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Tensions rise over access to local government information

First Published      Last Updated Mar 15 2014 05:50 pm

It was a chilling crime and, even with a quick arrest, disturbing questions lingered.

Derrick Thompson called 911 in the coastal Maine city of Biddeford to report that he was being threatened. Police checked out the complaint, decided it was a civil matter and left the scene. Three minutes later, the teenager and his girlfriend were shot dead.

In a state averaging 25 murders a year, the case was clearly of public interest and the police officers were doing the public's business. But answering questions about their handling of the call took a lawsuit, an appeal and 11 months after state prosecutors turned down the Portland Press Herald's request for 911 transcripts.

The faceoff was eventually settled in the newspaper's favor by Maine's top court. But editors, advocates and academics say such situations reflect increasing difficulty getting access to information from statehouses and city halls across the country, as officials broadly interpret exemptions in laws requiring openness.

Tensions between government officials, journalists and watchdog groups are a constant in American life. But while it can be difficult to measure change, observers are troubled by what they see as declining transparency that some say may be abetted by public apathy. Government's swing away from openness began with post-Sept. 11 security worries, they say, and has been fueled more recently by officials' concerns about individual privacy, changes in technology and opaque laws on campaign finance.

"There's a clear trend toward increased secrecy in this country. I see it in my survey research of journalists and I also see it just on the ground, in what's happening at state capitals and the federal government," said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, who studies citizen and press access to public information.

While the federal government's resistance to openness draws regular attention, state and local officials have also moved to limit access to information and proceedings, he and others say.

That is reflected in a 2012 report by the Center for Public Integrity and partner organizations that gave more than half of state governments grades of D or F for transparency and accountability. Investigators' findings included states whose open records laws included hundreds of exemptions and others that make critical budget decisions out of view of the public.

At the same time, researchers say journalists are finding it more difficult to obtain information from government through Freedom of Information requests. And, in a survey of more than 450 state and local reporters to be released this week, an overwhelming majority said that public information officers for agencies they cover are increasingly restricting access to officials and imposing other controls limiting their ability to report on government.

"The problem is pervasive," said Carolyn Carlson, a professor of communication at Kennesaw State University, outside Atlanta, who conducted the survey. "I think it's a problem for reporters as well as for the public. It means that reporters can't tell the story that they want to be able to tell them about their government."

Those findings are echoed in the anecdotal experience of newsroom leaders surveyed recently by the Associated Press Media Editors. Of the 37 who responded, two-thirds said that over the last five years the governments they cover had become less cooperative in providing access to records, meetings and officials.

"I think after 9/11 and the constant concerns about identity theft and that sort of thing, that there's been more reluctance on the part of public officials to give access to information that's clearly public," said Alan Miller, managing editor/news at The Columbus Dispatch, the daily newspaper in Ohio's capital.

Miller pointed to his paper's efforts last year to get data on city inspections of rental housing. After a December 2011 fire in a rental home killed three people, Columbus officials pledged to reform code enforcement. But they rejected the paper's request for records of their efforts. When reporters continued the push for the information, the city eventually turned over data that led to a seven-month probe exposing the city's worst landlords that prompted the city to follow through on its enforcement promise.

Other journalists report similar tensions over access to government information and proceedings.

—University of Arkansas at Fayetteville officials discovered in mid-2012 that its fundraising division had overspent its budget by more than $3 million. But over the next five months they never told anybody outside the university. School officials acknowledged the shortfall only when the journal Arkansas Business revealed it in a story. But they would not release auditors' detailed findings, claiming the report amounted to a personnel performance review of the people responsible and was exempt from public records law. They released the report after a lawsuit by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in February 2013, but said they were doing so only because the two people involved had consented.

In past years, the university had generally cooperated with information requests, said Sonny Albarado, the newspaper's projects editor. But when the newspaper asked for updated budget information, officials repeatedly said that they didn't have the record requested, only to later learn otherwise, he said.

A university spokesman, Mark Rushing, said the school's chancellor told about 200 people on campus about the shortfall before the first article was published, proving there was no intent to keep it secret.

"I think the university's perspective is that this is the kind of thing, as painful as it is, as large as it is, as unacceptable as it is, it's something we can often take care of and handle," said Rushing, the school's director of strategic communications.

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