FOI Training

by Aimee Edmondson, Missouri School of Journalism

The Sunshine state is sunnier than ever with Gov. Charlie Crist's creation of a special counsel for open government in the governor's office. He appointed Pat Gleason to the job. Before this, she ran the country's model FOIA mediation program out of the Florida attorney general's office.

"When the governor of a state is so committed to public access, it's incredible what we can accomplish," said Gleason, one of three panelists offering ideas on how states can increase public officials' FOI awareness.

The session was held at the annual National Freedom of Information Coalition Conference, Seattle Sunshine: 2007 FOI Summit, on May 11-12.

The panel, "FOI Training in the States: What Your State Can Do," was moderated by Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. It also included Eric Turner, managing director and associate general counsel of the Connecticut FOI Commission, and Texas assistant attorney general Thornton Wood.

In Texas, for example, there's an Open Government Hotline, staffed by attorneys who answer questions about the law.

"Sometimes it's a matter of public officials simply not knowing what the law requires," said Wood, who is also public education coordinator with the Open Records Division of the Texas Attorney General's office.

In 2006, the Texas legislature began requiring public officials to take two one-hour classes on the state's Open Records and Open Meetings acts. Woods' office conducts the free training for officials in all 254 of the state's counties. Officials can go through training in a classroom setting, as well as online using a video and manual.

"Most government officials didn't like having to take the training, but they lined up to take it," Wood said. "There is no penalty for not taking it, but there is a recognized obligation to comply."

For the first time, Wood said, public officials in rural areas as well as various "obscure bodies" are contacting his office for information and training.

In Connecticut, Turner oversees an independent commission that was created in 1975 to enforce the state's open records laws. The commission can rule on what the law requires and can force compliance. It also can order public officials to attend training sessions.

"This is a quasi-judicial entity that can say what it thinks the law requires and can make it happen, subsequent to appeals to higher courts," Turner said. "The enforcement mechanism is much stricter than in other states."

The commission provides training for public officials, and conducts as many as 60 workshops a year, along with sponsoring an annual conference. It has a $2 million budget and 10 attorneys on staff. There's also a catchy campaign slogan, "Give it Up for FOI," which has been put on posters and buttons. Public agencies are even hanging the posters in their offices.

Over the last few years, Turner and his staff have noticed an increase in the number of formal complaints filed with the agency – 687 last year alone.

"With more education come more complaints. We thought it would go the other way," Turner said.

Back in Florida, Gleason believes the governor can set the tone for more open government throughout the state. Her office requires that all public agencies at the state level designate an open government contact and a backup person to handle public information requests. Gleason also is pushing to get local government entities to go through training and designate their own FOIA officers to streamline the process.

Additionally, she is working to put more and more public information online. The public can get the records faster and won't even have to file a FOIA request.

"We want the information out there," Gleason said.