Congressional hearing focuses on new FOIA ombudsman

Hannah Bergman | Freedom of Information | Analysis | September 17, 2008

Open-government advocates renewed their calls Wednesday for quick implementation of the latest Freedom of Information reforms, including the establishment of an ombudsman office.

Congress has appropriated $1 million for the Office of Government Information Services but the money will not be available until the next fiscal year. The reforms were slowed by Bush  administration efforts to move the new office from the National Archives, where Congress placed it in legislation last year, to the Justice Department. 

As a result, the National Archives has yet to get the office up and running.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., chair of the Information Policy, Census, and National Archives subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, called the hearing to get recommendations on OGIS operations. 

Archivist  Allen Weinstein told the committee the budget issues were not resolved, but said, “My pledge, if called upon, I will set up the Office of Government Information Services as a fair and independent voice.”

Others, however, said the Archives needs to begin making plans for OGIS immediately so it will be able to start its work as soon as possible. Witnesses also emphasized the need for the office to remain at the National Archives because of its ability to be an independent mediator in FOIA disputes.

Several panelists offered specific recommendations, including Terry Mutchler, who worked as a state open records ombudsman in Illinois and is now establishing a new Pennsylvania ombudsman office.

Mutchler pointed to a dispute she mediated in Illinois that forced the Chicago public schools to release a list of felons on staff -- including some who had been convicted of sexual assault charges.

“Time and time again, we’re not talking about esoteric documents,” Mutchler said.  “What happens with the Freedom of Information Act is delay, denial and dodging.”

Mutchler said the new federal ombudsman office must have an independent director who is committed to open government, to a mission focused on open government, and who can establish a structure and process for dealing with disputes.

Other recommendations from panelists included establishing a council of FOIA officers to communicate regularly with the new ombudsman office, using the office to track compliance with FOIA, and hiring a director to head the office with experience mediating disputes at the federal level.

Other testimony came from  Patrice McDermott of openthegovernment.org and Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative. Blum and Mutchler both stressed that the placement of the OGIS should remain independent of the Justice Department regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats control the Whilte House.

"This is a bipartisan issue," Blum said. "It needs to be a completely independent office."