Public officials cite coronavirus while limiting access to records
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.— Many state and local governments across the country have suspended public records requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic, denying or delaying access to information that could shed light on key government decisions.
Public officials have said employees either don't have the time or ability to compile the requested documents or data because they are too busy responding to the outbreak or are working from home instead of at government offices.
The result is that government secrecy has increased at the same time officials are spending billions of dollars fighting the COVID-19 disease and making major decisions affecting the health and economic livelihood of millions of Americans.
That's raised concerns among open-government advocates.
“It’s just essential that the press and the public be able to dig in and see records that relate to how the government has responded to the crisis," said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit. "That’s the only way really to avoid waste, fraud, abuse and to ensure that governments aren’t overstepping their bounds.”
The nonprofit Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has tracked more than 100 instances in at least 30 states and the District of Columbia in which state agencies, counties, cities or other public entities have suspended requirements to respond to open-records requests by regular deadlines or told people to expect delays.
Some governors have issued decrees allowing record requests to be put on hold for as long as the coronavirus emergency continues. Others have extended response deadlines by days, weeks or even months.
Various federal agencies also have said there may be delays in processing public records requests. The FBI temporarily stopped accepting electronic records requests in March, citing the coranvirus, but has since resumed. It's website now says record-seekers “can expect delays."
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has raised concerns and asked the federal Office of Information Policy to outline any steps it's taking to protect the public's right to information.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, issued one of the most sweeping orders, suspending the state's entire open-records law in mid-March. Following an outcry among open-records advocates, Ige revised his order last week. The new order still suspends specific deadlines to provide records but encourages agencies to acknowledge and respond to requests “as resources permit."
Attorney Brian Black, who helped negotiate the compromise, described Ige's original order as “extreme and unnecessary.”
“The public records law exists to give people the ability to hold their government accountable, and without timely access to information, they can’t do it,” said Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest in Honolulu.
Honolulu Civil Beat, an online publication financed by the same source as the center, has had a records request related to a public transit board pending since March. It also had sought a document related to a dispute about whether the state's airports should be closed to tourists because of the coronavirus.
Public records are “a way of validating, corroborating what these elected officials are telling us,” said the publication's editor, Patti Epler.
The Associated Press also has records requests pending in various states where responses have been delayed because of the coronavirus.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records have issued similar advice effectively relaxing open-records requirements. They said days when public offices are physically closed because of the coronavirus don't count toward the normal deadlines to respond to record requests.