UTAH HEADLINERS: Freedom of Information Act is the speedometer on your car

By the UTAH HEADLINERS
Special to the News Advocate

Sunshine Week is here, and we who value government transparency are again celebrating the laws that allow us to know what our local, state and federal governments are doing.

But laws aren’t as popular as they used to be. One person’s reasonable statute is another person’s burdensome government regulation, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is no exception. Look at what the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing.sunshine week logo horizontal

The Washington Post recently published a memo in which the BLM, which manages a swath of Utah equal to two-fifths of the state, proposes streamlining a number of environmental reviews and regulations or asks Congress to do so. Nestled within the proposals to eliminate what the BLM considers duplicative and unnecessary regulations holding up oil, gas and mining projects are changes to FOIA.

The memo proposes limiting “the number of FOIA requests from any one group” and increasing the fees associated with FOIA requests. The BLM also proposes protecting the information that state and local government share with it. Put another way, the proposal would make a federal agency vital to the health of the West simpler by making it harder to learn what it is doing.

It’s not the first time someone has argued that disclosing government happenings is a burden on the government. Back in 2011, as Utah legislators were gutting the state’s public records law through a bill called HB477, one of their arguments was that records requests had become a burden for state and local governments.

Utah legislators also made the argument — much as the language in the BLM memo does — that record laws serve the special interest of some “group,” whether that group be journalists or advocacy agencies. Yet examinations tend to show record laws benefit journalists, advocates and average citizens, and a change to limit one of these groups winds up harming access for everyone.

To the Legislature’s credit, it realized its mistake and repealed HB477 not long after Gov. Gary Herbert signed it. Here’s hoping the BLM realizes its error before it’s ever made.

Saying record laws are a burden on government is like saying the speedometer and fuel gauge are burdens on a car. Both record laws and dashboard displays tell you what their respective vehicles are doing and whether there are problems.

The American taxpayers are the ones who gas up the BLM, and restricting FOIA will only make them more ignorant about the decisions being made and why. For that matter, it’s not as if the BLM is buried in FOIA requests.

According to the Interior Department’s annual report, the BLM received 1,024 FOIA requests in fiscal year 2017. That’s not much for an agency that manages one-eighth of the country’s land mass. It’s not even among the top agencies receiving requests within the Interior Department. The National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all received more FOIA requests than the BLM. For further reference, in calendar year 2017, Salt Lake City’s municipal government received 468 record requests through its online filing system.

If the BLM really wants to reduce record requests, it could be more proactive. Post more data, correspondence and other records online so FOIA isn’t necessary.

But restricting FOIA does a disservice to the people the BLM is working for — those who work on, play on and care for public lands. The proposal also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of FOIA. It’s no burden to tell the people what the government is doing. It’s good government.

The Utah Headliners is the state’s largest chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The Headliners are leading a public records training 9 a.m. Saturday at Weber State University. Learn more at twitter.com/UtahSPJ.

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