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Officials in Dark About Right-to-Know Law

Rlogovc This is Sunshine Week, a national campaign designed to focus attention on the importance of open government and freedom of information. To kick it off, a group of journalists and FOI advocates conducted a nationwide audit of public disclosure under one law -- one conveniently with the words "right-to-know" directly in the title: the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. Not surprisingly, more than half the time, the auditors found their right to know met with a refusal to disclose.

The law in question was enacted more than two decades ago, in the wake of the Bhopal chemical plant disaster. It requires every community to develop and make public a plan for action in cases of chemical or hazardous materials spills. But when reporters went to their local government officials and asked to see these Comprehensive Emergency Response Plans, they were met with an outright "no" more than a third of the time, and one in five provided only partial reports. Sometimes, their requests were even met with police action:

"In some cases, officials ran background checks on citizen auditors or sent police to follow them. The highway patrol in one state even launched an 88-county alert seeking more information about one requester."

Other requests resulted in demands for exorbitant copying and labor costs. One Maryland county demanded $1,714 -- with $1,200 paid up front.

To give credit where it is due, 44 percent of the agencies released the full report. Some had already posted it online. One Iowa official expressed delight at receiving the request, saying: "We need more awareness on what to do during an incident for the safety of everyone."

The full report is available through the Sunshine Week site.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 12, 2007 at 05:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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