First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
News Story
3 states move to improve open government

By The Associated Press

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 requests.

    Pataki and lawmakers said the law would end delays by local and state government officials in releasing public information under the state Freedom of Information Law.

    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 information.

    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 enforcement."

    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 6255."

    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 said.

  • Previous
    Critics: Schwarzenegger falls short of promise of openness
    Open-government advocates say California governor has failed to usher in new era of transparency that he pledged on campaign trail. 11.16.04


    Groups sue Calif. governor in bid to obtain aides' calendars

    Lawsuit seeks records that would show who met with Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, senior adviser while he was considering fate of hundreds of bills last year. 11.23.05

    N.Y. strengthens its freedom of information law
    Gov. Pataki signs measure allowing e-mailed requests for records; still on his desk is bill to force agencies to pay attorney fees for access denials. 08.08.06

    N.Y. governor signs bill targeting FOI violators
    Law allows citizens to collect legal fees when they are wrongly denied public documents by government officials. 08.17.06

    N.Y. official questions governor's process for picking senator
    Open-government agency chief says secrecy surrounding David Paterson's selection of Hillary Clinton's successor may violate state law. 01.13.09

    Freedom of information overview

    News summary page
    View the latest news stories throughout the First Amendment Center Online.

    print this   Print

    Last system update: Saturday, January 24, 2009 | 17:18:25
    About this site
    About the First Amendment
    About the First Amendment Center
    First Amendment programs
    State of the First Amendment

    First Reports
    Supreme Court
    First Amendment publications
    First Amendment Center history
    Freedom Sings™
    First Amendment

    Congressional Research Service reports
    Guest editorials
    FOI material
    The First Amendment

    Lesson plans
    Contact us
    Privacy statement
    Related links