Sunshine Week survey finds limits on access

Public documents, formerly to be seen only by going to state capital offices 9-5 on weekdays, are increasingly available on government Web sites, news media found by conducting a nationwide cooperative survey.

But the Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information online found that some of the most important information is not yet available via the Internet. And some government agencies are charging the public to access records they’ve already paid to create, as taxpayers.

Nevada was one of the more Web-accessible states, with 14 sorts of important records available. Only nine other states had more, and five other states tied Nevada with 14.

Only Texas had available online, without charge, all 20 varieties of records the surveyors tried to access. Mississippi had the fewest kinds of records available online, four.

“Digital technologies can be a great catalyst for democracy, but the state of access today is quite uneven,” said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, one of the study’s sponsors. “The future of Freedom of Information is online access, and states have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of electronic self-governance.”

Surveyors scanned government Web sites in every state, looking for public records deemed of great importance to at least some people or great interest to many. The categories were: death certificates, financial disclosures, audit reports, project expenditures, department of transportation projects, bridge inspection reports, registration of fictitious business names, disciplinary actions against attorneys, disciplinary actions against medical physicians, hospital inspection reports, nursing home inspection reports, child care center inspection reports, statewide school test scores, teacher certifications, school building inspections, school bus inspections, gas pump overcharges, consumer complaints against businesses, environmental citations, and campaign finance information.

Of those, the least likely to be found online were death certificates, on Web sites in only five states.

Nevada wasn’t among the five. In Nevada, death certificates are released only to a “qualified applicant,” usually interpreted to mean a direct family member of the deceased. That person is charged $8 for the search and if a certificate is found, another $10 for a copy.

“The government shouldn’t be charging people for death certificates and other records,” said David Cuillier, Freedom of Information Committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists.

Information most frequently found online included statewide school test scores, online in all 50 states, and DOT projects/contracts, online in 48. Campaign data was online in 48, disciplinary actions against medical physicians in 47 and financial audits in 45.

Mississippi posted online only DOT contracts and projects, registration of fictitious business names, statewide school test scores, and political campaign contributions and expenses.

In Nevada, the 14 categories accessible online are DOT projects and contracts, statewide school test data, campaign contributions and expenses, disciplinary actions against physicians, audit reports, disciplinary actions against attorneys, environmental citations, teacher certification, fictitious business name registration, nursing home inspection reports, databases of expenditures, consumer complaints, personal financial disclosure reports, and school bus inspections.

However, much of the data in Nevada is incomplete or difficult to access. For instance, businesses operating under fictitious names must register those names in each county where business is being done, but only Nevada’s two largest counties, Washoe and Clark, make that information available for remote search via the Internet.

And the only consumer complaints about business, available online in Nevada, involve real estate and financial institutions, and then only in cases when the division has taken action.

The Nevada State Bar does make attorney discipline available online, but its presence there is not easily discovered by lay persons.

Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, says Nevada does a generally good job of posting government information online.

“It was important for the governor to get budget and expenditure information onto the Web, because that’s the overwhelming issue facing the state this year. One of the best examples of Nevada information online is the Legislature’s Web site, where people can read bills and watch hearings. In many ways, it’s easier than ever for people sprawled across the state to keep track of what goes on in Carson City.”

But, Smith added, “With that said, it’s still up to taxpayers and voters to pay attention. Some government Web sites are easier to navigate than others, and there are so many sites that you usually have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it.

“I still believe strongly that government has an obligation to push information out where people will see it, not merely to make it available.” One example of “pushing” is the state treasurer’s list of unclaimed property.

“It’s basically a Web site people can visit to find out if they have free money. It doesn’t get much traffic until the lists appear in the local newspaper, and then people flock to the site.”

Several bills pending in the Legislature seek to improve net access. AB 128, for instance, would require that campaign finance reports be posted within 48 hours of being filed. Other bills would require that financial data for school districts, counties, and cities, now published in newspaper legal ads, would go to the Web instead.

“We think the Web is a good supplement,” Smith said, “but it also needs to be published where people don’t have to go searching for it.”

Alan Glover, the county clerk/recorder in Carson City and president of the Nevada Association of County Recorders, said the move to post documents online was slowed by legislation passed in 2005 to protect the privacy of Nevada citizens.

“The bill prevented us from putting out any documents with a Social Security number or a drivers license number on it. So a lot of county governments had to shut down their sites, redact the documents, and slowly put them back online as they completed the work.”

Those filing documents sometimes included that information for unusual purposes, and in unpredictable locations. Now Nevada law prohibits anyone from filing legal documents containing those numbers except in circumstances where the law actually requires them.

Most public officials want to put as much as possible online, Glover said, because it is easier on their staffs to provide records that way. “If it weren’t for what we have online already, we’d be flooded with phone calls. We’d need a lot more people.”

Debra Gersh Hernandez, national coordinator for Sunshine Week, warned that the study, while comprehensive, is still somewhat subjective. Within some classifications of records, some may be online and others not. Generally, if the state provided any useful information, it got credit.

Some, for instance, posted information about how to file consumer complaints, get a teacher certification, or to take other actions, but they did not post reports about specific cases or proceedings.

And state sites sometimes would link to privately funded sites, such as the Better Business Bureau, for consumer complaints, which varied in accessibility of records.

Survey results were released today at the start of Sunshine Week 2009, which runs through Saturday. The study was developed by Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the Society of Professional Journalists’ FOI Committee.

“This is the first comprehensive survey of its kind,” said ASNE FOI Committee Co-chair Andy Alexander. “It tells us that many states understand that digitizing public records is key to open government in the 21st century. But it also tells us that, with a few exceptions, states have a long way to go before they become truly transparent.

“We know that providing public records in digital form is the right thing to do for citizens. But it’s also the smart thing to do,” added Alexander, who is ombudsman for The Washington Post. “With state budgets under considerable stress, providing public records in digitized form is less costly because it doesn’t require a human to process each request for information.”

In Nevada, the survey team included staff assigned by the Reno Gazette-Journal, the Las Vegas Sun, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In other states broadcast and wire service journalists, students and press association personnel participated. The entire report will be posted today on the national Sunshine Week Web site, www.sunshineweek.org.

Contact A.D. Hopkins at adhopkins @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0270.

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