You can find videos of water skiing squirrels on the Internet easily. But it’s much harder to find out whether your children’s school buses and classrooms are safe, or if your neighborhood gas stations are overcharging.
Today the Society of Newspaper Editors published the results of a survey on how state governments are making records available online. They scanned state websites for 20 different kinds of records. Death certificates and gas pump overcharge records were the hardest to get — available online in only five and eight of the 50 states. (Even though death certificates are supposed to be free, many states charge taxpayers for them.)
Tomorrow morning the New York state senate will hold a hearing to consider strengthening freedom of information laws, something that makes us journalists pleased. The new provisions, if passed, would force state agencies to disclose more information on the web. Some of this stuff seems pretty basic, but apparently it’s not basic enough that the government is doing this on its own.
The law would allow all public meetings be recorded, webcast, or photographed, and require agencies to disclose the time and location of all meetings online ahead of time. An agency would also get in trouble if closed a public meeting in violation of the law (Currently, nothing happens except a bunch of jaded journalists get pissed off). In keeping with the spirit of the proposed changes, you can listen to a live webcast of this hearing tomorrow at 10 a.m.
Last summer, the state government amended freedom of information laws to require public agencies to make records available on the internet. It’s March. If you go to the mayor’s website to find out who is in charge of receiving public records requests, you won’t have much luck.