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The Public's Right to Know

By Joe Wessels · June 11th, 2008 · Wessels

Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine wants to share something with you.

DeWine, who's running for a spot on the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas this fall, thinks it's time that government put what it spends into a searchable database on the Internet. To that I say, "Amen," and it shouldn't stop there.

With today's technology and the maze of interconnected computers with a virtually endless supply of storage space and computing capacity, there's zero excuse why all kinds of government information across the U.S. isn't already accessible on the Internet. I'm glad that Hamilton County, through DeWine's proposal, would apparently be the first county in the nation to take steps to change that.

It's not just enough to be online in spirit -- like a spreadsheet turned into a Web page -- but I'd like to see a truly searchable, cross-relational database so that people who pay to fund government can actually see what's happening with their money. Think of putting data onto local maps and cross-referencing that with the vast amount of data government already collects. We could really learn some amazing things about how our communities work.

Ohio public records laws -- already some of the most liberal in the country -- provide for nearly unfettered access to just about any kind of information a citizen wants to request from its government. Many people never bother, though, leaving that task to journalists and activists who are willing to troll documents at a courthouse or other government office and pay to have the material copied. Few of these documents are online, even here, where we became pioneers for having government data available electronically thanks to the likes of former Clerk of Courts and Hamilton County Probate Court Judge Jim Cissell and Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes.

Even so, it's still not always easy to get information. Some government officials have been known to deny documents that should be public. When that used to happen to reporters who worked for companies with deep pockets, the information often would become public after an expensive legal fight. Now, thanks to tightening budgets at newsrooms everywhere, those fights are few and getting fewer all the time.

Recent public records audits, including one released by Ohio University journalism students in spring 2006, have shown that students disguised as ordinary citizens at Ohio public universities couldn't get basic public information. Students who went in unannounced -- as the law allows -- were denied information if they refused to show identification. Some were even followed in their cars after they left public offices.

Nowadays, government offices employ public relations officers who tell you they want to help you find the information you need. Some actually do. But more often than not those spokesmen and spokeswomen exist to spin their taxpayer-funded bosses in the best light possible.

That notion has been more true than ever lately, such as when former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan released his book about his three years working under President Bush, What Happened. In the book he admits to spreading "false information" about Valerie Plame, the CIA operative outed by Vice President Cheney's office. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail related to a leak of information about Plame's identity.

I sort of feel sorry for all those government workers who have to give up so much -- including home addresses, wages, e-mail, file cabinet contents -- when asked by the public. I wonder how much that plays on the mind of those who consider taking government jobs.

In the same vein, I think there's no reason why it should stop. Getting that information should become easier.

Procter & Gamble is required to share very little information with the public, from what it pays employees to how much it spends on company cars, office furniture, paper clips or light bulbs. While P&G leaders can create a lot of mischief if they wanted, they still can't raise taxes, spend trillions of dollars in tax money, arrest citizens or change laws. Governments can and do all the time.

DeWine's proposal comes at a great time. Technology has progressed to a point where it's feasible.

The end result might mean embarrassment for some, but in the end our community will be better off for the openness. Maybe the public will be able to exercise its right to know and will be back in control.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



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