I’m writing this on the Amtrak train as winds its way from Williamsburg to D.C. It’s a Spring Break trip to the Big City with my 5-year-old and a family we know from his school.
The newness of the train wore off after the first hour, and now he and the three other kids are well ensconced in Angry Birds and other shiny iPad apps.
Of course, they’re emulating a pro: I’m tapping away on my shiny computer, too, The train’s wi-fi portal shows a map tracking the train’s route. I recognize many of the town names -- Spring Break for me as a kid meant getting in the car with my folks and exploring back roads on the way to and from the mountains.
Many of the names, though, I’ve learned about since I began working at the Coalition. Now, the towns, counties and cities we pass by are associated with citizens’ stories about difficulties getting information from them.
* There is the place where they wouldn’t give the losing bidder on a county contract access to the winning bid because the bidder was out of state.
* There’s the school district that refused to release any results from a teacher survey.
* There’s the place where they wouldn’t give a citizen an advance estimate of the cost of a FOIA request.
* There’s the locality that dictated how support for the budget could be expressed, but did not give an option for opposing it.
* There’s where the clerk refused to let a requester use her own hand-held copier.
* That city is where the council came out of a closed session after everyone had gone home and acted on an expensive employment contract that wasn’t on the agenda.
It’s too bad that I only hear the bad stuff. It’s too bad that I associate place names with obstacles to access. It’s too bad that when I see a higway sign saying 25 miles to Anytown, I wonder if I’ll run into the town administrator who denied a request for email messages.
It’s too bad because I know that there are far more success stories out there than there are horror stories. I know that there are many clerks, administrators and attorneys who not only do what they’re supposed to do under the law but go one step further to ask what else they can do to help. It’s too bad because I know there are IT folks out there who are working to make websites more useful and accessible.
But like the scorched-earth attorney who gives all honest, hard-working attorneys a bad name, the stories I’m more apt to hear are the ones where some government employee forgets that he is the custodian of the public’s records and thinks of them as his own. Or the board that stretches the limits of closed-meeting exemptions to keep discussions hidden.
So let’s make a deal: governments, you embrace transparency and always err on the side of access, and citizens, you let governments (and me) know when they’ve done a good job.
I’d love to write a column on my next train ride about all the towns I now associate with good open government practices.