Flawed open records laws limit access to state government

By Mike Mullen

Most elected officials don’t want to tell citizens anything but the good news. But practiced speeches, triumphant press conferences, and highly polished press releases are little more than the announcement of policy decisions. By that time, the facts have been spun, sweetened and seasoned for public consumption. If you want the full story, you probably have to ask.

Though every state has some form of an “open record” law, exceptions and interpretations in many states are designed to protect the government, and leave the burden of discovery on the citizen. The State Integrity Investigation uncovered numerous legal and financial obstacles that prevent revelations of how and why a state government takes action. According to Caitlin Ginley of the Center for Public Integrity, “in state after state, the laws are riddled with exemptions and loopholes that often impede the public’s right to know rather than improve upon it.”

Connecticut exhibits the fewest of these flaws, and ranked first in the Public Access to Information category with an 89 percent ‘B+’ grade. According to state reporter Paul Stern’s research, the state has an impeccable set of laws governing open records. In practice, the state also received a perfect 100 percent score for lack of exemptions for state agencies. This level of transparency evolved over time, and, in the case of the once-stingy judiciary branch, might be the result of some embarrassment.

“In one famous case, the courts denied even the existence of some cases involving prominent people,” Stern writes. “The disclosure of these ‘super sealed’ cases in The Hartford Courant led, ultimately, to the downfall of the state's Chief Justice at the time, William J. Sullivan, and, to some degree, a new era of openness.”

Connecticut still has room for improvement, including more timely responses, and a greater willingness to punish violations of records laws.

But those deficiencies pale in comparison to South Carolina, which ranked 50th in the Public Access to Information category with a 22 percent ‘F’ grade. The Palmetto State is faulted for a weak legal structure, including the absence of a formal appeals process when the state denies access.

Indeed, the only appeal to a denial is to sue the state, a risky proposition which is both time-consuming and expensive. As sources told South Carolina reporter Corey Hutchins, that’s not the only way the state uses excessive cost to hamper transparency.

“South Carolina Press Association director Bill Rogers said that some governments or entities charge more than the actual cost to print documents, as high as $6 to $10 per page,” Hutchins writes. “The Press Association did a survey about six years ago that showed that some agencies were abusing being able to charge for documents by charging excessive amounts.”

Here are the full list of rankings for the Public Access to Information category, along with the states’ overall grades. Click through the states for more information, including reporter comments and sources.

1. Connecticut B+
Connecticut overall B+

2. Rhode Island B-
Rhode Island overall C

3. Washington B-
Washington overall B-

4. Illinois B-
Illinois overall C

5. Pennsylvania B-
Pennsylvania overall C-

6. New Jersey B-
New Jersey overall B+

7. Nebraska C+
Nebraska overall B-

8. Arizona C+
Arizona overall D+

9. Kentucky C
Kentucky overall C-

10. Minnesota C
Minnesota overall D+

11. North Dakota C
North Dakota overall F

12. Tennessee C
Tennessee overall C

13. Kansas C
Kansas overall C

14. Idaho C-
Idaho overall D-

15. Ohio C-
Ohio overall D

16. Mississippi D+
Mississippi overall C+

17. Florida D+
Florida overall C-

18. New Mexico D+
New Mexico overall D-

19. New York D+
New York overall D

20. South Dakota D+
South Dakota overall F

21.  Utah D+
Utah overall D

22. Vermont D+
Vermont overall D+

23. Hawaii D
Hawaii overall C

24. Nevada D
Nevada overall D-

25. Michigan D
Michigan overall F

26. California D-
California overall B-

27. Wisconsin D-
Wisconsin overall C-

28. Missouri F
Missouri overall C-

29. Alabama F
Alabama overall C-

30. Texas F
Texas overall D+

31. Alaska F
Alaska overall D+

32. Arkansas F
Arkansas overall D

33. Oklahoma F
Oklahoma overall D

34. Delaware F
Delaware overall C-

35. New Hampshire F
New Hampshire overall D

36. Wyoming F
Wyoming overall D

37. Montana F
Montana overall -D+

38. Iowa F
Iowa overall C+

39. Massachusetts F
Massachusetts overall C

40. Georgia F
Georgia overall F

41. Maine F
Maine overall F

42. Indiana F
Indiana overall C-

43. North Carolina F
North Carolina overall C-

44. Oregon F
Oregon overall C-

45. Louisiana F
Louisiana overall C-

46. Maryland F
Maryland overall D-

47. Colorado F
Colorado overall D+

48. West Virginia F
West Virginia overall D+

49. Virginia F
Virginia overall F

50. South Carolina F
 South Carolina overall F

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