Posts Tagged ‘Society of Professional Journalists’


Washington’s governor needs to use veto pen to make stand for transparency

As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again.

A legislature has rushed through a bill curtailing the state’s public records act, waiving rules to minimize public comment and present the governor with a bill that has enough votes to override any veto, and members of the public are as mad as hell.

While that sounds like Utah’s infamous House Bill 477, which gutted the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, this scenario actually played out in Washington state last week.

In response to a Thurston County Superior Court judge’s ruling that lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act, Senate Bill 6617 was introduced to nullify it.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, the bill declares that the Legislature is not subject to the public records law.

While the bill does make some records public, such as lawmakers’ calendars and final actions in disciplinary procedures, it takes giant leaps backwards in transparency.

The bill renders the court battle over lawmakers’ records moot because it is retroactive back to 1889 when Washington became a state.

But wait, that’s not all.

If someone challenges a record denial by either the Senate Secretary or the Clerk of the House, the appeal can only be heard by one of two legislative committees, and the committee’s ruling is final and cannot be challenged in court.

The bill takes effect as soon as it becomes law. That negates any attempt to overturn it at the ballot box.

If you think the bill is bad, the way it was passed in the Legislature was worse.

The bill was introduced late in the session, on Feb, 21, and was put up for a Senate vote without going through the usual committee process.

Lawmakers did agree to have a “work session” where stakeholders such as the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington could weigh in against the bill, but that was not enough to stop this legislative juggernaut.

The bill passed 41-7 in the Senate on Feb. 23, and minutes later the House of Representatives voted 83-14 in favor of it.

Lawmakers defended the bill with pleas that they were protecting their constituents from having their tales of personal woes and problems exposed by prying reporters who request lawmakers email and correspondence.

Another argument that was brought up was that responding to public records requests would be too onerous for lawmakers and their support staff.

Plus, they argued that the state’s judicial branch is exempt from the Public Records Act, so why shouldn’t they.

But as Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and Allied Daily Newspapers’ Executive Director Rowland Thompson point out, the judiciary’s exemption was worked out over a course of years, with open-government advocates at the table. And the system they came up with provides an independent review of any record denial.

The bill is now before Gov. Jay Inslee, who has until Thursday to either sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

And Inslee’s getting a lot of calls to veto the bill. The Seattle Times reviewed more than 540 constituent emails it requested from Inslee’s office, and found that there were none in support of the bill. And several papers in the state, including the Times, the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Bellingham Herald and others, ran front-page editorials demanding Inslee veto the bill.

While Inslee is supportive of transparency in government, he has hinted that vetoing a bill supported by a veto-proof majority, would be futile.

No, it wouldn’t. It could stop this bill in its tracks, or at least make legislators take full responsibility for thumbing their noses at the public’s right to know.

Sure, the bill’s got more than enough votes to overturn a veto, but when the moment of truth comes, some lawmakers may question the justice of their cause when faced with overriding a veto that the public fully supports in an election year. Politicians know better than most people that discretion is the better part of valor.

And even if lawmakers stick to their guns and override the veto, Inslee will have shown the people that he values transparency, even when it is not convenient. And by doing so, he would force the Legislature to take full ownership of the bill. They were the ones who approved it, and they were the ones who made it become law, even though the public made it perfectly clear that they value transparency, just as they did when they enacted the Public Records Act through a referendum in the 1970s.

Donald W. Meyers, a reporter/multimedia journalist at the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, is a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and is SPJ’s Region 10 Director

Meet SPJ’s 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information Fellow

The government works for us.” Five simple yet powerful words, instilled in me by Boston University data journalism professor Maggie Mulvihill, changed the course of my reporting career forever.

As an aspiring environmental journalist, I had envisioned myself writing stories from the field, National Geographic style, as opposed to poring over government data and documents and sending out FOIA requests. I just didn’t know how much information was out there, and all the possibilities open to me through investigative work. After publishing a campaign finance article covering major donors in Massachusetts, I realized, the real stories lie within those documents hidden in plain sight.

Yet as I’m sure fellow reporters who have relied on the freedom of information laws can attest: It doesn’t always seem like the government does work for us. In a single semester of beat reporting, I encountered government officials who were unfamiliar with public records laws, others who took months to respond, and — my personal pet peeve — others who sought payment for running of single pages of records (not exactly feasible for a college student on a low budget).

So why do journalists continue to fight the FOIA battle, to take on these in-depth, time-consuming, painstaking processes for a single story? I can only imagine it’s for the same reason I chose to learn more about FOIA through this SPJ fellowship: The information is important. It allows journalists to fulfill their roles as government watchdogs and occasionally, to make an important difference.

My desire to motivate change is concentrated on an area of admitted lesser prominence in journalism: environmental reporting. It’s a challenging beat riddled with scientific jargon, with controversy and uncertainty, and seemingly endless reams of obscure quantitative data. My passion stems from an undergraduate education in ecology and conservation biology, complete with a study abroad experience in the Amazon rainforest and an internship in environmental education.

Although many news outlets don’t provide regular environmental coverage, the focus on the beat has been growing. Articles about oil spills in California, Texas droughts, and President Obama’s plan to “Save the Bees” dominated my news feed this week. And I suspect the need for coverage will only increase, as will the need to collaborate with the EPA, Departments of Energy and Agriculture, and other government organizations with valuable data and documents to aid in reporting.

So how does FOIA play into environmental journalism? More importantly, why should journalists care about the environment, or cover these stories in their publications in the first place? These are the questions I hope to answer during my Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information fellowship with SPJ this summer.

ashleyjones

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow this blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley at amayrianne@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @amayrianne.

 

FOI Daily Dose: Connecticut lawmakers miss deadline on FOIA dispute involving Sandy Hook shooting

When Connecticut lawmakers passed a blanket ban in June preventing the release of photos or videos of homicide victims’ bodies, they deliberated secretly and worked quickly under pressure from families of victims in the December 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting.

To account for any oversights in the bill that flew through both chambers in 45 minutes, they assigned a 17-member task force to assess the “balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know,” according to CT News Junkie.

The law ruled that the task force should be appointed by July 1, convene by Aug.1 and meet at least once a month until December so it can make recommendations to the General Assembly on Jan. 1.

But Connecticut lawmakers missed the first deadline to appoint members to the task force, The Day reports.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s spokesman told CT News Junkie Monday that the administration is still reviewing candidates to fill the two spots the law asks Malloy to appoint: a representative of a crime victim advocacy group and a municipal police official. The spokesman said Malloy is expected to make his appointments soon.

The other 15 appointments are either named in the law or selected by stakeholder groups.

The law asks the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists chapter to make four appointments, and the chapter made its selections in June, the News Junkie said. They picked general manager of WLIS-AM Don DeCesare, general manager of WFSB-TV 3 Klarn DePalma, chapter president Jodie Mozdzer Gil and Connecticut Post Metro Editor Brian Koonz.

The chapter has been skeptical of the hurried legislation since a May 22 article by The Hartford Courant revealed the governor’s office was working secretly with legislative leaders and the state’s top prosecutor to deny access to Sandy Hook shooting documents.

SPJ national president Sonny Albarado and Connecticut chapter president Jodie Mozdzer Gil wrote a letter to Gov. Malloy on May 23 questioning lawmakers’ secret deliberation and their decision to restrict access to public records and photos.

Albarado and Gil wrote: “The Society condemns the creation of this legislation outside the normal, transparent process of public hearings and debate. And we deplore the attempt to use the tragic events of Dec. 14 as an excuse to close off access to records that are otherwise available to the public.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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