www.montereycountyweekly.com march 14-20, 2024 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY 17 We’re taught in school about checks and balances between the various branches of government, but those lessons tend to leave out the role that civilians play in holding officials accountable. We’re not just talking about the ballot box, but the everyday power we all have to demand government agencies make their records and data available to public scrutiny. At every level of government in the United States (and often in other countries), there are laws that empower the public to file requests for public records. They go by various names— Freedom of Information, Right-toKnow, Open Records, Sunshine laws, the Public Records Act in California— but all share the general concept that because the government is of the people, its documents belong to the people. You don’t need to be a lawyer or journalist to file these; you just have to care. It’s easy to feel powerless in these times, as local newsrooms close, and elected officials embrace disinformation as a standard political tool. But here’s what you can do, and we promise it’ll make you feel better: Pick a local agency—it could be a city council, a sheriff’s office or state department—and send them an email demanding their public record-request log, or any other record showing what requests they receive, how long it took them to respond, whether they turned over records, and how much they charged the requester for copies. Many agencies even have an online portal that makes it easier, or you can use MuckRock’s records request tool. The Foilies are our attempt to call out violations each year during Sunshine Week, an annual event (March 10-16 this year) when advocacy groups, news organizations and citizen watchdogs combine efforts to highlight the importance of government transparency laws. We compile the year’s worst and most ridiculous responses to public records requests and other attempts to thwart public access to information, including through attempts to gut the laws guaranteeing this access—and we issue these agencies and officials tongue-in-cheek “awards” for their failures. Sometimes, these awards actually make a difference. Last year, Mendocino County repealed its policy of charging illegal public records fees after local journalists and activists cited The Foilies’ “The Transparency Tax Award” in their advocacy against the rule. This year marks our 10th annual accounting of ridiculous redactions, outrageous copying fees, and retaliatory attacks on requesters. The Not-So-Magic Word Award: Augusta County Sheriff’s Office, Virginia Public records laws exist in no small part because corruption, inefficiency and other malfeasance happen, regardless of the size of the government. The public’s right to hold these entities accountable through transparency can prevent waste and fraud. Of course, this kind of oversight can be very inconvenient to those who would like a bit of secrecy. Employees in Virginia’s Augusta County thought they’d found a neat trick for foiling Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Consider: “NO FOIA.” In an attempt to withhold a bunch of emails they wanted to hide from the public eye, employees in Augusta County began tagging their messages with “NO FOIA,” as an apparent incantation staff believed could ward off transparency. Of course, there are no magical words that allow officials to evade transparency laws; the laws assume all government records are public, so agencies can’t just say they don’t want records released. Fortunately, at least one county employee thought that breaking the law must be a little more complicated than that, and this person went to Breaking Through News to blow the whistle. Breaking Through News sent a FOIA request for those “NO FOIA” emails. The outlet received just 140 emails of the 1,212 that the county indicated were responsive, and those released records highlighted the county’s highly suspect approach to withholding public records. Among the released records were materials like the wages for the Sheriff Office employees (clearly a public record), overtime rates (clearly a public record) and a letter from the sheriff deriding the competitive wages being offered at other county departments (embarrassing but still clearly a public record). Other clearly public records, according to a local court, included recordings of executive sessions that the com- missioners had entered illegally, which Breaking Through News learned about through the released records. They teamed up with the Augusta Free Press to sue for access to the recordings, a suit they won last month. Thanks to the efforts of local journalists, their misguided attempt to conjure a culture of “No FOIA” in Augusta County actually brought them more scrutiny and accountability. The Error 404 Transparency Not Found Award: FOIAonline In 2012, FOIAonline was launched with much fanfare as a way to bring federal transparency into the late 20th century. No longer would requesters have to mail or fax requests. Instead, FOIAonline was a consolidated starting point, managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that let you file Freedom of Information Act requests with numerous federal entities from within a single digital interface. Even better, the results of requests would be available online, meaning that if someone else asked for information, it would be available to everyone, potentially reducing the number of duplicate requests. It was a good idea— but it was marred from the beginning by uneven uptake, agency infighting and inscrutable design decisions that created endless headaches. In its latter years, FOIAonline would go down for days or weeks at a time without explanation. The portal saw agency after agency ditch the platform in favor of either homegrown solutions or third-party vendors. Last year, the EPA announced that the grand experiment was being shuttered, leaving thousands of requesters uncertain about how and where to follow up on their open Recognizing the worst in government transparency this year with the annual Foilies Awards. By Electronic Frontier Foundation and MuckRock