Go public with public records

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 12, 2007

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote Wednesday on the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007, and a Senate-version of the bill is scheduled for introduction as well.

The Freedom of Information Act is one of the most powerful tools we have to keep track of government – whether on the local, state or federal level.

For a journalist, having access to public records is essential in doing his or her job.

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But you might be surprised to learn journalists are not the ones who most use the Freedom of Information Act.

The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government conducted a study analyzing more than 6,000 requests to cabinet-level departments and large agencies in September 2005.

Sixty percent of requests for documents came from commercial interests.

The second largest group of requesters was composed of private citizens, according to information provided by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Only six percent of requests came from the media.

In Selma, obtaining public documents can be daunting.

There is a form to fill out when asking for city records, and it sometimes takes weeks to get the information requested – even basic city business documents such as the city’s budget (which could be put online).

While the police department provides incident reports, a request for a specific report can raise questions. It shouldn’t.

And repeated requests to the Dallas County Health Department regarding health inspections are just ignored.

Every citizen – journalists included – have a right to request public records under the Freedom of Information Act.

The public’s business should be transparent, and such documents should be provided in a timely manner. Anything less makes it appear there’s something to hide.