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Sunshine Week: A look at what's coming up in freedom of information legislation
In many states, recent or pending legislation could impact the transparency of public information. Though several states are taking strides to make public records more open and accessible, a few seem to be adding obstacles to obtaining public information. Here's a breakdown of what's happened in recent months and what could be on the horizon.
Alabama: SB 191, which passed the Senate in February and is pending in the House, would amend the Open Meetings Act. The bill is chiefly concerned with regulating “serial meetings.” These meetings are used to deliberate an issue, but require no quorum or prior public notice. The bill would prohibit serial meetings in an attempt to prevent officials from deciding how to vote in a secret meeting.
Connecticut: Passed last year following the Sandy Hook shooting, PA 13-311 allowed images of homicide victims to be withheld under FOIA if the disclosure of such images could lead to an unwarranted invasion of privacy for the surviving relatives. The statute also established a task force to consider the tension between victims' privacy and the public's right to know. The state legislature may consider recommendations from the task force this session.
Florida: The Senate on Feb. 13 passed SB 1648, which would establish that public records requests do not need to be submitted in writing unless otherwise required by law. It also would order state agencies to train employees on the requirements of open records laws and specify a reasonable cost of enforcement.
Missouri: Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, proposed SB 843, which would impose penalties from $100 to $5,000 for violating state open records laws. It would also not allow state agencies to charge for time spent reviewing whether requested records are exempt from the law, and it would require the government to pay attorney fees when a court determines that a violation of the law has occurred.
Wisconsin: The Senate is considering SB 526, which seeks to restrict information available on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website. Records of cases where an individual has been found not guilty or charges have been dropped would no longer appear in the database.
And on the national front…
The U.S. House of Representatives in late February passed a bill that would, among other things, require state agencies to make public information covered by FOIA available in electronic formats. The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act also seeks to expand the rights of those who wish to appeal a FOIA request determination and enact measures that would improve agencies’ compliance with the law.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., in March introduced the Transparency in Government Act. The bill is designed to increase political transparency, largely by requiring that more information about members of Congress – such as personal spending data, lobbying data and voting records – be put online. The law also requires that completed FOIA requests be published in an online database, and that notice be given of attempts to create exemptions to FOIA.