Monday, March 12, 2007

It's Sunshine Week For Public Access To Information

Mar 12: Sunshine Week (March 11-17, 2007) is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know. Sunshine Week is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami. Though spearheaded by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why. Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger. According to an announcement, "Sunshine Week is a non-partisan initiative whose supporters are conservative, liberal and everything in between."

In conjunction with Sunshine Week, a nationwide information audit, conducted as a prelude to event, found slightly more than four in 10 of the official gatekeepers willing – if wary – to provide copies of emergency response plans, which federal law makes public. Other local officials, however, reacted to requests with confusion, outright denials and sometimes by calling police to check out the auditors. Many weren’t sure who had the authority to release the reports, or even where the documents were located.

More than a third of public officials audited refused to provide access to their local Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan – which is mandated by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 as a public document. Another 20 percent provided only partial reports. Those denials stood in stark contrast to the experience of other auditors, many of whom were offered copies of the report in either paper or disc form; 48, or 12 percent, of the 404 communities put the reports online.

The audits were conducted in early January, when reporters, civic group members, students and other volunteers visited their Local Emergency Planning Committee, which prepares the reports outlining emergency response in the event of a chemical or hazardous material accident. The 1986 law not only says the plans are public, it also requires the local officials to advertise their availability once a year.

In all, 162 news organizations participated as requestors, along with three student newspapers and eight League of Women Voters chapters. This report is built on a database of their experiences and offers a snapshot of the difficulties citizens may face when they request public information that may be considered sensitive. The audit is a project of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Environmental Journalists for Sunshine Week.

In a related matter, a beta version of has been launched. According to the website, sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, it "brings together official government information with news and blog coverage to give you the real story behind what's happening in Congress." The website indicates, "For most people, finding out what's really happening in Congress is a daunting and time-consuming task. The legislative process is frequently arcane and closed-off from the public, resulting in frustration with Congress and apathy about politics. Small groups of political insiders and lobbyists know what's really going on in Congress, but this important information rarely makes its way into the light. The official website of the library of Congress, Thomas, publishes the full text of bills, but we can do much more to inform ourselves and make our government accessible. Now, with OpenCongress, everyone can be an insider." OpenCongress is a free, open-source, non-profit, and non-partisan web resource with a mission to help make Congress more transparent and to encourage civic engagement.

Access the Sunshine Week website for extensive information (
click here). Access a release on the Audit of Response Plans (click here). Access the report of the Audit: Comprehensive Emergency Response Plans (click here). Access the website (click here). [Note: WIMS has posted a link to the website on the homepage under Congress (click here).] [*All, *Toxics]

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