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Running on transparency

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AP Photo by Robert F. Bukaty Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Citizens…

AP Photo by Robert F. Bukaty

Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington put LePage on its list of worst governors this year. criticizing him for trying to exempt working papers, memoranda, and legislative proposals from the public records law.

In the 2010 elections, a number of challengers made increasing government transparency a major issue in their campaigns. Of those who did not run on a transparency platform, several faced immediate questions about their commitment to open government once they took office.

News Media and the Law profiled eight of the new governors (seven Republicans and one Democrat) in the spring of 2011 to see how they were doing on their transparency pledges one year into their terms. Now, with all of them running for re-election, we have checked in with the governors’ teams and open government groups in those states to see if there has been progress.

David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and director of the journalism school at the University of Arizona, said the rise of the Tea Party movement spurred calls for greater government accountability and transparency.

“That’s healthy, I think, for our government to have people who want to question it and push for transparency,” he said.

But Cuillier added that he is not surprised to have seen this group of governors have difficulty following through on their promises of a more transparent government.

“Time after time politicians say they’ll be transparent, they get elected and they renege on their promise. That’s what we see at all levels of government,” he said. “There are exceptions, but it’s really frustrating when people tout something to win favor, particularly from the media perhaps, and then go back on their words.”

With those governors now finishing their first terms and many heading into re-election campaigns, press groups in several of the states say the governors have mostly maintained the status quo in terms of transparency, with a few raising concerns about specific programs.

Maine

When Gov. Paul LePage ran in 2010, his campaign website promised “he will fight for stronger laws to protect and expand Maine citizens’ right to access information from state and local government.”

AP Photo by Oskar Garcia

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie speaks at the state Capitol in Honolulu. The Democrat did not run on a platform of promoting transparency, but he encountered questions early in his term about his commitment to open government.

But within months of the election, the Kennebec Journal reported LePage had referred to people using public records laws as “a form of internal terrorism.” Around the same time, the governor also drew criticism for refusing to release his travel records.

Three years later, LePage has improved government transparency in Maine, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which evaluates state transparency websites. The group praised LePage in particular for launching the Maine Open Checkbook site, a move that followed through on a campaign promise the governor made to create an online tool for explaining how the state uses taxpayer money.

The site allows members of the public to search for details about state spending, state employee compensation and payments to vendors. Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said the governor’s office is planning to expand the site in the next few months to include revenue data, graphs and budget reports.

LePage has also pushed for more transparency in financial disclosures from public officials, Bennett said. A law LePage signed earlier this year aimed to close a loophole whereby the state hired groups headed by state political leaders or their spouses, but did not have to disclose who was getting the money.

“It is reasonable to ask our elected leaders to disclose who is paying them. It is good for the health of our democracy and the people of Maine,” LePage said when he signed the bill in April. “This will increase trust in the system and ensure that people have the opportunity to take appropriate action and make decisions accordingly.”

But Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington put LePage on its list of worst governors this year, criticizing him for trying to exempt working papers, memoranda, and legislative proposals from the public records law. The legislature refused to pass the law.

LePage officially launched his re-election campaign Nov. 5.

Wisconsin

As a candidate for governor, Scott Walker said he “absolutely” would pledge to run the most transparent gubernatorial administration ever in Wisconsin.

The former chief executive of Milwaukee County told The Lakeland Times during the campaign that he wasn’t just going to talk about transparency. “I don’t just say that, I’ve lived it,” Walker said, pointing to the fact that his administration posted all government purchases online.

Press groups were initially skeptical when early in his term, they had to sue to get copies of e-mail messages Walker cited in speeches. The governor’s office claimed the messages would cost $30,000 to produce, and the Isthmus newspaper along with the Wisconsin Associated Press, sued Walker for violating the public records law.

Since then, media reports continue to complain of closed government meetings and delaying the launch of a promised transparency website that would have required lobbyists to make public any attempts to influence state agencies.

“Past the halfway mark in his term, the lobbying disclosure requirements are unchanged,” Dave Umhoefer wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April. “Neither Walker nor the Republican-controlled Legislature has acted on broadening the disclosure requirements.”

The governor’s office could not be reached for comment. Walker is running for re-election this year.

Ohio

Although Gov. John Kasich did not run on a transparency platform in 2010, the issue of access to government records surfaced early in his term.

At the start of his term, Kasich declined to release the resumes of people applying for political appointee jobs, angering transparency advocates by using a private web portal to accept applications.

Kasich’s term has also been affected by an ongoing fight with Democrats and open government advocates over JobsOhio, a private non-profit organization meant to improve the state’s economy and unemployment rate.

The fight over how public to make JobsOhio has led to at least one lawsuit in Ohio, as well as a negative report from a research center that investigates public-private deals. Good Jobs First said in its October report that JobsOhio was an example of a “particularly problematic” public-private partnership. In response to the report, the Kasich administration told City Beat in Cincinnati that, “We don’t pay much attention to politically-motivated opponents.”

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said there is no question about JobsOhio and whether it should be subject to the state’s public records law.

“There’s no debate. It’s just a private non-profit entity,” Nichols said. “The question of whether it’s public or private is not a question.”

Dennis Hetzel, president of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said he would give the governor a grade of “incomplete” on the question of transparency.

“He’s been subject to a lot of criticism on the subject of transparency, particularly in regards to JobsOhio, and we’ve been among those critics [but] I really don’t think it’s been as extreme as some of his harshest critics portray it,” Hetzel said, adding that Kasich has been open to working with transparency groups on other questions. “They’ve been willing to talk with us and work with us on some other sunshine issues that maybe haven’t been quite as visible as those.”

Kasich is now running for re-election.

Tennessee

Unlike his fellow Republican candidates in 2010, Bill Haslam made clear from the start that he opposed certain transparency movements, particularly efforts to make executive branch officials disclose their personal income records.

Although Haslam said voters knew where he stood on disclosure before they elected him, in a statement he released in January 2011, Haslam also said, “My Cabinet and I are dedicated to openness, transparency and ethical governing.”

But other than clashing with open government groups over the income reports, Haslam has not done much to affect transparency in Tennessee, according to Frank Gibson, the public policy director at the Tennessee Press Association.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Gibson said. “I don’t think that things have gotten any better since Gov. Haslam took office, but on the other hand, I don’t see that they have gotten worse because of anything he’s done.”

Haslam’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The governor is running for re-election in 2014.

South Carolina

Like Haslam, Nikki Haley faced questions about her commitment to open government before even being elected governor of South Carolina. During her campaign, Haley drew criticism for releasing only laudatory e-mail messages from constituents, rather than all e-mail messages she received.

The fight over Haley’s email continued once she was elected. In November 2011, Haley’s administration drew criticism for deleting messages sent between the governor and her staff. She was also criticized late in 2011 for closing most meetings she held with cabinet officers.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, said there has been no improvement in Haley’s release of e-mail messages since then. But, he said, Haley did lobby for reform of the state’s freedom of information laws to cut the costs to requesters and reduce wait-time for responses. Those reforms have not yet passed in the legislature.

Overall, Rogers gave a tepid review of Haley’s transparency efforts.

“I would think things have pretty much stayed the same,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve seen any improvement.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Haley announced in August that she is running for re-election.

Florida

Rick Scott told voters in 2010 when he was running for governor that “without transparency, there is no accountability.”

Once he was elected governor, though, Scott faced criticism for allegedly cutting off access to his administration and limiting who could attend press conferences.

The problems continued for Scott in 2012 when he promised to post online all the e-mail messages from his executive staff’s accounts. Although the “Project Sunburst” site did go live in May 2012, by July various outlets were reporting that Scott and his staff were using separate email accounts for the messages that were filtered into Project Sunburst. In May 2013, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Scott was still not meeting the deadlines he had set for posting messages to the site.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said she finds many of the sites Scott has promoted to be “worthless” because they either don’t contain all the information promised, as in the case of his e-mail messages, or they do not list all of the information necessary for users to understand the context of the information posted.

Petersen is a member of a newly-formed taskforce to make recommendations about how to build a comprehensive transparency site for Florida. She said that while the governor has not been advocating for more openness, other members of the government have been.

“There is a big movement toward increased and better transparency, but it’s not coming from the governor specifically,” she said, adding that the state’s chief financial officer and Senate have been making the push. “One of the issues I keep trying to reinforce for people is the difference between access and transparency . . . Access is what we can demand government give us. Transparency is what they decide to give us.”

In better news for transparency advocates, also in May of this year, Scott signed a law to increase transparency in a public-private jobs incentives program.

The governor’s office could not be reached for comment. Scott is running for re-election now.

Utah

Gov. Gary Herbert, who took office in 2009 when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman resigned, made headlines in March 2011 for signing a bill that exempted voicemail, instant messages, video chats and text messages from the public records law in most situations. The bill also increased the cost agencies could charge to requesters for producing records. The Society of Professional Journalists gave Utah a Black Hole Award that year for the state’s lack of transparency.

Since then, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has given the state a B+ for online access to government data in 2012, and the governor signed a law to expand what is available under open records laws in March of this year. The report identified Utah as an “advancing state.”

Linda Petersen, the president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government and national Society for Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee Chairwoman, said Herbert is more transparent than previous administrations, but that he hasn’t been “visible doing anything for transparency.”

“He does play it pretty straight, Gary Herbert does. But to say that he is a transparency advocate would be certainly going too far,” she said.

Ally Isom, Herbert’s deputy for communication, said improving transparency in Utah’s government is very important to the governor.

“The state of Utah, and particularly Gov. Herbert, have made tremendous strides in our efforts to be more transparent,” she said. “The governor is personally very committed to a policy of transparency and accountability both in budget and accounting as well as in process and outcome.”

Isom cited six years of the “Best on the Web” awards from the Center for Digital Government as evidence that Utah is “making a very strong effort to ensure government services are both accessible and transparent to the citizens of the state.”

“While there’s always room for improvement and we know there’s more to do, Utah keeps getting better in our efforts to be more transparent,” she added.

Hawaii

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, did not run on a platform of promoting transparency, but he encountered questions early in his term about his commitment to open government.

Since initially drawing criticism for withholding the names of Hawaii Supreme Court candidates and holding “press conferences” to which no reporters were invited, Abercrombie has continued to anger press groups by refusing to release for little or no cost his travel records from his time in office.

“His office just isn’t going to give up the records for little or no cost, and refuses to consider other ways to accommodate a public records request,” according to Honolulu Civil Beat, an online news service that requested the records in June.

The governor’s office told Civil Beat it would cost $1,016 for the government to produce records of Abercrombie’s travel since he took office in December 2010.

In April, U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave Hawaii an F for online transparency of government spending, ranking the state 48th with 39 possible points out of 100. Abercrombie signed a bill three months later requiring the executive branch to post more data online.

Christine Hirasa, Abercrombie’s deputy director of communications, said the governor has taken several steps in the past year to improve transparency in Hawaii.

“Open data has been a top initiative of the Abercrombie Administration,” Hirasa said. “Gov. Abercrombie recognizes that technology is ever-changing, and that the state needs to upgrade its system to better promote government accountability and transparency.”

Among Abercrombie’s efforts, Hirasa said, was the launch of a statewide open data site in August 2012, the new electronic data law from July of this year, and a project set to launch later this month on open data.

Abercrombie has announced that he is running for re-election.

State of sunshine laws

As many of the 2010 class of governors begin their re-election campaigns, media and open government advocacy groups will be watching for the incumbents’ comments on and further commitments to improving transparency in their states.

Cuillier of the SPJ said he thinks access generally across the country is becoming more limited.

“It varies by state … but on the whole, if you look nationwide overall, the general trend is toward more secrecy,” he said. “If we don’t push back hard and do something about it, then frankly, we might as well just give up on this democracy.”