Column: Sunshine laws hold government accountable only when we use them
"Just about every work of journalism about government you read or watch is made possible, to one degree or another, by transparency laws," Forum Communications columnist Rob Port writes.
Editor's note: This is one in a series of news stories, columns and editorials from Forum Communications in support of open government. Sunshine Week, which champions open government and celebrates access to public information, is March 12-18.
MINOT, N.D. — On March 10, 2011, I requested 30 days of emails sent to and from the president of North Dakota State University.
I can't remember now what I was looking for at the time. It certainly wasn't what I ended up uncovering, which is that a state lawmaker, who also owned a business that did millions upon millions worth of business with the university system, was flying two university presidents to western North Dakota for a hunting trip on his company's private airplane.
The university tried to block my records request by inflating its cost to thousands of dollars. I challenged the costs and ultimately paid nothing.
The university tried to hide the identity of the person organizing the hunting trip, but I challenged that, too, and beat the redaction.
It took me 956 days of wrangling, but I was finally able to tell the public about a too-cozy relationship among North Dakota state officials, university leaders, and a major contractor.
It wouldn't have happened without open records and open meeting laws.
During Sunshine Week, we celebrate laws that require our government to be transparent with the public. I'm passionate about this topic, and the anecdote above is one of my favorites to share when I write or talk about it because that example illustrates both the power of transparency laws and how complex uncovering government problems can be even with good laws on the books.
Sunshine laws only work to hold the government accountable when we use them. But using them isn't always easy, and there is an eternal push to narrow our transparency laws and make them less accessible to the public.
Public officials often complain about nuisance requests for public information. They'll talk about the taxpayers' expense of fulfilling records requests. It's true some abuse open records laws, but that's a small price to pay for what these laws afford us.
Just about every work of journalism about government you read or watch is made possible, to one degree or another, by transparency laws.
Local television anchors can bring you news of an impending property tax increase because it was discussed at a meeting that was open to the public.
But these laws aren't just about reporters. They're for you, too. When a controversial bill is to be discussed by a legislative committee, you can find out about it, and attend, because lawmakers are required by law to make public notice.
When public officials refuse to speak about a controversial story, their emails, text messages, and other records, available thanks to open records laws, can often give us insight. And they can be requested by anyone, from newspaper reporters and television producers to curious members of the public.
When a state lawmaker here in North Dakota was harassing his colleagues, I could break a story about it that ultimately led to his expulsion from the Legislature — the first time that happened in state history — thanks to the documents I obtained from an open records request .
Public records revealed South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem's efforts to get an ethics complaint against her dismissed and to block from public scrutiny other records detailing her efforts to procure preferential licensing treatment for her daughter . Noem is currently fighting, in court, another open records request seeking information about her travel expenses .
Last year the city of Minneapolis was forced to pay a journalist $100,000 in legal expenses after he won a lawsuit over an open records request seeking police disciplinary records. He got the records, too, and wrote multiple stories about what they contained, including one about an officer hitting a teenager and another about an officer making racist remarks to Somali children .
You might not always agree with the motivations a given person has for seeking public records. You might not like what's revealed or how the information is interpreted.
Yet, you wouldn't know any of that information, nor even have the opportunity to form an opinion about it, if we didn't have access.
Government accountability is built on a foundation of robust laws that require the government to do its business in the sunshine. These laws can be hard to enforce. Costly, too. But how in the world would our society function without them?