The Price of Secrecy

There’s no substitute for disclosure. The more the people know about what their government is doing, how they’re doing it and why, the more perfect is our union. After all, let us not forget that the people are, essentially, the government. That was true in the beginning of this great experiment with Democracy, some 230 years ago, and it remains true now. Those venerated halls of power, from the White House to the County Courthouse, belong to the citizens. So whether it’s something as complex as domestic spying with an army of Orwellian robots or as seemingly simple as emails transmitted by a county administrator, all of those things belong to all of us. The circuit board inside a government drone, the computer used to transmit emails, even the internet bandwidth through which those emails were transmitted – all of it, and more, was paid for with your tax dollars.

Therefore, you already own all of that information. So there should be no additional cost associated with a citizen getting access to any of that information.

Fairfield County, however, appears to have a different point of view; at least when it comes to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by a Columbia television station last April for access to emails sent and received by the then County Administrator. The County offered to grant access, but only after telling the station it would cost them more than $29,000 to have an attorney cull out anything that might be considered exempt from FOIA disclosure. While the station, naturally, balked at that offer, last week we learned that the County had actually paid attorneys more than $12,000 to work on that same FOIA request, although the emails were never released.

Considering the County’s track record of openness and compliance with the local news media, a history where not even a single dime has been required to change hands in order to gain access to any and everything ever requested, their hardline stance with the Columbia TV station is baffling. To attempt to charge anything, let alone the exorbitant amount of $29,000, flies in the face of the very spirit of the FOIA. That the County was willing to spend $12,000 in an attempt to obfuscate these records only casts a dark cloud of secrecy over the whole email affair.

The Fairfield County School District, on the other hand, was hit with a similar FOIA request by a local news outlet not too many years ago. While the District, at the time, was not in its best days of compliance and openness, they did indeed comply, hand-delivering a large cardboard box of paper copies of six months’ worth of Board member emails. And at no charge to the local media.

If the School District can handle such a request, what could the County’s argument be?

When the County first got into this ugly staring contest with the broadcast media last spring, our unsolicited advice to them was simple: Just give them what they’re asking for. If you fight them, you lose; even if you win.

The Freedom of Information Act is not just a tool for the news media. It is for everyone. But in reality, it is a law that should be obsolete. Public records are public. You’ve paid for them. You own them outright. Getting access to them should be as simple as walking into an office and asking, or logging on to a Web site and browsing. For any government body to attempt to charge you for them is really an effort to sell you the same goods twice.

Don’t buy it.