Here are 20 of the best open-records stories so far this year

March 20, 2017

Last week, journalists and media organizations around the country observed Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate transparency and open government. They reported on problems and areas of promise in holding government accountable.

I’ve compiled a list of more than a dozen Sunshine Week stories from around the nation, including a project I worked on with a coalition of reporters in North Carolina, where I live. We requested text messages from state and local leaders, which proved to be interesting.

This list is not comprehensive, so if I missed your favorite Sunshine Week story, post a comment below or send me a link on Twitter @RecordsGeek.


Obama’s final year: US spent $36 million in records lawsuits
Associated Press (Ted Bridis)

The Obama administration in its final year in office spent a record $36.2 million on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records under the Freedom of Information Act, according to an Associated Press analysis.

‘Always appeal,’ and more pro tips from a dozen FOIA experts
Columbia Journalism Review (Jonathan Peters)

A dozen FOIA experts shared advice to help journalists and others use FOIA effectively.

FOIA the Dead uses The New York Times’ obituaries to shine a light on FBI surveillance, for the living
Nieman Lab (Laura Hazard Owen)

Parker Higgins wrote a script that lets him automatically send a FOIA request for the FBI file of every public figure listed in The New York Times’ obituary pages (not the paid death notices).

Related Training: Access Denied: Your Rights When Government Shuts Media Out


Sunshine Lost: Florida’s public records act lacks effective enforcement mechanism
WUFT News (Andrew Briz, Laura Cardona, TJ Pyche and Caitie Switalski)

WUFT News investigated compliance with the state public records law in all 20 Florida district state attorney’s offices and found that the state lacks a uniform system to enforce the law.


How transparent is your city or county government? We graded them
The Quad City Times (Autumn Phillips)

The paper graded seven municipal governments on the transparency of their public records processes, meetings, document availability and whether their budget was posted.


Details, documents sometimes elusive on local town and county websites
(Members of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association)

Members of the press association analyzed websites of 156 town, city and county governments and found that basic information was either missing or elusive.


Mass. agencies increasingly cite terrorism risk to withhold records
The Boston Globe (Todd Wallack)

An exemption allows agencies to withhold certain documents if they may be “likely to jeopardize public safety or cyber security.” But government watchdogs say some agencies have gone overboard, using the exemption to withhold budgets and other routine documents from journalists and local residents.


Getting personal: LSJ reporters share why #journalismmatters
Lansing State Journal

Reporters, columnists and other staffers discuss their roles in journalism, how they do their jobs and what they want the public to know.


Governing goes off the record in Minnesota
Star Tribune (James Eli Shiffer)

Minnesota state legislators have added hundreds of exceptions to the public disclosure law, raising the number of secrecy provisions to at least 660.

New Hampshire

Accessing animal cruelty data no easy task in N.H.
Concord Monitor (Elodie Reed)

The reporter found that transparency is a systematic challenge when it comes to tracking mistreated animals in the Granite State.

Right-to-know advocate: N.H. needs independent arbiter to hear complaints
New Hampshire Public Radio (Rick Ganley and Michael Brindley)

NHPR’s Morning Edition talks with the president of Right to Know New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization that advocates for greater transparency in government.

North Carolina

Text messaging records offer glimpses into how government works
(North Carolina Open Government Coalition members)

A group of newspaper and television stations requested two weeks of text messages from state and local leaders. Reporters found that getting access to the texts depended largely on the goodwill of the department heads.

She questioned police version of sister’s death — then fought for the truth
The Charlotte Observer (Bruce Henderson)

After her sister’s death, Ellen Deitz Tucker fought the city for records and won.


Ohio State shields access to records others deem public
The Columbus Dispatch (Jill Riepenhoff, Lucas Sullivan, Mike Wagner)

The Dispatch analyzed five years of public-records requests made to Ohio State. It found that many people and organizations struggle to obtain what they seek.

Cleveland is target of more public records complaints than any other public entity in Ohio (Eric Heisig)

Six months after the state of Ohio set up a new system to deal with public records disputes, the city of Cleveland has generated the most complaints of any public entity in the state.


Roseburg councilor uses private email for public business
The News-Review (April Ehrlich)

The News-Review found that Roseburg City Council’s president had been using a private email address to conduct public city business for several years. When the paper asked for the emails, the council president provided them but said the request “impugned my honesty.”

South Carolina

How FOIA has brought light to key issues in South Carolina
The Post and Courier (Andrew Knapp and Glenn Smith)

The paper detailed some of the stories it told in the past year using the Freedom of Information Act.


Lindquist text message case: Still going, defense bills exceed $584,000
The News Tribune (Sean Robinson)

The paper reports that the Pierce County prosecutor’s text messages were back in court, with taxpayers still underwriting efforts to prevent their disclosure.


Secretive software doing more state of Wisconsin work
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Jason Stein)

The paper reports that the government is using private computer models to scrutinize most Wisconsinites in some way, from criminals to income taxpayers. State officials generally know the information being fed into the programs but often don’t know how the firms analyze the data.

Central Wisconsin government mostly responsive
USA Today network-Wisconsin (Jonathan Anderson)

USA Today’s Central Wisconsin newsrooms requested all emails mayors sent and received on one day in February; jail booking logs for a 48-hour period from county sheriff’s offices; meeting agendas and minutes of school boards when they went into closed session over a three-month period; a listing of police calls to high schools over the course of a year; and documents showing legal fees paid by towns.

Have you done an interesting story using public records or know of a good one by someone else? I’d love to hear about it. Tweet me @RecordsGeek.