New Study Finds Midwester States Have Dim Sunshine Laws

 
NEW STUDY FINDS FIVE MIDWESTERN STATES HAVE DIM SUNSHINE LAWS

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Clouded Transparency Leads to Chilled Participation



The Citizen Advocacy Center released a report analyzing the open government laws for public records and public meetings in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. While every state in the nation has laws that require public access to government records and meetings, these states have systemic barriers that chill public participation and access to government, which weakens our democratic system designed to be by, for and of the people.

The Center analyzed each state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts and found striking similarities between all states, including:

  • Open government laws are sporadically enforced, which means public bodies are more likely to be unresponsive to records requests and employ exemptions to keep meetings closed.
  • No state surveyed has a government office with statutory authority specifically created to oversee and enforce sunshine laws.
  • State employees are not adequately trained to carry out open government policies and may be unintentionally violating the laws.
  • State employees are not adequately trained to carry out open government policies and may be unintentionally violating the laws.
  • Citizens may be able to attend meetings, but there are very few opportunities to participate.

“For our democracy to thrive and grow, we must have open government laws that are both strong and effective,” said Terry Pastika, Executive Director and Community Lawyer for the Citizen Advocacy Center. “Without forceful sunshine laws, the public can not fully participate in the democratic process, knowledgably discuss issues of public concern, make informed judgments about the actions of elected officials, or monitor government to make sure it’s acting in their interest.”

The full report, Ohio comparison chart and the Ohio Citizen’s Guide to the Open Public Records Law as well as others are available online at www.citizenadvocacycenter.org or www.midwestdemocracynetwork.org.

The study found that efforts to obtain information from government agencies throughout these Midwestern states are hampered by various factors. Examples include:

  • Illinois’s public disclosure laws contain more than 50 different loopholes —twice as many as all the other states combined.
  • Michigan’s Governor and Lt. Governor are exempt from the state’s open government laws.
  • Minnesota’s complex web of state laws and regulations governing public information makes usage by average citizens virtually impossible.
  • The failure of Ohio’s Open Meetings Law to apply to home rule public bodies allow municipalities to operate in darkness without impunity. (see also Ohio Public Records Law)
  • Wisconsin’s lack of firm deadlines to respond to information requests allow public bodies ignore production of public records and blocks access to information.

For the study, the Center reviewed each state’s laws as well as more than 1,000 legal cases, attorney general opinions, and professional publications to produce a comprehensive report on each state’s strengths and weaknesses. The Center also provided specific reform recommendations that good government advocates can use to advance changes within each state. Reforms range from changing how fees should be levied to implementing training programs for public officials.

The study, conducted by the Center and funded by The Joyce Foundation, is distributed by the Midwest Democracy Network, an alliance of political reform advocates who are working to strengthen democracy and build the capacity of the public to participate and affect government decision-making.