Sunshine Week shines light on efforts to hold government accountable

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

A veteran reporter receives a photocopied image of a computer disc and asks: ‘What gives?’

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but this one left me speechless.

It was an image of a computer disc that arrived earlier this month in a batch of public records I’d requested from a Georgia government agency. You could tell someone working for the state had placed the image of the disc face-down onto a photocopier and made a scan of it.

In nearly three decades as a journalist, I’ve run into government officials who said records didn’t exist that I knew did, been blocked from documents that I knew were public and faced delays of months and sometimes years getting access to government records. But this response from the state was a first: A photocopy of a disc, but no actual disc. And there was scant information about what was on the disc. Really? Was I supposed to print out the image, and insert the piece of paper into my computer?

My mysterious CD image seemed like a timely metaphor as public records advocates this week recognized Sunshine Week, observed each March by First Amendment and press freedom organizations nationally to call public attention to the importance of freedom of information laws at the federal, state and local levels.

The experience of the phantom disc hit a nerve with journalists and the public who too often face what seem like ridiculous hurdles gaining access to government records to better understand what our government is doing.

When I Tweeted about the experience of the CD-that-wasn’t-a-CD, it became a minor social media sensation. My Tweet, featuring the image of the photocopied CD, garnered nearly 1,000 likes and close to 250 retweets and quote tweets.

Several people who replied shared their own frustrations about asking for, and gaining access to, government records.

Credit: Twitter

Credit: Twitter

“I’m not sure I have anything that will play that,” said one reply.

“Gonna tell my children this was what copying a CD means,” wrote another.

“If there’s a charge for the records,” my AJC colleague David Wickert advised, “mail them a photo of the check.”

Sunshine Week 2022 finds us entering a third year navigating a world changed by COVID. The wheels of government have started turning again -- governments are paying bills, collecting taxes, fixing potholes, doing things with public money.

Thankfully, I have dealt with a number of records officers at state and local government agencies who seem sincerely conscientious about making public records available. I’m grateful to them, always, and I’m glad that they’re still in those positions despite all the societal upheaval that coronavirus has rained upon us.

But the effects of the pandemic can still be felt when you ask about those Things Being Done With Public Money and learn it’ll take a month to get access to basic information because the (already-understaffed) records unit has lost half of its personnel.

That’s on top of all the other usual reasons journalists -- and others -- are routinely given for why public records can’t be released, or can’t be released quickly or without great cost.

One of those is aging and/or poorly designed computer technology that the government agency can’t afford to replace or upgrade.

That’s coupled with the increasing use of use of computer technology that only a few staffers -- or possibly no one -- inside the agency seems to know much about how to operate. (Funny how government seems to pay so much money to keep so much information stored in databases they claim no one can get information out of, except for the IT guy, who is out on extended medical leave.)

The most troublesome hurdles the public must clear in getting public information are ignorance and stonewalling.

A mission The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has sent me on the past few months is to collect data on major crimes from numerous local law enforcement agencies. It has led to several email conversations in which I’ve had to make government officials aware -- many for the first time -- that the information we’re seeking is public, and that Georgia law does not allow them an infinite series of postponements in turning over the requested information.

Many of the recipients of my missives seem sincere that they have never had those facts explained to them before.

While I’m glad that I’m helping the public get important information, I always wonder how many regular citizens wanting access to records were turned away by the government before it ran into someone who knew the law better than they did (and had the resources of a major news outlet with resources to help).

The worst-case scenario is when a government agency actively attempts to deceive the public about what information it has.

In the past few months, I know of at least one public agency that responded to an AJC records request by denying the records existed. (Spoiler alert: They did exist.) Had the newspaper not pushed and pushed, and finally had its attorneys get involved, I’m not sure those records would ever have come to light.

I circled back to the state agency about the picture-of-a-CD and some other records that seemed to be missing from what we had requested. About the CD, I asked, “What gives?”

As of Thursday, they said they were almost finished gathering all the additional records for me. They thanked me for my patience, and said the process has been slowed. Their office, after all, is still working remotely -- due to the pandemic.

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