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Open-government advocates criticize Oklahoma records bill

By The Associated Press

03.04.02

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Bills aimed at combating terrorism by restricting access to public records are moving through several state legislatures.

  • In Oklahoma, legislation pending in the state House would close to the public records such as the time of school board meetings and the location of high-pressure gas lines on their property.

    The proposed laws are meant to protect Oklahomans from terrorism, but some lawmakers and public groups say the proposals go too far.

    "It's an overreaction," said state Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester. "We've got a new awareness of homeland security, but ... there's oftentimes a real need to know."

    Stipe said residents need to know where high-pressure lines cross their property to keep from rupturing pipes and causing injury or death.

    Sen. Scott Pruitt, R-Broken Arrow, said state legislators and the federal government should be careful in their response to terrorism.

    "If we're just signing off under the guise of security, we're in trouble," Pruitt said. "Then we have to ask 'Who won?' "

    A bill that would have kept secret all blueprints of power plants, locations of pipelines and pipeline pressures was defeated in the Senate last week. But another bill with the same language is awaiting approval.

    Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, said legislators must make such laws more specific. Thomas is working to tighten a bill by Pruitt.

    Senate Bill 1472 was requested by the state Public Safety Department, which includes the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

    The bill originally kept confidential "all records pertaining to security functions, including, but not limited to surveillance tapes, security plans and security surveys."

    Thomas asked Pruitt and highway patrol officials to tighten the language.

    The amended bill changed "security measures" to "security functions" and allowed all public agencies to keep the information secret.

    "That's way too broad. ... It's ridiculous," Thomas said. "Anything could be a security measure."

    He said the proposal's vagueness violates the spirit of the Open Records Act, which was intended to tell the public what records they have access to and which ones they don't.

    "We don't completely ban guns in this country because some people may use them for evil purposes," he said. "We don't ban money because some people may use it for evil purposes.

    "It's the same for cars, fertilizer, rocks."

    Attorney General Drew Edmondson said he is willing to work with legislators to write laws that protect what should be secret without closing government to the people.

    House Bill 2764, called the Oklahoma Anti-terrorism Act, is more specific and may have the best chance of any proposal to get through, Thomas said.

  • In Missouri, for years legislators, citizens and newspapers have beaten back proposals to weaken the state's Sunshine Law, which requires public business to be done in public.

    But in the six months since the Sept. 11 attacks, Missouri lawmakers have been seriously considering adding exceptions to the law, in the name of heading off terrorist acts.

    "We have been an open society, so it makes me mad that we can't always be that way now. But this is a matter of security for society, and we have to be on our toes," said state Rep. Randall Relford, D-Cameron, sponsor of one bill that would close records about security at certain public utilities.

    Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, countered in an interview that "Sept. 11 has provided the perfect excuse for going into the Sunshine Law and protecting certain records from disclosure, even when there is clearly a public right to know."

    The Sunshine Law declares: "It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law."

    But Tim Daniel, Missouri's new director of homeland security, recently spoke in favor of what he viewed as narrow proposed exceptions to openness — legislation to exempt from disclosure security plans for public buildings, meetings of government bodies specifically to discuss such plans, blueprints of buildings and the costs of security steps.

    Various versions of the bill are pending in the Legislature. Daniel noted that members of the Al-Qaida terrorist network — which Washington blames for the Sept. 11 attacks — were told to scour public libraries for information about bridges, water systems and public buildings "so they could damage the sites."

    "I believe the terrorists will use the information that is available to them against us," Daniel said.

    Crews, whose association represents daily and weekly newspapers in Missouri, noted that government-owned utilities have for several years tried to win legislative exemption from open records, citing competitive business pressures.

    "Now these appeals are being framed by terrorism and reasons of security are given for wanting to close them. We want to make sure taxpayers can still find out essential information, such as the costs of security projects when public money is involved," Crews said.

    During a Jan. 16 hearing on legislative efforts to close records, Rep. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, asked Gary Markenson, lobbyist for the Missouri Municipal League, whether Sunshine Law exceptions for protecting details of security plans might become "a catchall to hide a lot of records"

    "Can we trust you enough?" Crowell asked.

    Replied Markenson: "I hope you could trust your elected officials more than terrorists."

    Crews said advocates for open records have had productive meetings with Daniel, the homeland security chief, and with lawmakers who will influence the legislation.

    Newspapers are also weighing in editorially.

    "Missouri is among the states where efforts to shut the public out of government business are being made in the name of fighting al-Qaida," the Springfield News-Leader said in an editorial. "While the purist in us believes government should remain open to the people paying the bills, we understand and empathize with the sentiment that security works best with some degree of secrecy. But not everything about security needs to be secret ..."

    Still, key lawmakers and even some open-records advocates say there is a good chance some changes to the Sunshine Law will pass to Gov. Bob Holden's desk, given the atmosphere of security consciousness since Sept. 11.

    Holden has not said whether he would sign such legislation, stating only that the public's right to know must be balanced against protecting the public from terrorism.

  • In Maryland, news media and civil liberties representatives are voicing their support for legislation to close some access to public documents as part of a series of anti-terrorism bills.

    The bill, sponsored by Gov. Parris Glendening, would permit state and local officials to deny public access to some records if they determine they could pose a threat to the public if released.

    The measure was recommended by an anti-terrorism workgroup assembled by the governor after Sept. 11. It is based on similar legislation in Florida and Virginia. Glendening spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie said Feb. 28 the governor wants to "strike a balance between public access to information and protecting the safety of our citizens."

    After the bill was narrowed to more specifically address what public documents could be restricted, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the media representatives told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee they could support the legislation.

    The documents would include vulnerability assessments of government facilities that might be attacked by terrorists, response plans for emergencies and other security procedures.

    Also exempted from release could be building plans and blueprints of structures owned or operated by the state, as well as information on medical facilities and laboratories maintained or regulated by the state that are prepared to respond to emergency situations.

    Carol D. Melamed, vice president for government affairs at The Washington Post and chairwoman of the government affairs committee of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said the group supported the new amendments, but suggested they be further narrowed to refer specifically to terrorist threats — so plans for natural emergencies such as floods and hurricanes are left open. She also suggested a sunset provision, forcing lawmakers to vote again in a few years to renew the measures.

    "The open nature of our society is such an important part of who we are," she said.

    The Carroll County Times and The (Baltimore) Sun also supported the amendments suggested by Melamed.

    Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary's, was among a few lawmakers who warned that the state should be cautious about limiting access to public records. After Sept. 11, Dyson said there was "headlong rush to change all this under the guise of national security."

    That was particularly worrisome to residents in his southern Maryland district, Dyson said, who were concerned about what the government was doing to protect the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. Plus, he added, the attacks on Sept. 11 did not have anything to do with access to public information.

    "It seems to me this country is moving in the wrong direction," he said. "We believe in freedom, and we're shutting things down, and it would not have prevented what happened anyway."

    Under the bill, a person who is denied the right to inspect a record may file suit to try to gain access to those records, and the custodian of the records must prove withholding them is justifiable.

    Update

    Maryland governor signs anti-terrorism bills
    ACLU had opposed measure limiting access to some public records but says it worked with governor's staff to resolve those objections.  04.10.02

    Related

    Open-government advocates wary of states' records proposals
    Civil libertarians worry efforts to increase security may hinder public's ability to monitor government.  02.06.02

    Press advocates keep close eye on efforts to limit records access
    Several states are considering measures to restrict public access to information for sake of increased security.  01.25.02

    Denial of access shushes the democratic dialogue
    Ombudsman Some restrictions are warranted to guard against attack, but as government demands more information of Americans, it's asking Americans to demand less information from government.  12.12.01

    Louisiana lawmakers pass anti-terrorism bill
    Legislature sends measure to governor despite complaints it would create veil of secrecy, infringe on residents' constitutional rights.  04.18.02

    State lawmakers draft more than 1,200 Sept. 11-related bills
    Report outlines measures introduced nationwide that range from making terrorism a capital crime to requiring teachers to lead students in Pledge of Allegiance.  04.22.02

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