Viewpoints

As officials resist transparency, public’s right to know more important than ever

What is the FOIA?

Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.
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Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.

This is National Sunshine Week, a time when we raise awareness of the public’s right to know what’s going on behind the scenes of government. This year is especially important due to sustained attacks on transparency and accountability at the local, state and national levels.

Almost every elected official from dogcatcher to president campaigns on a platform of “transparency” and guarding taxpayer dollars. It’s one thing everyone — including both Democratic and Republican candidates — usually agrees on. But when these candidates get into office, it’s almost always a different story.

Many state and local bureaucrats reflexively say “no” when they get Public Records Act requests. If they don’t deny the requests, they almost invariably delay beyond the 10-day period set by state law for disclosure. Often, they delay their responses for months.

The California State Legislature opened things up last year by passing a law, Senate Bill 1421, to open up records of police discipline in officer-involved shootings. That welcome step reversed laws which had, for decades, kept some police discipline records under wraps.

But now police officer unions have launched a blitz of attacks on the law, arguing that it doesn’t apply to records of incidents committed before January 1 of this year. Most judges thus far have rejected the unions’ arguments.

Opinion

The police unions’ attack on transparency was preceded by an attempt a decade ago to hide public employee salaries and pensions from public scrutiny. Fortunately, the California courts ruled in favor of transparency, guaranteeing that the public has a right to know how much public employees and pensioners make.

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Karl Olson

On the national level, President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the press. Unlike Democrats, he hasn’t even given lip service to the public’s right to know. His predecessor, President Obama, came into office on a platform of transforming and strengthening the Freedom of Information Act. Yet anyone who has submitted a FOIA request knows that it can take years to get a response.

Meanwhile, big business is now asking the United States Supreme Court to weaken FOIA by letting businesses hide records from the public whenever they say that information they give the government to get tax dollars is “confidential,” even if the release of the information won’t cause competitive harm.

National Sunshine Week is a good opportunity for the public to appreciate laws like the California Public Records Act and FOIA, which were written to give the public the right to know how its tax dollars are spent and to hold public officials accountable.

We can’t let our public officials get away with paying lip service to transparency while simultaneously resisting transparency. We must be more aggressive about holding them accountable for turning over records that let taxpayers see how their government operates and how their money is being spent.

Karl Olson is a San Francisco attorney who specializes in litigation under the Public Records Act and Freedom of Information Act.
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