NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · UTAH & PENNSYLVANIA · Freedom of Information · May 25, 2005
First-time records audits show denials, slow response
May 25, 2005 · A recent Utah audit of governmental compliance with the state open records law showed improper request denials and slow responses, disappointing freedom of information advocates but benefitting a state legislative task force studying possible open government reforms.
A similar audit in Pennsylvania revealed regular improper refusal of requests, frequent delays and harassment of requesters.
The Utah and Pennsylvania surveys were released May 15 and May 22, respectively, and marked the first time that recent laws had been tested in each of the states.
The Utah project, organized by the state Foundation for Open Government and carried out by students from the University of Utah, audited the Government Records Access and Management Act, enacted in 1991 to improve the state’s previous open records law.
The audit was patterned after others already conducted in 26 other states. Police departments and school boards were asked statewide for crime incident reports and employment contracts, respectively. Other governmental bodies — such as mayoral offices and county commissions — were asked for expense reports.
Each government body was given a letter grade based not only on technical compliance with the law, but on the auditors’ perceptions of records officers’ attitudes. Police departments consistently received the worst ratings. Although Utah received a B on its overall performance, individual departments fell far short of that, some receiving F’s.
Attitudes are important because officials can use “outright hostility” to intimidate requesters from asking for information they are entitled to by law, citizen activist Claire Geddes told The Salt Lake Tribune .
The department-by-department breakdown is available on the Society of Professional Journalist’s Web site. Linda Peterson, chair of SPJ’s Utah chapter, said that the audit was meant to show “what citizens can expect when they walk in cold to inspect public records.”
The Salt Lake Tribune conducted a separate audit for the legislative task force to show how the open records law fails to ensure uniform government responses to the public’s records requests. The Tribune’s statewide audit asked for the same record from every government agency: a detailed report of its responses to records requesters since 1994. Although some agencies produced detailed reports for free, others charged $61 in search fees for only two years’ worth of records and still others refused to produce a written summary.
Not only will the task force consider substantive changes to the state law as a result of the audit findings, but observers hope that officials also will be reminded that state employees need more open records training. Media attorney David Reymann of Salt Lake City, for example, told The Deseret Morning News that “it would take a minimal amount of resources to instruct employees on what [the law] is,” and teach them the government’s disclosure obligations.
In Pennsylvania, reporters from more than 50 newspapers collaborated on an audit of governmental compliance with the right-to-know law, requesting common public records from government agencies statewide.
It was a disappointing “first report card” for the Pennsylvania right-to-know law, which was revamped in 2002, Robert D. Richards, founder of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Auditors — who did not initially identify themselves as journalists — frequently were subjected to harassing comments. A district judge’s refusal to release a record to “anybody who walks in off the street” exemplified one of the audit’s major findings: Records were much more readily released to requesters once they identified themselves as journalists than when they failed to divulge their occupation. One police sergeant asked to see press credentials before releasing reports containing information he incorrectly deemed too sensitive for a “common Joe” to see.
Another problem — governmental confusion over what records should be released — was inexcusable because the Pennsylvania right-to-know law requires government agencies to have records officers on staff, according to The Associated Press.