Citizens have a right to easy access to public information

Published 11:52 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2016

We’ve already written a couple of stories about Sunshine Week, a national initiative that reminds the public of the importance of open government and access to public information.

Those are freedoms we take very seriously not just one week, but every week, given that a newspaper’s number one objective is to inform the public. In the spirit of this week, we think it’s time for the city of Selma to change the language in its request for information policy.

The form requires a signature so that the applicant agrees “the information being requested will only be used for a legitimate purpose. It is further understood and agreed that the information being requested will not be used as follows: 1) to create a scandal; 2) improper use; 3) useless purpose; and/or 4) malicious purpose.”

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That language was created more than 10 years ago and should be abandoned. It never should have been adopted in the first place, and sounds like it was written by someone afraid a citizen would use public information to make them look bad, which current Selma mayor George Evans echoed in his comments in today’s story.

All four of those requirements should be scratched from the form since the information should be public, regardless of how someone plans to use it. It’s almost as if whoever agreed on the language had, or wanted to, hide something, or make it so hard to get that citizens, or the media, would give up. There shouldn’t be any stipulation on government transparency, and we will not give up in our mission to make sure the public is informed about the minutia of city government and those who make the decisions about such.

Whenever a Selma Times-Journal reporter fills out the form, he or she is instructed to scratch through those four stipulations. We never intend to create scandal and do not have malicious purpose, but intent shouldn’t matter when he comes to access to public information.

We see our role as the people’s voice, and the people deserve access to public information without being burdened by untimely response or excessive fees. The city currently charges $1.25 per sheet for 1-20 copies and $1.75 per sheet for 20 or more copies. Many other cities charge 10 cents per copy or a quarter per page.

To be fair, the current policy was put in place in 2006 under a completely different mayor and city council. It was also three city councils ago, so a lot has changed in Selma but this outrageous policy has been allowed to remain on the books.

We hope the city council and mayor take a closer look at this policy, see how unethical it is, and update it with fairer guidelines that benefit the public. Ultimately the citizens of Selma own that information, and they have a right to easy access, regardless of their intent, and should be able to have copies made without having the burden of excessive fees for information that ultimately belongs to them.