Thanks to reader DD for this question, which – gasp! – means I can indulge in something other than the airport for a minute.

DD asks:

I would like to know what you would change with regards to the sunshine laws if you could snap your fingers and make an instant change?

Two words: Subpoena power.

Of course, that’s a dream. Realistically, I’d like to see public agencies held more accountable when they make specious claims about the privacy of their records. I’d require public bodies to keep all e-mails written by employees on file for two years. I’d like public agencies to cooperate not only with the law, but with the spirit of the law – not taking the maximum amount of time to put the records together. I’d like some kind of tracking system for federal information requests – so reporters could know where their request was in the massive federal bureaucracy.

The California Public Records Act and federal Freedom of Information Act are great tools that reporters frequently use to dig up interesting facts. We discovered this, for example, thanks to invoices obtained through the California records law: Gable Cook Schmid Public Relations, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s public outreach firm, spent $3,140 crafting an editorial by Midge Costanza, leader of a public policy group. The firm spent 16-and-a-half hours researching, editing and polishing the article, titled “Who will lead on our airport issue?”

It was published by the San Diego Union-Tribune, with no note that the authority had a role in crafting an editorial about itself. And GCS PR billed the authority $400 to write a July 2004 letter to the editor by John Chalker, a leading Miramar airport supporter. Same deal: No note about who really wrote it. So what did Chalker’s letter say?

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is moving ahead to find the best solution. Let it continue to do so without being attacked by those unwilling to work together for the region as a whole.

The airport authority footed the bill on both.

My point? The laws are helpful.

But public officials? Not so much.

One local agency asked us to write a blank check for records. Another government entity showed us public records, then said they were confidential when we asked for photocopies. And not to pick on the airport authority, but they once simply failed to provide us the records we asked for – even though they had them. When we discovered that, the authority said they had drafts that they couldn’t release. But I know of nowhere in the law where stamping the word “Final Draft” on a record suddenly makes it public. A public record is a public record is a public record.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) spoke about this topic at a conference I just returned from. He has sponsored bipartisan legislation that would strengthen the federal freedom of information act. It has some interesting – and helpful – tools.


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