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Sunshine Week: Demystifying Open Records Laws in the States

Sick of red tape? An important part of Sunshine Week is not only shining light on government secrets, but on the complicated hurdles citizens must jump over to access the public records to which they have a legal right. Politicians intentionally throw obstacles between citizens and “open records” to discourage the public from investigating how the government works.

Well, enough of that–we’re demystifying open records laws by pulling them into the spotlight, one state at a time. The laws in each state are different, so take a look at the work our state-based Citizen Watchdogs have done to see how things work in your state:

CALIFORNIA

Californians voted to enshrine open records in their constitution: since 2004, all meetings of government agencies have been part of the public record, and the people have the right to all records of their business.

COLORADO

Colorado’s open records law is one of the most aggressive in the country: it requires government to take action within 3 days!

FLORIDA

The Sunshine State has a helpful list of guidelines to direct citizens looking for public records, but there are a few agencies that deal in shadows and red tape–most notably Public Works and Insurance.

MARYLAND

Mark Newgent’s story is a cautionary tale: just because Maryland has open records laws doesn’t mean they abide by the spirit of them.

MICHIGAN

With Detroit’s fiscal crisis, there’s plenty to FOIA in this state–but as Lindsey Dodge writes, sometimes it can be difficult to get records from public schools.

MONTANA

Montana has a dreadful reputation for getting back to citizen requests in a timely manner, so it’s especially important to be persistent in this state.

NEVADA

Nevada has a five-day rule, so the government has to respond to your request quickly–but the law also exempts hundreds of types of documents from FOIA, so that response may not always be positive!

NORTH CAROLINA

This is another state with a lot of red tape and exemptions, so make sure to read Bruce Carroll’s excellent guide all the way through!

OHIO

The Ohio Attorney General’s website is a great place for citizens in the Buckeye State to start: it breaks down the state’s open records laws, and directs citizens to the right places.

OREGON

Six years ago, Oregon’s terrible transparency record earned it a big, fat “F”. The state’s records have become more citizen-friendly since then, but its grade is only up to a “C”, so there’s more work to be done.

PENNSYLVANIA

PA’s citizen-friendly laws require the state to get back to you within 5 days of your request. Better yet: the legislature may reform the open records process this year to make it even more transparent.

TEXAS

The law in the Lone Star State is a bit tricky–but fortunately, Lou Ann Anderson has a comprehensive breakdown of the how, where, and when.

Don’t see your state on the list? Click here to sign up to be a Watchdog Wire contributor, so you can join our conversation and help other watchdogs in your area hold government accountable. We may even set up a Watchdog Wire subsite especially for your state! Also, you can always email us at info@watchdogwire.com if you have any questions about state or federal open records laws–we’re happy to help!

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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Categories: Government Transparency, Must Read

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