Every week, MuckRock brings to you this roundup of transparency and accountability battles, threats and wins. Transparency policies and practices are changing quickly even as the need to understand government decision making grows. If you want the latest on FOIA and public records delivered right to your inbox sign up for our soon-to-launch FOIA update newsletter.
Most states have made changes to their Open Meetings laws. The same is not true for public records.
This week’s takeaway: keep filing, because most agencies should be responding.
MuckRock is tracking changes to state open meeting and public record policy. You can find that list here, along with changes to local records processes we’ve noted. If you know of any changes that aren’t listed here, please share them with us.
Most agencies are still expected to comply with their regular state laws, deadlines and all, even as changes to how public meetings are conducted have been necessary for social distancing. Some states — Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Washington — have used executive power to suspend deadlines, but most have not.
There has been no federal guidance allowing FOIA offices to skirt their responsibilities. The 20-day response time remains as required as ever even as responses have slowed as transitions to telework continue. Reports of inaccessible federal FOIA offices circulated quickly in the first few weeks of the national emergency, but these seem to be affecting very particular offices — the FBI andState Department are two we have encountered. Others are expected to continue handling requests as they are able.
The same dynamic playing out at the federal level is reflected in the states. A recent move by the Illinois Municipal League to encourage the suspension of records deadlines was refused by the Governor J.B. Pritzer.
“Each agency in Colorado state government and local government is responsible for implementing their own policies to comply with the Colorado Open Records Act,” Lawrence Pacheco, Director of Communications for the Colorado Department of Law, told us. His department is one of many Attorneys General that have issued open meeting but not public record guidance so far. “CORA deadlines have not changed as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. Also, we have issued an FAQ about meeting virtually and complying with open meetings law.”
Minnesota’s Department of Administration has provided a particularly robust set of guidance on data and open meetings during an emergency, making it clear compliance with both Sunshine laws are required even during an emergency. “Entities should make contingency plans. Consider preparing for the possibility that the Responsible Authority and/or designees might not be able to easily receive or quickly respond to data requests,” the state guidance says. “Government entities may need to prepare additional staff to carry out data practices functions.”
Municipalities are continuing to adjust to remote open meetings, with some moving to video conferencing and others opting to suspend certain public meetings altogether, but the immediate, obvious problems with open government under COVID-19 are moving from technical issues. What is happening in situations where public bodies are supposed to be providing oversight that is now not happening. If you’ve seen an example of how a lack of open meetings is affecting accountability during this national emergency, please let us know.