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The perfect Christmas gift from Washington, D.C.: Openness

Congress came up with the perfect present to put under America's holiday tree this past week: revisions to the Freedom of Information Act that would improve the public's access to federal documents and records.

What's needed now is for President Bush to put the perfect ribbon and bow on the gift by signing the bill into law.

Whether he will do that is up in the air, given his administration's dismal record on openness in government.

And even though the bill could become law without Bush's signature, his endorsement would be a strong affirmation of the principle that led to the Freedom of Information Act's creation in 1966: A democracy functions best when the public has access to all the information that the security of the nation permits.

"Nothing undermines public confidence in our government as much as obstruction and obsessive secrecy," Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., one of the bill's sponsors, was quoted as saying. "The legislation substantially strengthens the Freedom of Information Act by reaffirming the idea that the United States government belongs to the people, and whenever possible, we should err on the side of full disclosure of information."

Full disclosure has always been problematical at all levels of government, from here at home to up in Sacramento to back in Washington, D.C.

But security concerns in the wake of Sept. 11 brought new restrictions on public access. And while some of those restrictions may have been necessary, at least short term, too many public officials and agencies used Sept. 11 as an excuse to draw the curtains of secrecy even tighter for no good reason.

Congress recognized that in passing the Open Government Act this past week. The bill on the president's desk is the most far-reaching expansion in FOIA's 41-year history.

Among other things, it restores a "presumption of disclosure" requiring federal agencies to release information requested by the public unless the agency can specifically show that disclosing the information could cause harm.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the Bush administration instructed federal agencies to withhold all sorts of information by claiming uncertainty over national security.

Congress' action also ends a long-established pattern of foot-dragging by federal agencies by requiring them to respond to requests in a more timely manner. Agencies that fail to meet FOIA's 20-day response requirement would be penalized by funding reductions.

Why should San Joaquin Valley residents care about changes to the federal law?

For one thing, everyone has a stake in open government, whether they live in Modesto, Calif., or California, Pa.

For another, at least some of last year's more than 21 million FOIA requests were filed by local residents and-or with federal agencies in our region.

And for another, secrecy is every bit as rampant at the local and state level as it is at the federal level.

While the FOIA applies to federal agencies, California has its own set of open government laws that cover local jurisdictions and state government.

The Brown Act and the Public Records Act clearly require that the public's business be done in the open, and that citizens have access to the documents and records of government.

Yet on a regular basis city officials, county agencies, school boards and law enforcement authorities in our region circumvent the law.

A statewide access audit conducted early this year by the Californians Aware advocacy group and a host of news organizations, including The Bee, gave poor or failing marks to many local and state agencies.

Unfortunately, things haven't changed much since then, at least not based on our experience. We still have too many boards doing the public's business in private, and too many agencies refusing to release public information in a timely fashion, if at all.

When the annual Sunshine Week, with its focus on open government, rolls around in a few months, let's hope our local officials and agencies do better on their report cards.

In the meantime, the president could do himself and the country a favor by joining Congress in drawing back the curtains of secrecy and letting the light shine on the doings of government.

That would be a fine present indeed to find under America's holiday tree.

Vasché is the editor of The Bee. Reach him at mvasche@modbee.com or 578-2356.

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