Secrecy versus sunshine: Efforts to hide government records never stop

It’s spring, and in America’s state capitals legislatures are winding up their business and, too often, bringing out the padlocks.

All 50 states give the public the right to see government records and documents, but many state legislatures are weighing changes in their open-records laws.

These changes rarely end up making our government more transparent. Instead, lawmakers often try to conceal public records from the people who own them – that is, you and me.

Public records laws exist to allow us to see into the decision-making of our government. When bureaucrats make efforts to obscure our view into their actions, it serves only to undermine government officials’ accountability.

It also diminishes the public’s understanding of, and faith in, democracy.

Making what’s public a secret

In Massachusetts, lawmakers are making it harder for the public to see elected officials’ financial disclosure statements.

In California, the legislature has been considering the shuttering of records that could reveal misconduct or conflicts of interest in publicly funded research.

Last year, Washington state lawmakers rushed through a bill that allowed them to hide lawmakers’ calendars and email exchanges with lobbyists. Only after public outrage erupted over the move did the governor veto the measure.

Most efforts to hide public records aren’t as brazen.

Here in Oregon, our once-robust disclosure law, passed in 1973, is now pockmarked with more than 500 exemptions, many chiseled by bureaucrats wishing to avoid scrutiny or lobbyists seeking to protect their clients.

Oregon officials can conceal investigative evidence of wrongdoing by medical professionals – not just doctors but also dentists, veterinarians and undertakers. Basic information about birth, marriage and deaths is locked away. The pest-extermination industry won a special exemption to keep secret information about bedbug infestations. Oregon’s once-solid disclosure has become so flimsy that it once allowed state officials to declare it was a confidential trade secret to reveal the location of lightning strikes.

The Journal Sentinel in Wisconsin offers the public a ‘database of state open records and open meetings laws, and provides information about how to get what you are looking for.’ Journal Sentinel screenshot

The right to know

The fight over public access to government documents has often involved the mundane grist of government, such as studies and budgets and memos and emails.

This tension over what’s called the “right to know” debates back to the country’s founding.

“A popular government,” as James Madison wrote to a friend, “without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.”

I spent 30-plus years as a journalist and editor, focusing on investigative reporting on the state and federal levels. I’ve filed hundreds of requests for documents and now teach journalism students to do the same. And I believe the best way to protect these laws of transparency is to put them to use – and show the public why they matter.

In 1966, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act, the first law that required all federal agencies to make documents public when asked. But in some ways, state public-access laws that were passed as post-Watergate, good-government reforms have a greater role in our everyday lives.