Sometimes It Takes a Village to Raise the Issue of Government Transparency
It’s no secret that President Obama makes the Nixon Administration look good when it comes to White House hostility to openness in government. There’s little reason to expect “hope and change” any time soon, despite a campaign to #FixFOIAby50 to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) coming up on July 4.
Yet the same back-and-forth occurs under our state FOIA, the Minnesota Data Practices Act. No better example than a remarkable case I just wrote about here involving dozens of Open Meeting Law violations by city council members in Victoria that were exposed by a determined group of citizen watchdogs. You could say it took a village to raise the issue of government transparency.
The Society of Professional Journalists has chastised the administration for empowering federal agencies to routinely stonewall the press and public’s access to government information across the board.
“President Obama pledged to lead the most transparent administration in history, but we have yet to see this promise fulfilled,” David Cuillier, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee said in a news release. “His term may be coming to a close, but it’s not too late to make some real changes in the way officials work with journalists to improve the accuracy and speed in which important information is relayed to the public.”
SPJ sent a blistering 2015 letter to President Obama that was signed by more than 50 media organizations.
“The public has a right to be alarmed by these constraints – essentially forms of censorship – that have surged at all levels of government in the past few decades. Surveys of journalists and public information officers (PIOs) demonstrate that the restraints have become pervasive across the country; that some PIOs admit to blocking certain reporters when they don’t like what is written; and that most Washington reporters say the public is not getting the information it needs because of constraints. “
Most state and local information requests never go to court, according to the state agency in charge of monitoring the system.
“In general, IPAD (Information Policy Analysis Division) is aware of very few Open Meeting Law district court cases because proving violations with documentation is challenging and they are expensive to litigate,” IPAD Director Stacie Christensen said in an email.
But the two-year old government transparency case pursued by residents of the Twin Cities suburb of Victoria sets a new bar for citizens and cities alike.
The record-setting litigation has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Four city council members, including Victoria Mayor Tom O’Connor, have been found liable and fined for intentionally violating the OML.
But in order for the results to become more than Victoria’s secret and be applicable statewide, residents need to keep going and take their case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
“Unless the case is appealed, the importance of this case is very specific to the parties. Given that district court cases are not precedential on any other court, the judge’s findings and order only apply in this situation,” Christensen said.
City officials have said the issue remains a “cloud over the city” and want to put it behind them. But stamp this “case NOT closed”.