Yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front-page story, Public service vs. public nuisance about the outraged reaction of government officials in Pennsylvania to a contest the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association announced several weeks ago.
That contest encourages citizens throughout Pennsylvania to file an open records request with a city or county government, or a public school district, and then report back on their findings.
Among others, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania reacted angrily to the contest, calling it “unconscionable” and implying that the contest would clog up the work calendars of already-overworked public officials.
I disagree. The contest sponsored by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, in my view, is an upgraded, pro-citizen version of the time-honored FOIA audit, in which newspapers and professional journalists send out reporters to see how agencies do at responding to the requests.
One such audit in Colorado last year sponsored by the Colorado Press Association and the Denver Post discovered that “Public” is relative.
Ed Otte, executive director of the Colorado Press Association, said that the results showed that:
…obtaining records can be an intimidating and disheartening process for members of the public.
When the Better Government Association in Illinois conducted a FOIA audit in 2006, they learned that when ordinary citizens asked Illinois agencies for records, they were turned away 62% of the time.
I think it’s great that the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association is encouraging regular folks to get out there and file open records requests.