Lawmakers slowly chipping away at open government

Friday, September 15, 2017

Walk through the north door of the Nebraska state capitol and you’ll see a motto carved in stone over the doorway: “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen.”

A series of stories by the Associated Press to be released Sunday indicates that lawmakers nationwide are chipping away at that motto, in the name of fear, security or simple expediency.

In Arkansas, lawmakers passed a resolution marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, then passed a law preventing public access to information about the Capitol police force, those of universities or school security plans.

Nebraska lawmakers sought to keep secret the identity of suppliers of lethal-injection drugs, California rushed through a measure keeping dam safety emergency action plans secret, and Texas considered a plan to keep public records secret from anyone who didn’t live in Texas.

The Iowa House passed a bill to keep many 911 calls secret by calling them “medical records” after the AP used open records laws to write about gun-related accidents, but the law died in the Senate.

Iowa lawmakers did pass a law keeping secret detailed annual financial statements of the state’s 19 licensed casinos, records that had been public for decades.

Florida passed a law requiring records of criminal charges that result in acquittal or dismissal to be automatically sealed, and Kansas proposed a law that would keep the state database of fired police officers secret after a Wichita television station exposed the backgrounds of officers with checkered pasts, including a chief facing federal investigation.

Even more ominously, some agencies have resorted to suing people who make requests for public records, examples include an Oregon parent who wanted details about school employees paid to stay home, a retired educator seeking data about student performance in Louisiana, and college journalists in Kentucky seeking documents about investigations of employees accused of sexual misconduct.

Instead of the information, they received notices that they were being sued by the agency receiving the request, contending release of information would deny employees due process.

Our reporters have found information more difficult to obtain with the switch from paper records to computerized files — either through technical difficulties in viewing the actual files, unaffordable expense or other hindrances.

And, suggestions that the City Council and other local government bodies do away with the three-reading rule are alarming.

Professional journalists will continue to do their part, but in the end, it truly is the watchfulness of the average citizen, insisting on timely release of appropriate, accurate information, that will be the salvation of the state.

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