New York, Iowa and California last week made moves to improve the public’s
access to government records and meetings.
In New York, Gov. George Pataki on May 3 signed into law a bill
requiring the government to provide public information faster to those who make
Pataki and lawmakers said the law would end delays by local and state
government officials in releasing public information under the state Freedom of
The measure requires the government to grant or deny a written request within
20 days of its receipt. If the release of data must be delayed, the government
must identify a date that records will be provided. Failure to follow the new
rule would be considered a denial of a Freedom of Information Law request, and
that could lead to civil court action.
Previously, state and local governments could take months or years to release
documents to the public. A FOIL request filed by the Associated Press in 2000
seeking records of proven cases of cheating by teachers from the state Education
Department wasn't answered for three years. Another filed by the AP with the
State University of New York for compensation, world travel and other expenses
of the chancellor went unanswered for 10 months.
"It's often said, ‘access delayed is access denied,' " said Patricia Beck,
chairwoman of the New York Newspaper Publishers Association, which helped lead
the effort to make New York government more open. "This new law will help to
make 'access delayed' a thing of the past."
Lawmakers, however, exempted themselves from much of the law.
"The Legislature is not an issue in regards to this bill," said state Sen.
Nicholas Spano, who sponsored the legislation. "Everything we do already is
subject to freedom of information."
If problems arise with gaining access to Senate and Assembly information, he
said, a separate bill will be introduced to cover the Legislature.
RoAnn Destito, the sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, said her house had
passed a freedom of information bill that covers the Legislature.
The bill was signed on the same day public watchdog and other groups were
lobbying lawmakers for more reform in state government. Legislative leaders have
targeted lobbying, the budget process, the awarding of state contracts and
public authorities as major areas in need of reform.
In Iowa, also on May 3, Gov. Tom Vilsack signed into law a measure
toughening enforcement of the state's open-meetings law, tossing from office
public officials who are found guilty of multiple violations.
At the same time, Vilsack announced plans for a new calendar on the state's
Web site where information about public meetings and events will be posted.
"State government has a responsibility to make it as easy as possible for
Iowans to stay informed about what's going on at the state level," Vilsack said.
"We have created a one-stop shop for finding meeting information so Iowans have
an opportunity to stay involved in what state government does."
Under the current open-meetings law, a public official found guilty of
violating the open meetings law three times in a single term can be removed from
office. The measure Vilsack signed lowers that number to two.
Advocates said there are few teeth in enforcing the state's sunshine laws,
with lawsuits rare and damage awards even more rare.
Under the new online effort, state agencies post times and places of
meetings, and include links to give access to agendas and other background
Editor's note: The following item is a clarified version of an article posted earlier.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has responded to requests
from newspaper publishers and First Amendment advocates by agreeing to make
public records more widely available to those who seek them.
In an April 26 letter to the California Newspaper Publishers Association,
Schwarzenegger's legal affairs secretary, Peter Siggins, said the governor would
require state agencies to seek executive approval before using a particular
legal exemption to deny access to public records. In the past, agencies have
relied heavily on a provision in the state legal code, Section 6255, allowing
them to withhold documents if the public interest is "better served" by
nondisclosure. Some critics call it a catch-all exemption.
Siggins' letter came in response to a request from the CNPA and the
California First Amendment Coalition that he vigorously enforce the principles
of Proposition 59, the ballot initiative passed by voters last November that
established a constitutional right of access to public meetings and records.
In light of voters' overwhelming support for the measure — it passed with 83%
of the vote — the organizations urged Schwarzenegger to "send an unequivocal
message to public servants at all levels of government that Prop 59 means what
it says and that you will hold public employees accountable for its
They made several specific requests, most notably that he issue an executive
order directing state agencies to "broadly construe" state access laws and
narrowly construe exemptions to those laws.
In his reply, Siggins said the governor did not believe an executive order
was necessary but that he agreed with many of the principles the organizations
had outlined in their letter.
"Consistent with those principles," Siggins wrote, "we have directed state
agencies to give careful attention to the limits on statutory exemptions to the
(California Public Records) Act and to seek executive approval from our office
before withholding access to public records under the authority of section
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition,
praised Schwarzenegger's action.
"It's a very creative and potentially promising way to curb government's use
of an often-abused exemption under the Public Records Act," Scheer