Phil Lewis: We need more openness, especially at federal level

Phil Lewis
Photo with no caption

It’s Sunshine Sunday, the kick off to a weeklong, annual celebration of the public’s right to know.

Newspapers, especially those in Florida, helped create and foster the observance. Nearly every paper in the state has an editorial today concerning open meetings, open records and government in the sunshine.

In recent years, the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C., has conducted a national poll to gauge the public’s feelings on government secrecy.

This year’s poll was released Friday and not much has changed since the last poll. Here’s a sampling:

Is the federal government open or secretive?

Seventy-three percent polled said our federal government is somewhat or very secretive. Only 24 percent polled said the federal government was somewhat or very open. Three percent said they didn’t know.

Last year, 74 percent rated the government as secret. (Granted, we realize that some think that being somewhat secret is a good thing, citing government security and terrorist threats.)

The poll also asked if local government was open or secretive.

Nationwide, 57 percent of people polled said that government on the local level is somewhat or very open. Forty-three percent said somewhat or very secretive.

That’s quite a difference. More than half the people in the nation believe their school boards, city councils and county commissions operate pretty much in the sunshine. But seven out of 10 believe the federal government does not.

That’s the perception, but what’s reality? Frankly, the people have it right. State laws concerning open government and open records are far friendlier to the people’s right to know than the variety of rules, acts, policies and laws that are applied to the federal government.

Journalists know this all too well, especially in Florida. Getting a public document from Tallahassee or the county courthouse in either East Naples or Fort Myers is a piece of cake under Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws compared to what it takes in Washington under the somewhat misnamed “Freedom of Information Act.” (The act is better known to journalists as FOIA, pronounced FOY-ya.)

The poll addressed FOIA. First it defined it for those taking the survey:

“FOIA allows Americans to see what information the federal government has obtained about them or about issues that interest them.”

Then it asked how many had requested information under FOIA. Only 6 percent said they had. Then, the survey asked if FOIA was a good thing. The results were 77 percent yes, 8 percent no and 15 percent don’t know or it depends.

Next question was, “Does the federal government obey FOIA and allow people to see the information they’re allowed to see?” The results were 69 percent yes, 19 percent no and 12 percent don’t know or it depends.

Finally, the poll asked, “President Obama has ordered all federal agencies to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure with FOIA requests; is this doing the right thing?”

Overwhelming, Americans said yes. Only one in 10 said no.

There you have it. A mandate from the citizens.

Sadly, it’s going to take far more than an order “to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” to change things in Washington.

There still are far too many shadows in Florida when it comes to public records and public meetings, but we truly live in the Sunshine State compared to what you get in Washington.

On the federal level, we need a whole new act, one that makes our public officials truly accountable to the people’s right to know.

Happy Sunshine Sunday.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features