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Sunshine Week: Asbury Park Wins Court Case; Rochester Examines Online Options

The Asbury Park Press reinforced the importance of 2009 Sunshine Week when it won a major First Amendment victory in the Appellate Division of Superior Court, New Jersey’s second-highest court.

Gary Schoening, managing editor at Asbury Park, e-mailed a summary of the court case.

He wrote: “A woman who worked in Monmouth County’s traffic safety unit filed suit in 2005, alleging sexual harassment. In 2007, she and the county entered into a settlement with the understanding that terms would not be disclosed. It was in the $400,000 range.”

When the Asbury Park Press learned of the settlement, it wanted to know what was behind such a high bill that taxpayers ultimately would have to pay.

“We wanted to know the name of the offending party and then figure out if there was any discipline,” said Schoening.

“We filed a request under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) to get the settlement documents. The request initially was denied because the county said it was a personnel matter, and that releasing the documents would have a chilling effect on people coming forward.

“We sued the county and went to trial. The trial court found against us. We appealed, and the appellate court unanimously reversed the decision and ordered the county to turn over the documents.

“The appellate court remanded the matter back to the trial court to determine the amount of legal fees the county would have to pay the Press. Under the state’s open-records law, if a government agency is found to have illegally withheld public records, legal fees must be paid by the agency.”

The county is appealing, but the newspaper is not relenting.

“It will be a published decision, meaning it is now case law in New Jersey,” said Schoening.

The Asbury Park case is just one example of the important work Gannett Information Centers handle to address issues related to open records and open meetings.

Here are other examples focused on the critical issues of open records and open meetings:

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle published a story March 15 that looked at what local governments and school districts offer online – and to determine how transparent the districts were in revealing information about their inner workings. The Democrat and Chronicle reviewed more than 60 county, city, town, village and school district Web sites. Rochester pointed out that citizens are turning to local government Web sites to find out how to apply for a dog license, when the planning board meets or what is on the community center’s schedule. But it also found that the government Web sites are far behind in providing the kinds of information and services an increasingly Web-savvy population has come to expect.

As part of the multi-day report, Editor Karen Magnuson, the editorial board and members of the community discussed accessing government information on the Web. Magnuson wrote in a column: “There are two sides to today’s report about online access to government in the Rochester area. The good news: Technology is helping local entities become more transparent to citizens who don’t have the time to go to government offices and sort through public documents.㄀The bad news: We still have a long way to go before citizens have consistent, timely and easy electronic access to public information at every level. A few government Web sites are rich with helpful information, while many are either static or out of date.”

The Greenville News surveyed all of South Carolina government Web sites to find out what information is provided to local residents compared with what is provided online in other states. They found that the state was behind in reaching out to local residents with information that is important to them. Chris Weston, managing editor, wrote that he and staffer Thomas Woodham examined what is available online to local residents about their government operations, and specifically how this relates to stimulus spending projects, and how athletic funds at taxpayer-supported universities in South Carolina are subject to the same disclosure requirements as are all other government records.

Bruce Estes, managing editor and general manager, of The Ithaca Journal, wrote that the first public meeting of a local charter school was poised to run afoul of New York’s Open Meetings law. The school board planned to begin its first meeting with a closed-door executive session followed by its regular meeting that would be open to the public.

The newspaper pointed out in an editorial on the day of the meeting that New York law requires public bodies to vote in an open meeting prior to going into a closed executive session. The embarrassed board followed the correct procedure when it met that evening.

The Post-Crescent at Appleton examined how the exceptions to Wisconsin’s open meetings law are handled and how new groups that bring together officials from a number of governments – and make decisions about how to spend money – are raising questions about what constitutes a governmental body.

The Indianapolis Star published a column by former staffer Andrea Neal, who emphasized the importance of two bills before the 2009 legislature that would make it easier for Hoosiers to fulfill their roles as watchdogs of state government.

Neal wrote: “The measures are welcome in light of the embarrassing Sunshine Week report that ranked Indiana next to last in availability of government records online.”

Last Modified: April 2009