Sunshine week promotes open government

Are you accessing your right to know?
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Sunshine Week is coming — a national initiative to promote the public’s right to know what its government is doing and why, spearheaded by the American Newspapers Editors Association. While the initiative was launched nationally, it is aimed at fostering an open government from the federal level all the way down to the city level. Officially it is from March 11-17, but its propenents say shedding a light on government should happen year round. “The idea is to take a week during the year to focus on open government to get people talking about it. My sense this year is that it’s growing,” said Richard Karpel, executive director of the American Newspaper Editors Association. “It’s important for the quality of our democracy. If people don’t know what their government is doing, it’s hard to know how they should vote or what direction they should take.” Karpel said while the initiative is gaining traction, the federal government hasn’t made much progress in becoming more open with U.S. citizens. Auburn City leaders say they try to be as transparent and available to citizens as possible, while Placer County officials say they take the same stance. Karpel said despite statements made by President Barack Obama assuring voters that the government would become more transparent when he took office; public access has either remained stagnant or even gotten worse. “The reality is they haven’t made as much progress as we would like and in some cases they have even moved backward,” Karpel said. “There are six different prosecutions against leakers, who mostly leaked information to newspapers. Six different people are being prosecuted under the espionage act and that is unprecedented. It’s a mixed record at best.” Auburn City Manager Bob Richardson said aside from responding to the average 10 to 12 California Public Records Act Requests the city gets each year in a timely manner, creating an opportunities for residents to ask questions is also high on the city’s list of priorities. “We do our best to conform to state law — respond within 10 days, but often times it’s much shorter. I think the city tries to go much further though,” Richardson said. “We try to have a very strong presence throughout the community.” That presence includes city council members attending various meetings throughout the community each week. Richardson said he is proud of the way Auburn is run. “First, it is priority of the council they want us to be as transparent as possible. Two, it helps to develop a level of trust between the community and the city hall, that level of trust that is fostered allows us to have a greater level of efficiency,” Richardson said. “I think we are just very proud of the efficiency we have been able to attain especially in the past five years or so. We are happy to talk about what we do, how we do it and how funds are used.” Placer County interim CEO Holly Heinzen said while it would be difficult say how many requests come to the county in any given period of time, the county upholds the values of open government found in the California Public Records Act. “Placer County is committed to that ideal,” Heinzen said. “The county complies with the law, and goes beyond it in many cases to keep the public as fully informed as possible.” County spokesperson Mike Fitch said whenever possible the county makes records available. “In Placer County, whenever possible, requests for information made under the act are handled immediately and may occur directly at a department’s front counter upon request,” Fitch said. “There are, however, limits to this openness. Statutes exist that create exceptions to the PRA. For example, juvenile case files, identity of victims of a crime, information regarding welfare recipients, the County Counsel’s working files - all have statutes prohibiting the release of that sensitive information.” Karpel said if the information a citizen is seeking is legally available for the public to obtain, than they should be persistent if it is unjustly denied. “People just have to be vigilant,” Karpel said. “And if they run into walls, look for organizations that can help.” Reach Sara Seyydin at _______________________________________________________ The Journal has written several stories that involved requesting records that are a matter of public record under the California Public Records Act this year. Here is a look back at some of the recent the information reporters requested and the stories that were written based on that information. • Auburn Police had murder suspicions in 1970 about bathtub drowning- Journal reporter Gus Thompson obtained copies of the search warrant on Patricia Howell, who was arrested on murder charges more than 40 years after the drowning death of her daughter 4-year-old daughter Cindy Howell in 1970. He also requested a copy of the arrest warrant, which was sealed. • Placer County District Attorney refuses to release sex crime statistics- Journal reporter Sara Seyydin attempted to obtain information on sex crime statistics in Placer County from the Placer County District Attorney’s Office. Several written and verbal requests were denied, so the Journal moved forward with a story explaining on what grounds these public records act requests were denied. • Nearly $500,000 in payouts granted to Sierra College employees- Journal reporter Sara Seyydin requested separation of employment and release agreements for four Sierra College employees who were paid a total of nearly half of a million dollars after their employment with the college ended. The items were first highlighted through an anonymous email, which drew attention to an item on the Board of Trustees Agenda approving these expenditures. • Search warrant authorized on home of former Colfax High coach accused of sexual abuse- Reporter Gus Thompson obtained the search warrant and affidavit for the home of former Colfax coach and teacher Jack Morgan, who was arrested on charges of sexual abuse in February. Reporter Sara Seyydin used the obtained information in a story shedding light on some of the things that may have led to Morgan’s arrest. _______________________________________________________ Know Your Rights: Govt. Code Section 6250. In enacting this chapter, the Legislature, mindful of the right of individuals to privacy, finds and declares that access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state. Tips for submitting a California Public Records Act Request: •Always begin your public records act request with the following: Under the California Records Act (Govt. Code 6250-6270) I am requesting.... •Public Records Acts set very strict time limits for the government agency to respond to your request. In California, for example, the agency must get back to you in writing within 10 days, either by fulfilling your request, or by explaining with the exact citation why the request is exempt, or by explaining that additional research is needed to fulfill your request. •Make your request as specific as possible. If you make your request overly broad, such as asking a police department for all their 911 tapes of domestic violence calls, the department will have all the excuse it needs under the law to delay responding to your request indefinitely. •There are exceptions to your right to government information. Most of these exceptions are obvious ones. For example, such things as personnel files, test questions, trade secrets, personal information etc. are exempt from public record act requests. And when you request documents on a criminal case, personal names and identifying information will usually be redacted (blacked out) from the documents. In California, and in most other states, the kind of information you can obtain on an open investigation is limited. •Follow-up on your request! If you don't receive a response to your written request in the allotted time, make a phone call to the head of the agency, and fax the head of the agency a copy of your letter. If you still don't get a response, send a copy of your original request, along with a complaint, to your city council or other public representative. When interpreting public record act laws, courts throughout the United States have come down very strictly on the side of the people's right to know. •Most government agencies will charge you a fee per page for copying documents. Source: