The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state.
This time, we focus on the state of Utah. MuckRock spoke with Linda Petersen, editor for The Valley Journals community newspapers, who also serves as the president for the Utah Foundation for Open Government, about the successes and challenges she’s experienced dealing with FOIA in her state.
Describe what you do.
I am the president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, which is an all-volunteer organization. Essentially, we’re a coalition of people who are interested in openness in government and are working towards improving the Freedom of Information Act in Utah.
How did you get involved with UFOG?
I am a working journalist and I am involved with the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter. Originally, UFOG was formed under the SPJ chapter, and one of the SPJ board members, Joe Campbell, took it out from under there and I got involved through him. Shortly after, he left the organization, and I continued working.
What kinds of requests do you usually make, and how do you use them?
We do primarily local requests, such as local municipalities and school districts. At times we will do county or state requests, and sometimes during the legislative sessions–we’ve got a 45 day legislature session–sometimes we will do requests for information on the legislature. What we’re reporting on is the approved legislature and how it affects the local communities.
Can you remember your first FOIA request? How did it go?
We requested some information from a school district, and it didn’t go well at all. Basically, the school district was proposing a very large bond several years ago. And they were going around with this PowerPoint presentation, outlining all the financial details. Well, we requested to get underlying data for the PowerPoint, because we wanted to know where they were pulling these numbers. At first, they denied the request, saying that is was personal information. And, of course, it wasn’t, so we appealed.
Then they said, ‘Well, you can have the request, but it’ll cost you $50.’ with no explanation of where they pulled that figure from. They thought that just because we were community news organization, that that figure would be daunting. So we paid the $50, and when it actually came back, they deliberately read the request in such a way that they send us the computer code for the PowerPoint presentation. Because we had used the term, ‘underlying data’.
At that point, it had been so long that we had we had already found the information that we needed elsewhere and had done the story. It was kind of an eyeopener to me to realize that a lot of times, the government doesn’t want you to know what you should be able to know. Some officials don’t like to be put on the spot, so they’ll do this dance with you sometimes. I actually believe now that there was no actual basis for this data–they just made it up out of thin air based on the financial directors’ thought process.
But it taught me some valuable things. It taught me that I have to be careful in crafting the language for FOIA requests and to be persistent. And since then, we’ve had the majority of our requests fulfilled. More often than not, they aren’t fulfilled in a timely fashion because Utah, like most other states, has no penalty. ‘Big whoop’ if they don’t fulfill it in the time they’re supposed to. Either they ignore you, or if you challenge them on it, they can say ‘Well, it took us longer than expected.’ In my case, I haven’t had a huge amount of stalling, but I’ve seen it in many other cases where they’ve stalled reporters and members of the community, hoping to wear them out. And sometimes that strategy works.
Where do you think FOIA shines as a tool, and where does it fall short?
The intent of the law is very good, both the national FOIA and the state laws. Utah has a very good one. The intent is to have a government that is very open to the people, and that the people should have the right to the majority of the governments records and data. But President Obama and his call for ‘transparency’ and all, it was a beautiful, beautiful document, but his administration had never lived up to it. FOIA has beautiful intent, but often, it’s only worth the paper it’s printed on. There’s way too many times where the response is, ‘Yes, but not now’, or ‘Oh, we didn’t know you were looking for these records’ or ‘We didn’t think the requester should have the right to this information.’ In most states, FOIA has no penalties of any consequence. I mean some of them say it’s a Class D misdemeanor or whatever, but it’s almost unheard of for anyone to be prosecuted under that. There are some people in the government who believe in it with all of their heart, and they will back you to get you what you need, and believe that you have every right to that information, but unfortunately, that’s a minority.
What is the appeal process in Utah?
It’s a two prong process. You can appeal to a state records commission, or you can go to court. Or you can appeal to the record commission, the commission denies you, and then you can go ahead to court. The record commission’s decision is not binding, so it’s the weight of public opinion against the government to comply. Sometimes they just ignore it. But if you’re an ordinary citizen, you don’t have the kind of money for court cases–even if you’re a journalist in this day and age, no media organization has any kind of money for litigation, and they know that. But then again, Utah has a state records commission, and many states don’t even have that.
What advice do you have for FOIA filers?
The first thing they have to know is the law. They should get themselves a copy–The Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press has copies of the state law on their website, which is very nice. It’s a situation in which knowledge is power. You need to know your rights going in. First of all, you want to know that yes, you have a right to this information, but the person at the desk can say, ‘Get lost, you’re not getting it’. Which, in police departments, is common all the time. So, if you know the law, the person on the other side knows that they’re dealing with someone who knows what they’re talking about. The law itself, in that instance is the best weapon.
Image via Wikimedia Commons