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State Governors redefine open government

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The National Governors Association (NGA) will be holding their 103rd annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah - July 15th through 17th. According to their website, the state leaders will be meeting to discuss education, innovation and competitiveness. Here at Sunlight, we would like to take the same opportunity to address an equally important issue - open government. A call to the NGA’s Communications office to see if I can be given access to the agenda of the meeting, revealed that it was not available for the public “because their meetings are private” -- unless if you are an attendee or a governor. So as you and I are neither, we will just have to wait and hope that the agenda will be made public AFTER the meeting.

It is ironic that this year’s venue for the NGA meeting is Utah. Not so long ago, the state’s governor, Gary Herbert, passed HB477 - a controversial law that altered treasured public access legislation, restricting access to records about the state senate, imposed punitive fees and created waiting periods for anyone requesting information. In March 2011, after learning about this bill and noting a trend of similar transparency rollbacks around the country, we decided to launch the Open Letter to Governors campaign. Although we emphasized activity in Utah , Maine, Tenneesse, Florida and Wisconsin, we framed our letter with a message to all governors, from all citizens: Transparency is not a campaign promise.

Today, we explore how these open government issues have played out in the states we highlighted earlier and what new issues have cropped up from governors’ offices in other states.

Colorado:

All call records made by Governor John Hickenlooper on his cell phone, including those concerning his office, are exempted from disclosure under the state’s public records laws. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote that this could become a disturbing trend as other public officials may start making public calls while using their private cell phones.

Florida:

Contradicting his earlier efforts to make Florida government more open and transparent, Governor Rick Scott signed an executive order that now imposes a fee for public records. This move contrasts with the former governors’ policy (who explicitly did not charge for public records), slows down the process for receiving information, and restricts how much the public gets to know.

Illinois:

A bill that would drastically change the way government responds to public records requests, is being considered by Governor Pat Quinn. Sponsored by Don Harmon, HB1716 will amend the Freedom of Information Act by authorizing charges to people requesting records for the actual cost of retrieving and transporting said records from an off-site storage facility. The bill will also affect citizen watchdogs, individuals and free lance journalists by delaying responses to their requests. It has already been approved by both the Illinois House and Senate and Governor Quinn has 60 days to review it.

Louisiana:

Louisiana Senate rejected a bill that would have opened up more of the public records from Governor Bobby Jindal’s office. In 2009, the governor created a “deliberative process” exemption to prevent the public from accessing the state’s budgetary records under the guise of maintaining his ability to get “candid advice” on financial issues. Now, the governor is using deliberative processes to bar the public from seeing information between him and his staff including his emails and phone records.

Montana:

Unfazed by the U. S. Public Interest Research Groups report that gave Montana an F for state transparency, Governor Brian Schweitzer vetoed a bill that would have created a website with information on the state’s budget and spending. The governor, who claimed that state legislators are already publishing the same information on their individual websites, added that the cost of creating new sites could not be covered by the state.

Tennessee:

Governor Bill Haslam, who has repeatedly stated how important it is to let the public know where a public official’s income is coming from, continues to not disclose how much he is earning in outside income. The governor, who threw out outside income disclosure requirements through an executive order he signed early this year, also made sure that his top aides were exempted from disclosing their outside income. The governor has also made unprecedented delays in responding to public records requests made by the Associated Press - and when he did fulfill the requests, the documents he sent did not contain the information the AP asked for.

Washington State:

Thanks to a recent superior court ruling, Governor Chris Gregoire is now above the state’s Public Records Act. The Freedom Foundation, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, filed a lawsuit against the governor after discovering that she had been using her executive privilege to shield emails, memos, and other documents to other agencies that had been legally requested. The governor won her case by arguing that is would be a violation of the separation of powers doctrine for the courts to tell the governor how to disclose public records.

Wisconsin:

He may have made a show of trying to back up his public statement with public records, but Governor Scott Walker demonstrates that he can still roll back on transparency with the best of them. Earlier this year, the governor passed a controversial bill after midnight, robbing the public the right to see what was going on. Soon after, the governor passed another bill in the dead of the night after he vowed that his first midnight passage would be his last - again stripping the public of a chance to see how their government operates.

What is happening in your state? How is your governor responding to open government issues? We encourage you to take active participation in the way you are being governed and ask for openness from your leaders. Share your stories in the comments.