Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
E-Mail: Enter 'Beacon' in subject box. Send to: Minnekota@Referencedesk.org
Readers who have paid attention to the suspicious death of Morgan Lewis in Aberdeen on Nov. 1, 2004, know that its investigation has been wrapped in bumbling, secrecy, dictatorial bravado, and just plain nasty-assed stupidity. From the outset, we have pointed out that officials in Aberdeen and Brown County have not been obeying the very laws they claim to be enforcing.
We have not had opportunity to post on this web log of late because we have been involved in intensive investigations into the closed government ruling in Aberdeen and in the legal ways to require the government to meet the standards of American democracy. The death of Morgan Lewis has occasioned great concern about the competence, integrity, and openness of government in Aberdeen. We will name our effort to secure Constitution-based rights of open and responsible government after him.
Here is the law that governs the way the city government is supposed to operate: 9-18-2. Records of acts and proceedings of municipal officers--Open to public. Every municipal officer shall keep a record of the official acts and proceedings of his office, and such record shall be open to public inspection during business hours under reasonable restrictions.Following are some guidelines from the Society of Professional Journalists on how Freedom of Information applies to actions and records of local government: What is Freedom of Information?
Put simply, Freedom of Information (FOI for short) is the right to know what your government is doing – how it spends your tax dollars, how it creates and implements policy, how it makes decisions that affect you. It refers to your right to examine records and documents and to your right to observe – and participate in –your government’s decision-making processes.
Government processes, activities and decisions may affect you directly or indirectly. They determine the amount of taxes you pay and the kinds of government services you receive. Governments and their agencies regulate many activities in your home and business life. Your ability to participate in, monitor and, perhaps, protest government decisions relates directly to your ability to know what your government is doing.
FOI is the opposite of secrecy. It means the doors and files of government are open and available to the public, instead of being closed to all but a select few.In some circles, “Freedom of Information” is called “Right to Know,” but the meaning is the sameHere is the SPJ explanation of why people have access to law enforcement information and records:L
USES: To monitor the activities of police, sheriff’s officers, highway patrol or other law enforcement agencies.
AVAILABILITY: Initial reports to law enforcement agencies should be available under state law. This may include tapes of incoming calls to 9-1-1 centers. Investigative reports by police generally are considered confidential, at least while cases are considered active. In some cases, law enforcement may try to seal closed case files because of information contained in them.
NOTES: It is not uncommon for law enforcement agencies to withhold even routine “initial report” information to punish local media over perceived slights or unflattering coverage. Journalists should actively pursue access to all the records they are entitled to see under state law. Journalists also should make efforts to see case files that have been sealed after the case is closed. And here are the list of symptoms of government going bad:
- A privacy coalition forms in your community or your state, perhaps in advance of an upcoming legislative session.
- Newspapers receive a wave of letters or commentaries calling for more protection of personal privacy.
- An elected official – governor, attorney general, legislator – calls for a special task force to address public access to government information. (NOTE: Such studies may be required by the law and, even if they aren’t, can be very productive in improving FOI laws and policies. However, FOI advocates should insist that their viewpoint is represented on any commission and that the leadership is not biased toward an anti-access view.)
- A government agency announces a new policy to close certain records or institute new procedures for requesting records.
- A government entity attempts to muzzle frequent “gadflies” or critics.
- A judge suddenly closes a court proceeding and orders all observers out. (NOTE: Remember that courts are not subject to open meetings laws. However, any time a court proceeding is closed, journalists should make sure the judge has followed procedure and explain the rules surrounding courtroom closures to the public. The media also should be active in challenging courtroom closures that they believe are unwarranted or improper.)
- Government files, which had been available, suddenly become unavailable.
- A government employee wants to know “why you want” information or records.
- A government agency increases the price of copies or duplication.A government agency (or a local government) purchases a new computer system that stores information in a new format. (A format incompatible with yours.)
- Meetings of deliberative bodies are held without notice.
- Regularly scheduled meetings are re-scheduled to new times.Meetings are held without printed agendas.A government council, committee, or other decision-making body holds frequent “executive sessions” without fully explaining why.
- Minutes from meetings are not available.Your local television station or newspaper does a big “Don’t Let This Happen to You” story warning about potential violations of people’s privacy.
We post this information for background on posts and actions that will ensue.