In battle for the right to know, average citizen almost on own

By SUSAN BROWN, ©1998 The Times of Northwest Indiana

Evansville Courier

February 24, 1998

The National Association of Attorneys General contends that among its members’ typical powers is the authority to enforce open meetings and records laws.

But Robert Freeman, a 20-year veteran of the New York Committee to Open Government, doesn’t know of any state where an attorney general actually enforces the public’s right to know.

"Hardly ever does a state agency enforce a (freedom of information) law," Freeman said. "There’s only one state that does, and that’s Connecticut."

Nancy Monson of Texas, director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said it’s time citizens start demanding that attorneys general do their job.

"There is a generally prevailing notion that these attorneys general work for the government," Ms. Monson said. "I believe they work for me, and for that reason I expect them to enforce the law and educate government agencies to abide by the law."

Instead, say Ms. Monson and other freedom of information advocates, attorneys general see their job as defending government officials against the citizens who sue to get them to follow the law.

There’s also the matter of politics.

Public access advocates say that, with 43 attorneys general having to seek election, most are loath to upset political allies by issuing opinions against them.

Consistent with most of his peers, Indiana’s attorney general, Jeffrey Modisett, sees his mission as one of education and training rather than enforcement.

But Modisett conceded there are problems, both with the high cost to citizens and the lack of accountability for public officials.

"I think that’s something the Legislature has to look at," he said. "You basically have to pay money for an attorney if you don’t get the response from the government body you want. I would agree that it’s a hurdle and an inappropriate one."

In a joint project with the Hoosier State Press Association, Modisett last year launched a series of public forums covering the state’s Access to Public Records Act and Open Door Law.

"Our road show certainly showed a number of people frustrated with government agencies who refused to disclose government information," he said.

Modisett said the frustrated citizens have not contacted his office for help – but neither had the government agencies.

"There appears to be a hidden, but nevertheless brewing, frustration," he said. "Probably the most surprising thing to me was that the remedies were so limited and set up in a way that discourages private citizens to remedy any perceived violations."

David Miller, legal counsel for former Attorney General Linley Pearson, said, "It seems to me penalties on occasion can be very strong deterrents.

"I don’t think Indiana is the only state that has wrestled with some poor citizen having to fight the battle."

Miller and others point to yet another weakness in Indiana’s system: Unlike other states, it doesn’t give its attorney general oversight of local public bodies.

© 1998 The E.W. Scripps Co.

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