Those who dabble in public records know there’s no such thing as a “painless” records request – only varying degrees of “relatively less painful.” Even the most straightforward process is still a process, one which involves tracking down the right contact, formulating the wording just so, and waiting to hear back a (potentially inconclusive) response. There’s a reason why we at MuckRock require users to commit to a minimum of at least five requests – it’s not uncommon for somebody’s first FOIA experience to be so frustrating that it ends up being their last.
It goes without saying that the process could be much improved. What isn’t being said, but should be, especially in Massachusetts, is that there are people devoted to making those improvements and places where those improvements have been made. There have been great gains in transparency as of late – they just haven’t been happening here.
Last week, we talked about SFIs, and how a majority of states (excluding our own) provide the information via an easily accessible online database, available to anybody with internet access and an inclination. Rather than having to “prove” public interest prior to release, the right to access is made paramount from the start, and these documents are created, processed, and archived with disclosure ever as an end goal. Public records should be public – what a novel idea.
Now, imagine applying the same line of reasoning to the records generated by an entire city – budgets, meeting minutes, property records, all published online. No back and forth correspondence with clerks, no potentially exorbitant processing fees, no stamps, just documents that it is not unreasonable to assume a concerned citizen might be interested in. And so long as we’re shooting for the moon, why not put everything on one centralized website devoted to local government transparency and accountability?
To the jaded FOIA warrior, the whole concept sounds comically naïve – except for the simple fact that the city of Jacksonville, Florida did exactly that. Since 2012, their Public Accountability Office has maintained a comprehensive and constantly updated online resource of records, earning them an award for “Most Transparent City Website” in the state by the independent First Amendment Foundation. All it took was one costly public disclosure lawsuit for the city to realize that it needed to make access a priority, and that the best way to prove to the public that you have nothing to hide is to not hide anything.
While this sounds incredibly straightforward to implement, and an ultimate win-win for both custodians and requesters, anybody who’s dealt with a Somerville or a Lowell would tell you that this is not something we’re going to see our local government adopt any time soon. For one thing, Massachusetts isn’t Florida. Florida’s public records laws are some of the most stringent in the country, with non-compliant agencies looking at thousands of dollars in fines – here, the maximum penalty for a neglectful agency is twenty dollars a month. If we’re going to see things change, our public records laws are going to require a badly-needed overhaul.
Secondly – and this is where it becomes a matter of personal responsibility – it is our general attitude of acceptance to opacity that allows these gross misinterpretations of the law to continue. Like the SFI issue, there’s no reason for us to accept the arbitrary terms and conditions we’re offered for access to information that is legally ours to have – and yet we accept them still, either through institutionalized compliance, or simply not knowing that things can be different. Things can be different, and they are different elsewhere – all it takes for that push to make access a priority is for us to make it so, and demand the same of our elected officials. The question shouldn’t be “why are we looking at Jacksonville,” but rather, “why didn’t Jacksonville look to us?”
J. Patrick Brown is the Editor of Muckrock.com, an organization which facilitates public record requests and serves as an independent news source covering government transparency issues nationwide.