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Good morning and thank you for inviting me to talk to you about the Freedom of Information Act and the needed reforms to protect our First Amendment rights. I am Sabina Haskell and I am the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer, a newspaper 10,000 circulation located in southeastern Vermont.
Even at that small size, we're the third largest newspaper in Vermont. And we're in good company: about 85 percent of the daily newspapers in the United States have circulations of 50,000 or less. Smaller newspapers generally pursue public records from state and local officials, rather than from federal sources, but our daily efforts to do so are a quagmire and it's getting worse.
In Vermont, where I am also president of the Vermont Press Association, we're frustrated by the de facto sentiment of secrecy that seems to be seeping down to every level of government - and it begins at the top, where it appears the Bush administration is unilaterally stripping Americans of their Constitutional rights.
The most recent example of the need for the Freedom of Information Act came only last week, when the inspector general released a report revealing that the FBI had improperly used the USA Patriot Act to obtain information about people and businesses. It was through the efforts of Sen. Leahy and others that the Freedom of Information Act was amended last year, making it possible to obtain the records needed to expose the wrongdoing at the bureau.
The fear-mongering espoused at the federal level - where questions and requests for information are viewed as suspect - is replayed time and time again at state and local levels. I truly believe the effort to seal off the federal government is the primary reason that there is increased efforts to close the doors on transparent government at the local and state levels.
The anecdotes I will share come from the dozen dailies and more than four dozen non-dailies that are members of the Vermont Press Association. Multiply us in Vermont by all 50 states and almost 1,500 newspapers and you can understand the magnitude of the problem.
The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to allow any person -- individual, corporate, and regardless of citizenship -- to request without explanation or justification, access to existing, identifiable executive branch agency records of any topic. Requesters are supposed to get timely answers at little or no cost.
In northeastern Vermont, a weekly newspaper wanted to do a story on the town hall's new handicapped-accessible ramp, paid for, in part, by federal grant money. It was
But when the paper requested an architect's drawing of the exterior wooden ramp to illustrate the story, the newspaper was denied because of Homeland Security concerns. It's hard to understand how a wooden ramp and railings, built of pressure-treated lumber, could be viewed as a security risk. You could wait six months, drive by and then snap the picture.
In Winooski, the school board went behind closed doors to make a sweetheart deal to buy out the embattled superintendent's contract. The Burlington Free Press sued to get the details of the settlement and when the newspaper finally won 18 months later and was given the documents, the school district's attorney's response was, "You don't think we lost, do you?" By stalling, the school district and its lawyer kept running up the legal bill on the taxpayers, knowing full well it was all public information, but hoping some of the storm would subside by the time they agreed to follow the law and release the information.
In Jamaica, Vermont, a town official, requested the public documents about the sheriff's department:
? copies of timesheets for the sheriff, a deputy and a detective.
? records showing reimbursed or partially reimbursed expenses incurred by the three
? timesheets and other records that would identify the "whereabouts and activities" of the three for three days in January 2004.
Two of the three requests were denied under subsections of Vermont public records law. The third request was denied because the sheriff was "unable to recall any instance" in which the three incurred a business expense that was reimbursed by the department.
The town official's assessment: "So -- I'm kept from a public record. I take the matter to court on my own dime, and I get falsified information back. Who picks up the tab? Me."
Keeping bad news - mistakes out of the public eye may work in the short-term - but the long-term outcome is the ever-increasing mistrust of government and politicians.
In fact, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government has found that the backlog of requests continues to grow. Its latest research found that an all-time record of 31 percent of requests went unprocessed in 2005 - up 138 percent in seven years. More important was the finding that half of the 26 federal agencies in the study said they failed to comply with even simple requests within the federally mandated 20 days.
The Freedom of Information Act is clear in its charge: We are a country where we do the people's business. And the people have a right to know what local, state and federal officials doing.
FOIA allows but nine exemptions in considering whether a record is open or not. Federal agencies are mandated to reply within 20 days to a request for documents.
State law, like the federal act, speaks to mandates but enforcement is lax. The Vermont attorney general believes his job is to defend the state officials breaking the law, not protect the citizens who own the public records.
These amendments will go a long way to enhancing the Freedom of Information Act and will set higher standard of conduct for state and local officials to follow.