Throughout the nation, members of the public are being denied access to information they rightfully own. But the problem is hitting Montana especially hard.
Our state consistently ranks among the worst in the nation for government transparency, which involves both open records and open meetings. It placed 45th out of 50 in a 2002 study by the Better Government Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors, 47th in a 2007 study by BGA and the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and 46th in a 2008 BGA study sponsored by Alper Services.
Although some legislation has been introduced since these studies were conducted in an effort to improve government transparency in our state, we can attest that Montana still has a long way to go.
A big part of our job as a newspaper is to take public information from government meeting rooms, databases and filing cabinets and make it easily accessible to the masses. And many of our government officials don’t make that job easy.
Within the last year alone, public officials have resisted our requests for a list of registered daycare providers, the name of a deputy who accidentally shot himself, the toxicology report from a fatal crash and the names, ages and booking photos of various people charged with crimes, just to name a few.
Certainly, the keepers of our state’s public records could do a lot more to make them accessible. But we believe the root of the problem lies within our state’s sunshine laws.
Montana law gives citizens the right to inspect any “public writings” of the state except those prohibited by statute, but records may be closed if a person’s right to privacy is deemed more important than the public’s right to know. While our state’s strong privacy laws have their perks, we have found that that the vague privacy exception is frequently abused to justify withholding public information.
What’s worse, there is no criminal penalty for open-records violations, which means a costly lawsuit is often the only way to force compliance.
In some cases, we were never able to get our hands on information that record keepers in other states would have turned over right away. Other times we were eventually able to cut through the red tape, but not without legal action or a considerable investment of time or money.
If we are having that much trouble getting public information, others probably are too. And we know not everyone has the time or resources to sue the government every time they need a public document.
This is unfortunate because the records in the custody of the government do not belong to the government. They belong to the public, and our public servants have a responsibility to make them easily and routinely accessible to anyone who wants them.
March 15-21 is Sunshine Week, which is a national movement promoting dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Our hope is that the issues brought to light this week will resonate with officials in Montana and beyond, sparking positive change in the way government officials think about and handle public information.
We know Montana’s closed-government culture won’t change overnight, and we try to be understanding when our requests for public information are ignored or outright rejected.
But there’s no better time than now to start working toward improvement, and that can’t start without sweeping recognition that this is a serious problem worth addressing.