters.asp.

For details on your state laws, there are other Web sites that are helpful. They include:

• The Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia at http://foi.missouri.edu/citelist.html

• The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press at http://www.rcfp.org/ogg/index.php

• The Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at http://www.citizenaccess.org/.

For requests of the federal government, a good resource is the National Security Archive at http://www2.gwu.edu/7/8nsarchiv/nsa/foia.html.

One warning: Fighting for your rights can be costly. Government agencies, whether federal, state or local, may ask you to pay fees to cover the costs of retrieving or copying records. In states where you are left to pursue the case on your own, legal fees can be quite high. Some states allow for the recovery of legal fees if you win, but legal obstacles and precedent often make that difficult.

–> 

Rhode Island resources

Browse helpful sites with information about open government issues.

Read Rhode Island’s Access to Public Access to Public Records Act

Read Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act, including how to file a grievance against a public body.

The Attorney General’s Guide to Open Government is a practical, how-to guide for citizens and public bodies that includes the judicial decisions, statutes and attorney general findings and advisory opinions relating to the Open Meetings Act and Access to Public Records Act.

The attorney general’s open government/access to public records search allows searches of all attorney general advisories and opinions related to these issues.

The eTown Crier, maintained by the Secretary of State’s Office, is the place where all public bodies in Rhode Island post meeting notices, agendas and minutes.

The Freedom of Information Act Resource Center, run by the U.S. Department of Justice, includes a comprehensive overview of the open-records law that governs federal agencies.

*******************************************

There is a case in NJ going on right now regarding this law.

Open Government: Ideal vs. Real

Here’s the ideal: Public officials who understand that they work for the public — that taxpayers pay the bills and essentially “own” the business. And that those taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent and how their business is being conducted.

That’s the essence of Sunshine Week, a national initiative about the importance of open government, which begins today. And here’s the reality: A six-month-long dispute between The Press of Atlantic City and the Pleasantville Board of Education.

The dispute culminated last week in the board finally handing over transcripts of closed-door meetings concerning the employment of district superintendents — an issue important to both Pleasantville parents and taxpayers statewide. Those Pleasantville school officials were so determined to hide their discussions from the public that Superior Court Judge Steven Perskie had to hold them in contempt of court before they complied.

Even so, the taped record of three of those meetings is mysteriously blank. It shouldn’t be like this. The public shouldn’t have to hire lawyers to drag its own officials into court to get an accounting of public business.

If an individual taxpayer or parent was trying to get this information, rather than The Press, the board undoubtedly would have been able to keep it secret: After all, how many taxpayers are able or willing to conduct a six-month legal battle like this?

Parents in Pleasantville should be particularly angry at the board’s unwillingness to release discussions concerning its superintendents. The district has gone through 10 superintendents since 1999, and test scores are among the worst in the state. Parents need to know what’s going on.  

But all state taxpayers should be outraged as well. As an Abbott district, Pleasantville gets a whopping $65 million in state aid. New Jersey taxpayers have a big interest in making sure decisions in the district are sound and money isn’t being wasted.

The board’s history of dismal audits and its revolving door of superintendents isn’t reassuring. In fact, Pleasantville’s $125,000 buyout of former superintendent Andrew Carrigan was one of the examples cited last year in a State Commission of Investigation report detailing exorbitant spending on school superintendents.

Open government is at the foundation of our democracy and the concept of an informed electorate. In another court decision last week affirming the right of the public to videotape public meetings, the state Supreme Court quoted Patrick Henry, who said “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”

And James Madison: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

Wise words to remember during Sunshine Week — and to remind us, as well, that the concept of open government isn’t new. And neither is the determination of some public officials to resist that concept.  

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1 Comment »

  1. […] As I have written before, just because something is done in Exec Session that doesn’t mean that the public can’t know what happened.  After all, we are doing the peoples business you know.  Once an issue is resolved, and at least 30 days after the meeting, the information becomes public.  […]

    Pingback by "Sunshine is the best disinfectant" - Justice Lewis Brandeis « Chariho School Parents’ Forum — April 12, 2007 @ 10:08 pm | Reply


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