Government needs to be more open
A county government critic and activist, Joel Chandler, has filed suit against the Polk County School Board stating that the government agency is refusing to provide public records.
The records in question are emails between school board members, particularly between board members Frank O’Reilly and Kay Fields.
The board’s attorney, Wes Bridges, advised the school board that, although the school system found 966 emails between the two board members in a four month period requested by the activist.
Bridges said the school district only had to release 21 of those emails to Chandler.
By law, citizens have a right to review the contents of county communications. To do so, they must put in a special request and pay for county employees’ time in preparing the emails. But nothing other than policy states how the emails are to be made public.
Chandler, in his lawsuit, said the school system charged him $667 for the 21 emails.
Anyone should be able go into the school or county or city administration buildings and look through correspondence while sitting at a public computer. The emails are not private and should be open to immediate public inspection.
It’s our government. Citizens should be able to observe how elected officials deal with public matters. And according to state law, this correspondence is already public. So why not make everything available in a way that is easy and accessible?
Telling a citizen that the cost to retrieve emails is too high and there are private (which we would argue is not true) emails mixed in with the public ones, just sounds like an excuse not to be more open. We also expect people would adapt without extreme pain to a more open system. Sunshine leads to healthier systems.
Why not try harder to make the day-to-day business of local government more accessible and visible? A government more open to its citizens is a government that is more understood and respected by its citizens. When a government hides things from its citizens a sense of mistrust grows stronger and stronger.
The county school board has a history of not trying to be open when it comes to public records. School board attorney Wes Bridges pleaded no contest in 2009 to a charge that he violated the state’s public records law. He paid a fine of $275.
When a citizen is asked to pay more than $600 for a few emails, we think that amounts to an unlawful fine or punishment handed out.