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Public record requests — better than it was, not as good as it could be

I was taught not to answer a question with a question, but it happened all the time when I was a reporter seeking public records.

I'd ask a government official for a specific record or set of records. The first response would be, "Why do you want that?"

I'd explain that the record I sought was open to public inspection. That status didn't depend on why I wanted it. I usually got the record I requested, eventually, but I could see where the average citizen — less familiar with open-government laws than a reporter-citizen being paid to obtain records — might turn away instead of forcefully asserting their right to the information.

We're in the middle of Sunshine Week, the annual recognition of the need for openness in government. I found this explanation on the Sunshine Week site: "Sunshine Week is a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.'' That's as succinct as it gets.

I'm not the only one who has encountered the "Why'' question during a records search. Brian Hunhoff of the Missouri Valley Observer wrote this for Sunshine Week:

"Why do you want to know that is a question most reporters have heard when asking for public documents. It generally becomes a Freedom of Information teaching moment from the journalist to the reluctant keeper of records ... It goes with the territory. The press must sometimes teach Sunshine 101 to public officials on Main Street, U.S.A.''

Hunhoff used the George Harrison song "Here Comes the Sun'' in the intro to his column. Harrison was my favorite Beatle and I like that song. When it comes to open government, though, I like the Fifth Dimension's "Let the Sunshine In.'' Maybe that's because I'm old enough to have covered the South Dakota Legislature when the theme song could have been the Walker Brothers "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore.''

When I began covering the Legislature in 1969, openness was a rumor. I had to fight to stay in the first meeting I covered. Bills disappeared into leaders' desk drawers. Committees often met without notice to the public, sometimes without notice to other legislators out of favor with the committee leader. Citizens were routinely barred from meetings or ordered out before votes. Record requests? Get ready to rumble.

In 1973, when Democrats won a tiny majority in the Legislature, the process improved. Committees posted agendas. All bills received hearings and public votes. Members of the public sat in the room during meetings. Former Gov. Harvey Wollman, Senate majority leader in 1973, said they were throwing open the shades to let the sunshine in.

That was a big moment for the public's right to know. So was a 2009 revision of the state's open records laws. Until then, a citizen sometimes had to prove a record should be open. Now, the presumption is that the record is open, unless it is of a category that is included in a long (too long) list of exceptions written into the law. The change made things much better for public access. More must be done.

After I retired from news, I worked several years in public information for a state department. Gradually, I assumed responsibility for public records requests. Early on in that duty, when I'd visit with an agency head about a request for a record, the first question would be, "Why do they want that?'' That didn't matter, I'd explain. All that mattered was whether we had the record and whether any exception in the records law prevented us from giving it out. I came to realize it wasn't a matter of them wanting to hide things. They just weren't sure whether they could give out a record. They didn't want to make a mistake.

In my early reporting days, we talked a lot at newspaper meetings about open records and meetings. We shared problems and approaches. Those education sessions helped. Similar sessions for government record custodians, held regularly with input from news people, would help, too. Sunshine Week would be a good time to think about implementing such a program.

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