Sunshine Week: Government records are public domain
Mar 16, 2013 (American News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Editor's note: This article is part of a weeklong series for Sunshine Week, which highlights the importance of transparent government. Articles about public information run through Sunday.
Look at City Attorney Adam Altman's desk, which has stacks of folders and documents pertaining to every city department, and you likely could ask to see any of it instantly.
"The only stuff that's tough is the stuff that takes time to assemble," he said.
He said he rarely ever handles Freedom of Information requests made to the city of Aberdeen. That's because there are virtually no formal requests made, save for some from the media.
Most information requests are made verbally via a phone call, Altman said.
"You just pick up the phone and call someone and ask for it," he said.
The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law that details what governmental records are available to the public.
Individual states create their own set of guidelines that allow for the disclosure of information. Formal and informal requests for public records can be made to governmental agencies in South Dakota.
It wasn't until recently that records in the state were declared to be presumed open unless otherwise noted. Before, records were only public if those specific ones were required to be kept by state law.
Many unidentified records made for many gaps in public records.
"South Dakota's law was unusual," said Altman, who used to practice law in Minnesota.
He has been the city's attorney for six years. Though the South Dakota open records law changed when Gov. Mike Rounds signed legislation in 2009, Altman said there hasn't been a change in the number of requests.
That's mainly because of two reasons, he said. First, it's likely because most things are readily available.
"If you go looking, it's always been there," Altman said.
The second reason might be the paucity of reasons to keep an eye on the government.
"I don't know if it's because people are apathetic toward government or because this is South Dakota," he said. "People tend to trust the government more here than in other places."
In an email, Pete Hesla, superintendent of the Aberdeen wastewater treatment plant, said the records requested from him relate to the plant's process inspections.
Those records must be kept due to Environmental Protection Agency regulations. The same public record-keeping is expected of Janel Ellingson, superintendent of the Aberdeen Water Plant, Altman said.
Doug Johnson, director of the department of parks, recreation and forestry, can't remember a time when information was requested from his department.
There are maybe a few requests for information each year made to the public works department. They're usually for the results of a bid made by other vendors or contractors, assistant public works director Clarence Fjeldheim said in an email.
It works a bit differently when it comes to the public safety departments.
"The stuff we have to say 'no' to the most is crime stuff," Altman said. "Those records are treated differently."
For instance, if there is an ongoing investigation, the police department does not want to tip off suspects to their activity. Records involving children are not available.
About three people request information on criminal reports each week, said Randy Majeske, a records supervisor for the department, in an email.
Accident reports are public record, but county or city law enforcement agencies can collect $4 for each copy given to a person.
Members of the public sometimes call Aberdeen Fire and Rescue for information, but most calls are also attributed to media inquiries.
City Planning and Zoning Director Brett Bill gets most of his requests informally. People might ask for copies of old building permits or records of a piece of property they're looking to buy.
"Everything we do is open to the public," Bill said.
Bill said the information is open to all. That means that once something is submitted to the city, like building permit applications, it's public information.
"You can't keep it a secret," Bill said.
Altman said he doesn't have a tracking scheme for Freedom of Information requests he receives. Requests should be responded to within 10 business days, but if no response is made, a request is considered denied.
Only written denial letters need to be kept on file. Altman said he doesn't keep records of Freedom of Information requests made to the city.
"Sometimes, people don't know what to ask for," Altman said. "There just hasn't been an overwhelming number of requests."
He said he figures he has nothing to hide. If one goes looking, he or she likely can likely find it, he said.
"We've got to find a medium between spoon-feeding this information to the public and waiting for requests," he said.
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