By: Mike Brannen
I’m bothered by something. I mean, really bothered. Public agencies are finding legal loopholes in laws to hide public information from you.
This most recent case set me off.
In short, Ferguson, MO city officials are charging an exorbitant amount of money for people to access public records regarding the shooting death of Michael Brown. Records, which by law, are open for any John and Jane Doe to acquire. But, to discourage access and shrink the number of people who can see it, the city is charging TEN times its usual request fee.
This is outrageous, shady, and certainly eyebrow-raising.
Why feel the need to charge so much more money than usual, when it is sometimes free? A few possibilities:
- The city has something it doesn’t want the public to know about.
- The city fears media will “spin” the records, or take information out of context
- The city fears the media will use the records to make Ferguson look bad
- The city knows it is not cost-effective to process a high number of requests at a low fee
- The city realizes there’s a high demand and want to profit from it
- The city is too lazy to process so many requests
- A reason I’m not privy to know
None of these are acceptable reasons. If there is truly a financial burden, the city needs to be more transparent about those costs and hurdles.
Unknown in this: who’s really behind the up-charge? Who is the person who decided to increase fees 1000%? What do they know? I’m thrilled the Associated Press is dogging the city of Ferguson to get these answers.
Journalists have the responsibility and duty to hold public officials accountable. From the top politicians, down to the lowest paid employee. It’s our job to ensure there’s fairness, openness, and honesty within public departments, because our taxpayer money funds them. Agencies shouldn’t be allowed to use our money and act with disregard toward the public.
On a similar but different thread, my station, KSTP-TV, is suing Metro Transit in Minnesota. We requested two videos of Metro Transit bus drivers. The agency believes the videos should remain private, because the drivers were internally investigated, and there was no disciplinary action. Metro Transit attorneys argue state law prohibits them from releasing information about employees if complaints against them are ruled unsubstantiated.
Basically, the agency could sweep any incident under the rug, punish no one for their actions, and never have to release any information to the public. Based on this, what’s the incentive for any public agency to punish anyone or hold anyone accountable?
We’ve seen police departments duck accountability in a similar way: an officer under investigation “resigns,” thereby closing the investigation, removing any requirement to provide information publicly, and the officer goes off scot free. Again, what’s the incentive to punish the officer?
Agencies are learning the tricks and law loopholes to protect themselves, and its our job as journalists to expose them. There is no easy solution, but there are differing roads of difficulty we can take.
- Knowledge: arming public citizens with information and encouraging them to challenge city/state leaders
- Determination: relentless questioning of public officials at every level and not backing down when faced with questionable pushback
- Legal recourse: determine if agency is violating law, or seek change in law
Policies won’t change overnight, but we need to act swiftly. I fear more agencies will learn how to legally, yet suspiciously hide information from the public. If we don’t get out in front of it, requesting information will become harder.
Mike Brannen is a newscast producer for KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Before that, he was a producer for KIRO7 in Seattle, where he led the 4:30 a.m. show to a #1 share in the U.S. for that time slot. He received an MA in Broadcast Management from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2010 and received his Bachelor of Journalism degree the year before. He shares more about his life at mikebrannen.com.