Study: Spotty enforcement of open government laws

MADISON, Wis. (AP) âÄî Five Midwestern states sporadically enforce open government laws, with workers not adequately trained to carry out the policies, according to a new report from Citizen Advocacy Center. In a study of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio released Wednesday, the non-profit center based in Chicago found none of the states has a government office specifically created to oversee and enforce open government laws and poorly trained state employees may be unintentionally violating the law. Of the five states, Ohio was the only one that requires every elected official to receive three hours of training regarding the state’s open records law. And while every state except Illinois had laws allowing fines or penalties for violating public information requirements, the study found they are rarely enforced. All five states had a variety of enforcement and penalty provisions for open government laws, but the study found the provisions are rarely used. That has a detrimental ripple effect with public bodies less likely to be responsive for information requests and more likely to inappropriately deny them, the report said. “Basically it leads to a mistrust of government,” said Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center. “It lessens transparency and accountability and accessibility.” The lack of enforcement of public information and open meetings laws was the most troubling finding, she said. Laws with strong penalties that aren’t enforced are nothing more than paper tigers, Pastika said. “Penalties have to be enforced,” she said. “That is absolutely crucial in terms of a majority of the issues we saw.” For its study, released to correspond with Sunshine Week, the center reviewed the states’ laws, 1,000 legal cases, attorney general opinions, and professional publications. Among its other findings: âÄî Illinois’ freedom of information law had the most exemptions by far, making the law perplexing. âÄî While Wisconsin’s open government laws were generally strong, it does not have an administrative appeals process for when requests are denied and does not have a firm deadline for public bodies to respond to records requests. âÄî Minnesota places a high priority on protecting the privacy of people requesting records, as well as those who are the subject of a request. However, that high sensitivity coupled with many regulations leads to “tremendously complex and confusing” open records laws. âÄî Michigan was the only state of those surveyed that requires public bodies to provide an opportunity for the public to speak at public meetings. The Citizen Advocacy Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan community legal organization dedicated to building democracy. It conducted the survey on behalf of the Midwest Democracy Network, a group composed of political reform advocates. The study was paid for by the Joyce Foundation. ___ On the Net: Citizen Advocacy Center: