Sunshine Week 2016 may be over, but the public’s right to access public government information in order to make the government accountable never ends.
Before Barack Obama was president, he repeatedly promised many things that never came to fruition such as to provide the “most transparent” administration in history.
But the truth is that the Obama administration has set an all-time new record for failure to provide documents via FOIA requests. The Associated Press analyzed FOIA requests sent to 100 federal government agencies in 2015 – the final figures to be released during Obama’s administration.
The new record low for the supposed “most transparent” administration ever is actually for hitting the highest ever number of times the government has claimed it couldn’t find even one page of information requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Additionally, it took half of the federal agencies longer to answer FOIA requests in 2015 than it did in 2014.
According to AP:
In more than one in six cases, or 129,825 times, government searchers said they came up empty-handed last year. Such cases contributed to an alarming measurement: People who asked for records under the law received censored files or nothing in 77 percent of requests, also a record. In the first full year after President Barack Obama's election, that figure was only 65 percent of cases.
The FBI couldn't find any records in 39 percent of cases, or 5,168 times. The Environmental Protection Agency regional office that oversees New York and New Jersey couldn't find anything 58 percent of the time. U.S. Customs and Border Protection couldn't find anything in 34 percent of cases.
It’s unknown if files actually do not exist or if the government is doing “really crappy searches,” but in review, AP explained that in 2015:
The Obama administration censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them in a record 596,095 cases, or 77 percent of all requests. That includes 250,024 times when the government said it couldn't find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper. The White House routinely excludes those cases from its own assessment. Under that calculation, the administration said it released all or parts of records in 93 percent of requests.
AP wasn’t the only one to point at the ridiculously sad state of failed FOIA requests to federal, state and local governments. While some places still try to slide by on silly rules such as a “non-disclosure policy” aimed at reporters but not the general public, when you drill down to FOIA requests on a local level, there seems to be a common theme which interferes with the public’s right to know; we can thank third parties which operate databases for local and state governments for impeding transparency.
For example...the Richmond Times-Dispatch related the story of retired civil engineer J.J. Bahen’s struggle to get detailed violation information on a red light camera system which he calls “right-turn traps.” Although he has submitted FOIA requests to Richmond and Virginia Beach, Bahen has been told he must first pay “hundreds of dollars” to the third-party company Redflex Traffic Systems which runs the red light camera system.
Virginia, by the way, according to the Herald-Progress, ranks “a ‘D’ grade in terms of its FOIA accessibility with an overall ranking of 16th in the country.”
Although Redflex estimated the cost at $560 as it will “require programmer hours” to provide the FOIA-requested data, Bahen said the police departments have the data at their fingertips. “Anyone in that office with a working knowledge of Excel would have been able to honor those requests in 15 minutes. That’s how they do their special reports. They want us to go to Redflex and pay an exorbitant fee when the data is readily available to the staff at the police departments.”
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told the Richmond Times, “In general, this issue of databases is of increasing concern in that local and state governments are contracting with vendors without thinking of the open-records implications of their transactions. To me, you can’t contract away the public’s right to access or to access for a reasonable fee.”