This is the 14th in our series of interviews with Sunshine Activists from around the country.
Our goal is to interview ordinary citizens who use open records at the state and local level to promote greater awareness of and insight into the local governance.
This week’s interview is with Tim Potts who volunteers at Democracy Rising PA and lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Tim describes Democracy Rising PA as follows:
We are an all-volunteer organization seeking to create in Pennsylvania the best state government in America – the highest standards of public integrity, the best value for tax dollars, the clearest transparency of operation and the highest levels of citizen confidence.
- What year did you file your first open records request?
- What documents were you looking for?
Records of expenses paid to legislators.
- Did you get those documents?
- Charles Davis of the National Freedom of Information Coalition has talked about having “a FOI moment”. Have you had “a FOI moment” and can you describe it?
In 2004, I learned that both Pennsylvania’s General Assembly and its Supreme Court had exempted their two branches of government from the state’s already awful open records law. We are the only state in the nation where that has occurred. As a result there is literally no way for a citizen to enforce requests for information from the two branches of government. It’s as though they believe Pennsylvania has three governments rather than one government with three branches. That realization was a key factor in my decision to get active in the movement to establish in Pennsylvania the highest standards of public integrity in America.
- What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?
The PA House of Representatives claims it does not have a database of legislators, staff and the amount of compensation reported to the IRS for 2006. They also remind me that the legislature has exempted itself from our open records law (we’re the only state in America whose legislature and judiciary have exempted themselves); that they may allow us to see some records if we travel to Harrisburg to examine them in their offices; and that if we want copies, they will charge us 50 cents per page for the documents they’re willing to let us have. There are other documents that we may see but may not copy in any way. We have been waiting two months for an appointment to travel to Harrisburg for this purpose.
- How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?
Occasionally a few days. Usually never.
- About how many open records requests have you filed?
- How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?
When we get information, it usually finds itself into our e-newsletter, Democracy Rising PA News. Sometimes we report it when we don’t get information.
- Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?
- What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?
I have become unemployable in my area of expertise, which is public policy. I was a confidential advisor to a dozen cabinet officers under both R and D administrations. I also served seven years as press secretary and director of communications for the state House Democratic Caucus. I was not a whistleblower, but left on very favorable terms. Only when I realized (seven years after my state service) that corruption was running rampant and decided to do something about it did I begin to suffer repercussions. Consulting contracts with four statewide organizations were ended, and I haven’t had a pay check in three years.
- Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?
In 2005 and in 2006, the Harrisburg Patriot invited me to submit an essay for its New Year’s Sunday edition. In 2005, the Philadelphia Inquirer (although not local) named me one of three Citizens of the Year.
- What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?
Insist upon the highest standards of public integrity, including the most open government, in America. Why should citizens settle for anything less? Why shouldn’t public officials compete for bragging rights as having the highest standards of public integrity in America? Why shouldn’t local officials compete for the same bragging rights in whatever state where they serve the public? This is not rhetoric; it’s knowable. See the Center for Public Integrity, the Better Government Association, the Citizen Access Project, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and others for comparisons of laws and for the criteria to measure the “best in America.”
- What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
How skilled political leaders are at their three favorite tactics for avoiding reform: deny that there’s a problem; delay discussing solutions; and change the subject to some hot-button issue. Even as an insider who employed these strategies, I did not appreciate fully how effective they are. Citizens simply have to be prepared for that. It can take 3-4 legislative sessions before public officials will take citizens seriously enough to adopt meaningful change, and only then if citizens threaten the public officials’ hold on power.
- If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?
Enforcement. Our law, already ranked 48th by the Better Government Association, has such weak enforcement provisions that the law is meaningless for ordinary citizens. Even proposals for a new law have very weak enforcement. A strong law should award attorney fees and costs to the prevailing party. It also should have progressively harsh penalties for agencies and public officials who repeatedly violate the law, including termination of employment and a prohibition against future employment in government. As long as public officials believe they have nothing to lose personally, they will be tempted to stonewall citizens for political advantage.
- Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?
This is one of our premiere issues. We also have invited the head of OpenRecordsPA.org to sit on our board of directors. Her acceptance is pending a decision by her own board.
- Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?
Thanks, Tim. I appreciate your sharing these sacrifices–and I’m sorry there are so many involved with the great work you’re doing.