Opinion: FOIA lawsuits a threat to our democracy, insult to our time

Friday, September 29th, 2017

by Chris Krug, president of Franklin Center and publisher of Watchdog.org

Let’s talk about time, if only for a moment so as not to waste too much of yours.

More precious than gold, more fleeting than beauty, nobody who’s living a life worth living has an excess of time. Whether it is God, family, work or community, we’re allocating our time to things that further the American way.

So I don’t flinch when I read stories about low attendance – or no attendance – at community board meetings, legislative hearings or any other kind of governmental activities that legacy media outlets rag on the public for not showing up to watch it.

We the people, well, we’ve got other things going on. We simply do not have the hours in a day to be present to watch government work (or not work). We trust that it is functioning, but verification is a must.

Most of us are busy working to come up with the money the bureaucrats in those meetings are bleeding from us, one buried fee or required registration at a time.

Most times, when a community shows up en masse at an open governmental meeting is when professional activists round up their regulars – posing as authentic grassroots – to make a point. And I couldn’t possibly care less what they have to say when it’s their time to speak in public forum because someone else scripted that puppet show.

But let’s not wander too far from a point about meetings, and tracking government activity. Suffice to say, we don’t have much additional time in our lives to monitor the daily business of elected and appointed officials – even on those rare occasions when public meetings become a theater of the absurd.

And then there’s the business that is conducted next to the mushrooms that grow in the basements of our governmental haunts, deep in the darkness and away from the light of day. While we are throwing fits over the known public issues, the real terrors lie somewhere in a filing cabinet and on a spreadsheet.

Those dark dealings are unknown to the public without the protection of state sunshine laws.

Our journalists at  Watchdog.org  have been on the receiving end of silence when making FOIA requests for years. The paperwork was misfiled. The request was too broad. The request was too specific. The request was too onerous. Baloney, all of it. Some governmental bodies will do or say anything to keep the truth at bay.

So when I see  stories  such as the one published this week by The Associated Press about governments suing people who file Freedom of Information Act requests as a means of cloaking their activity, it sends shivers down my spine.

The only thing worse than a government that hides its decisions is one that slaps down those who question them. It’s difficult enough to pry the truth from government without them beating back journalists and interested citizens with bogus lawsuits.

Seems that there has been a rash of suits filed by governmental agencies. In a little-ballyhooed  story  that the Poynter Institute wrote in 2016, the Obama administration – self declared the most transparent administration in U.S. history –established a new high-water mark for FOIA denials, disregarding requests more than 100,000 times in 2015.

In addition to that, it was reported that Obama’s team had spent more than $36 million in federal court to block FOIA requests in 2016. That this action would come from the top has signaled a permission among lower levels of government to simply sue away requests that local officials deem to be a nuisance.

President Donald Trump said that he would drain the swamp, and we’re still waiting to see what that means with regard to our access to public information.

If you work for government, or are elected to conduct its business, you enter into the public domain. Your actions are accountable to those who fund it. You are not an independent business owner or operator, and your work, actions and directives are within the public’s right to know.

Mr. Mayor, you are not the king of our town. Ms. School Superintendent, this district is not your fiefdom. Doesn’t matter if you are the governor or the borough dogcatcher, the taxpayers fund your endeavors and you are accountable to them.

Local government directly affects the lives of Americans. It is local government’s hand that guides our daily lives, and is closest to our prosperity and wellbeing.

Government simply should not be allowed to sue those who seek to understand its activity as a deterrent.

Chris Krug is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and publisher of  Watchdog.org . Contact Chris at  [email protected] .

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