March 17, 2016

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles being published by Poynter to commemorate Sunshine Week. View the rest here.

In honor of Sunshine Week, I asked fellow journalists on Twitter to share their favorite open government stories from around the country. Here are some of their top picks along with a few of my favorites, including a story I worked on with several news organizations in North Carolina. If I missed your favorite Sunshine Week story, send me a link on Twitter @RecordsGeek.


Many state legislatures exempt themselves from record laws
The Associated Press (David Lieb, Adam Beam, Becky Bohrer, Morgan Lee, William March, John O’Connor, Emily Wagster Pettus, Bob Salsberg and Will Weissert)

State capitols are often referred to as “the people’s house,” but legislatures frequently put up no-trespassing signs by exempting themselves from public-records laws. That tendency was apparent when The Associated Press sought emails and daily schedules of legislative leaders in all 50 states. The request was met with more denials than approvals.


California lawmakers benefit from public records carve-outs
The Associated Press (Jonathan J. Cooper)

Californians are entitled to view a wide variety of emails, memos and other records created by their state and local governments. Ask to see who your state lawmaker is emailing, however, and they’ll get a two-page canned response that says, in essence, “no way.”


Gov. Rick Scott steers clear of text messaging for public business, office says
Tampa Bay Times (Steve Bousquet)

Gov. Rick Scott and his top aide refuse to send text messages and don’t want their employees doing it either. The Times requested all text messages sent and received by Scott and his chief of staff, as well as all three cabinet members and their chiefs of staff, between Jan. 25 and Jan. 31.


Massachusetts reduces cost of copies of public records
The Boston Globe (Todd Wallack)

Obtaining public records just became a little cheaper in Massachusetts thanks to The Boston Globe, which asked why the Secretary of State’s office permitted agencies to charge as much as 50 cents a page when commercial copying centers charge a fraction of that amount. The Secretary of State reduced the price local and state agencies can charge for standard paper copies and printouts to 5 cents per page.

Broken records: The sun don’t shine in Massachusetts
DigBoston (Andrew Quemere and Maya Shaffer)

DigBoston writes about Evan Anderson, a contributing writer for MuckRock, a Boston-based website that facilitates public records requests for its users. Anderson requested email correspondence between Boston police and the National Security Agency. The police asked him to pay more than $400 for some 700 pages of emails. Anderson paid, and the police cashed the check. But they still haven’t released the records.

Access to municipal ethics filings not always easy
Telegram & Gazette (Susan Spencer, Kim Ring, Paula Owen and Gerard F. Russell)

Municipal employees, elected or appointed officials, volunteers and consultants are required under state law to be transparent about any potential conflict between their private interests and public duties. But public access to the ethics certificates and disclosure forms is not uniform across Central Massachusetts.


Flint water e-mails written to stay secret
Detroit Free Press (Paul Egan)

Many of the emails made public related to the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water display what appears to be an active effort by state employees to avoid disclosure of public records under FOIA.

North Carolina

Private email rules vary across NC agencies, audit shows
WRAL News, The News & Observer and The Associated Press (Tyler Dukes, Kelly Hinchcliffe, Emery Dalesio, Mandy Locke and Dan Kane)

Three news organizations asked every appointed executive agency secretary and elected member of the Council of State to provide all private emails used to conduct public business for one month in 2015. The audit revealed that agency heads vary in their use of private email.

NCDOT drops its public records gatekeeper rule
The News & Observer (Bruce Siceloff)

The state Department of Transportation backed away from its policy directing the public to submit all requests for public documents to a department spokesperson after The News & Observer criticized the policy.


Access to government information comes at a cost
The Roanoke Times (Casey Fabris)

If citizens want to know what their government is up to, they simply have to ask. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act gives them access to many of a public body’s internal documents — but sometimes, it comes at a cost.


Sunshine Sunday: Open records act under fire as large requests tax system
The News Tribune (Kate Martin)

Legislators say the state’s 44-year-old Public Records Act needs a tuneup to help struggling local governments address voluminous, vexing requests from so-called “serial filers.” But open government advocates say the existing law is fine.


Spotlight dimming on disclosure: It’s getting tougher for citizens to know who’s supporting political candidates
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Mary Spicuzza and Jeremy B. White)

“Dark money” spending by outside groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors is expected to explode during this presidential election year. States can take action to stem the tide at the local level, but few have. Congress could require more disclosure about who is financing campaigns, but it has made no move to do so.

Special treatment or limited access: State policies spell out who can talk to the press
La Crosse Tribune (Chris Hubbuch)

Records show that the majority of Wisconsin state agencies rely heavily on professional spokespeople to communicate with the media, at times blocking access to thousands of employees, a practice open government advocates say restricts access to information and shields the government from public scrutiny.

If you want more Sunshine Week ideas, the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have a great website dedicated to coverage around the nation. They have a list of news organizations participating in Sunshine Week, an idea bank to help you get started on your own open government stories and a toolkit with Sunshine Week logos and other helpful items. Many thanks to Deb Gersh Hernandez, who coordinates the national Sunshine Week initiative.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe is an investigative reporter at in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is passionate about public records. She previously worked as an education reporter…
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