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United States

States have hodgepodge of cumbersome rules for enforcing sunshine laws

PHOENIX (AP) — A nationwide review of procedures by The Associated Press and CNHI News revealed a patchwork of complicated systems for resolving open government disputes that often put the burden of enforcing transparency laws on private citizens.

The review, timed to Sunshine Week, found that fewer than a third of states have offices that can resolve residents’ complaints by forcing agencies to turn over documents or comply with open meetings requirements.

In most states, the only meaningful option for residents to resolve complaints about agencies wrongfully withholding public records is to file costly lawsuits.

Here is a state-by-state breakdown of the mechanisms for resolving open government disputes across the U.S.

ALABAMA

In Alabama, the only avenue for resolving complaints about alleged violations of state public records or open meetings law is to file a lawsuit. The Alabama attorney general generally does not play a significant role in enforcing state open government laws.

ALASKA

Alaska residents’ only option for formally resolving complaints about alleged violations of state public records or open meetings law is to sue. If an open government dispute involves a state agency, residents can file a complaint with the Alaska State Ombudsman, which can investigate. The ombudsman can make recommendations and publish its findings, but it has no authority to enforce compliance.

ARIZONA

Generally, Arizona residents must go to court to resolve open government disputes. The Arizona Ombudsman-Citizens’ Aide does receive complaints about public records and meeting access, and the agency can answer questions, mediate between complainants and agencies, and formally investigate complaints. But it does not have authority to force agency compliance. Residents can ask the attorney general or their county attorney to file a lawsuit to enforce open meetings laws, but these offices can’t file lawsuits to enforce public records law. Residents must pursue private litigation to resolve records disputes.

ARKANSAS

Arkansas has no state entity that adjudicates complaints about alleged open meetings or open records law violations. A resident who has a complaint can either ask a local prosecutor to pursue charges at their discretion or file a lawsuit in state court.

CALIFORNIA

Generally, the only avenue for members of the public to resolve open government disputes in California is to sue. There is no ombudsman or equivalent office that adjudicates open government disputes. The attorney general and local prosecutors do have some authority to go to court over alleged open meetings violations.

COLORADO

Colorado has no independent office that adjudicates complaints about alleged public records and open meeting law violations, and the attorney general typically does not play a role. The only option for residents is to file a lawsuit.

CONNECTICUT

The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission receives and adjudicates complaints about alleged violations of state open meetings and open records law. The commission can determine if open records laws were violated and issue orders requiring that an agency release records. It can also impose penalties on agencies, including fines and mandatory training sessions on open government law.

DELAWARE

Residents can petition the Delaware attorney general to assess whether a violation of open meeting or open records laws has occurred or is slated to occur. The attorney general’s office can issue a written opinion on the matter. If a public body does not comply with the opinion, residents can file a lawsuit themselves or ask the attorney general to sue on their behalf.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Members of the public can appeal denied records requests involving an executive branch agency to the D.C. mayor’s office, or sue in court. For records disputes concerning the district’s legislative branch, the only option is to sue in court. Complaints regarding open meetings can only be handled by the Office of Open Government, which can investigate, issue advisory opinions, and potentially file suit.

FLORIDA

Generally, there are two ways to resolve disputes over alleged public records non-compliance in Florida. The first is mediation between the complainant and the agency overseen by the Florida Attorney General’s Office, but the mediation is voluntary. The second route is to sue. Members of the public can sue to resolve open meetings disputes, and local prosecutors can enforce the law.

GEORGIA

Generally, Georgians must pursue legal action to resolve open government disputes. Residents can file certain open meetings or public records complaints to the Georgia attorney general’s voluntary Open Government Mediation Program, which involves the office reviewing the complaint and contacting the involved agency.

HAWAII

People can file open meetings and open records complaints with the Hawaii Office of Information Practices. In addition to providing training, advice and general information, the office can issue enforceable opinions in such disputes, which can be appealed in court. Individuals can also file lawsuits to resolve open government disputes.

IDAHO

There is no entity in Idaho that adjudicates residents’ complaints about open records issues. Generally, residents’ only recourse is to sue. The Idaho attorney general does have the authority to file lawsuits against agencies that have violated open meetings law and have not resolved the issue when informed of the violation.

ILLINOIS

The Public Access Counselor, which is part of the Illinois Office of the Attorney General, can issue binding or non-binding opinions in response to complaints regarding open meetings and public records disputes. The counselor can also provide mediation. Additionally, members of the public can sue in court.

INDIANA

Residents can submit complaints about alleged violations of public records or open meetings law to the Indiana Public Access Counselor. While the counselor has the authority to issue advisory opinions in these disputes, the counselor cannot force agencies to comply. Residents must sue to enforce them.

IOWA

The Iowa Public Information Board receives and investigates complaints from residents about alleged violations of open meetings and public records law. It can provide advice, resolve disputes through informal mediation, or issue orders that require compliance with sunshine laws. Alternatively, members of the public can sue in court.

KANSAS

Residents can sue in court or submit complaints about alleged open meetings and open records law violations to the Kansas attorney general. The office can investigate the allegations and potentially issue a consent order or a finding of violation.

KENTUCKY

Residents can either file a lawsuit or they can ask the Kentucky attorney general to review disputes over open meetings and public records issues. The office can issue binding opinions in such cases, though a public body can appeal the opinions in court.

LOUISIANA

Generally, the only recourse for resolving open meetings and public records disputes in Louisiana is to sue in court. The Louisiana Office of the Attorney General can receive complaints about alleged violations of state open meeting law, but the office does not handle complaints about public records issues.

MAINE

Generally, the public’s only recourse in open government disputes in Maine is to sue in court. The Public Access Ombudsman, which is part of the Maine Office of the Attorney General, can answer inquiries from the public about open meetings and public records law, as well as mediate between residents and public bodies in open government disputes. But the ombudsman can’t independently enforce open government law.

MARYLAND

Members of the public can file complaints about public records disputes with the Maryland Public Access Ombudsman. The ombudsman can attempt to resolve the issues through mediation, but it does not have enforcement authority. Disputes that are not settled through mediation are forwarded to the State Public Information Act Compliance Board, which can issue orders, though these decisions can be appealed in court. Residents can submit complaints about open meetings disputes to the Open Meetings Compliance Board, which can issue advisory opinions. Residents can also sue directly in court to resolve open government disputes.

MASSACHUSETTS

Oversight of Massachusetts open meetings and public records laws are shared by the secretary of state’s office and the attorney general’s office. Complaints about alleged violations of open meetings law are handled by the attorney general’s office, which can sue on a resident’s behalf in court. In the secretary of state’s office, the Supervisor of Public Records can decide whether a record is public and issue orders relating to whether it should be released, though the attorney general and the courts are the ultimate enforcer in such cases.

MICHIGAN

In Michigan, the only recourse for members of the public to resolve open meetings disputes is to sue. In public record disputes, individuals can either go directly to court or appeal to the agency that denied their records request.

MINNESOTA

The Data Practices Office at the Minnesota Department of Administration can answer questions related to public records and open meetings law, but it does not have enforcement authority. The Commissioner of Administration can issue advisory opinions on such matters. Members of the public can also submit public records complaints to the Office of Administrative Hearings if they can pay a $1,000 filing fee. The office can issue rulings in these disputes, which can be appealed in court. Otherwise, members of the public can sue to resolve open government disputes.

MISSISSIPPI

Residents may file complaints about alleged violations of open meetings and public records law with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which can issue rulings in the disputes. These rulings can be appealed or enforced in court. Otherwise, residents can file a lawsuit.

MISSOURI

Members of the public can either sue over open meetings and public records issues or submit complaints to the Missouri Attorney General. The office reviews the complaints and can resolve open government disputes in a number of ways, including issuing warning letters, requiring training, or filing a lawsuit against a government entity.

MONTANA

In Montana, residents’ only recourse for adjudicating public meetings and public records disputes is to file a lawsuit. There is no state ombudsman or similar entity for adjudicating open government disputes.

NEBRASKA

Generally, members of the public can either sue in court in open government disputes or contact the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. Members of the public can file petitions or complaints concerning open government issues with the office, which in turn can issue disposition letters. If the office finds that records were improperly withheld, the requester can sue or request that the office file suit.

NEVADA

Generally, enforcement of Nevada open government laws is handled in court. The state attorney general does not enforce public records law but does accept requests to investigate alleged violations. The office can publish opinions detailing violations and can require a public board or agency to publicly acknowledge that finding. The attorney general or members of the public can sue in state court alleging open meeting violations.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Residents can either sue to resolve open meetings or open records disputes or file a complaint with the one-person New Hampshire Office of the Right to Know Ombudsman. The ombudsman can make rulings on open government complaints, which can be appealed in court.

NEW JERSEY

The Government Records Council in New Jersey accepts complaints about alleged violations of state public records law and can resolve disputes through mediation or by ordering agencies to take actions. The council’s decisions can be enforced or appealed in court. Residents can also go straight to court to sue over open records and open meetings disputes.

NEW MEXICO

Formal enforcement of open government laws in New Mexico is handled in court. Members of the public can sue over public records disputes and request opinions from local prosecutors or the New Mexico Department of Justice. In open meetings disputes, they can also file complaints with the Department of Justice or their local prosecutor – authorities who may file lawsuits in egregious cases. Alternatively, residents can file lawsuits regarding alleged open meetings law violations.

NEW YORK

Members of the public can contact the Committee on Open Government for advice or advisory opinions regarding public records and open meeting disputes. But the committee has no authority to enforce compliance with open government laws, and residents must pursue civil litigation to resolve disputes.

NORTH CAROLINA

The North Carolina attorney general’s open government unit does provide guidance on open government laws, but it does not evaluate complaints or settle public records or open meetings disputes. Residents’ only avenue for formally resolving such issues is to sue.

NORTH DAKOTA

North Dakota’s attorney general can review alleged violations of state public records or open meetings law submitted by members of the public and issue opinions. If a public entity does not comply with the opinion, residents can file suit. The office also has the authority to refer public officials who have violated open government laws in more than one opinion to local prosecutors for criminal prosecution.

OHIO

Residents can inquire with the Public Records Unit in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for guidance on navigating open meetings and open records law. But enforcement of open government laws is handled by the courts.

OKLAHOMA

In Oklahoma, disputes over open meetings and open records issues are typically handled in the court through civil litigation. The Oklahoma attorney general does have a public access counselor, who can mediate between members of the public and government agencies in public records and open meetings disputes. But the counselor does not issue enforceable opinions or rulings.

OREGON

Residents can file petitions about public records disputes involving most state agencies with the Oregon Department of Justice. The department can then issue decisions, but it does not have the authority to initiate lawsuits in these cases. If either the agency or the requester disagree with these decisions, they can go to court. Requesters can also seek advisory opinions from local prosecutors in disputes involving local agencies. Additionally, they can contact the Office of the Public Records Advocate, which can compel state agencies in the executive branch to participate in mediation over records disputes, but cannot force agencies to comply. The Oregon Government Ethics Commission receives complaints concerning public meetings and can impose sanctions on governing officials. In both open meetings and public records disputes, residents can also take their case directly to court.

PENNSYLVANIA

Members of the public can appeal denied records requests to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. The office levies “final determinations” by which the parties abide; however, these decisions can be appealed in court. There is no administrative agency that oversees complaints about open meetings disputes, meaning lawsuits must be filed to resolve potential violations.

RHODE ISLAND

Members of the public can sue in court or file complaints with the Rhode Island attorney general regarding alleged violations of public records and open meetings laws. The office can resolve disputes with findings or potentially file lawsuits to enforce the statutes.

SOUTH CAROLINA

The South Carolina attorney general does not enforce open government laws or handle complaints about alleged violations. Residents must sue in open government disputes.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Complaints regarding open meetings issues can be brought to the South Dakota Open Meetings Commission. The commission can make determinations regarding alleged violations of state open meetings law and issue public reprimands, but it can’t enforce compliance. A state’s attorney could prosecute open meetings violations. Residents can file public records-related complaints with the Office of Hearing Examiners, who can review disputes and issue decisions. These decisions can be appealed by either party in court. Residents can also file lawsuits to resolve open meetings and open records disputes.

TENNESSEE

Generally, complaints about alleged open meetings or open records law violations are handled by the courts, and residents must file a lawsuit to resolve such disputes. Residents can also contact the Open Records Counsel at the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, which can answer questions about public records and open meetings law and issue informal advisory opinions.

TEXAS

The Office of the Attorney General plays a central role in resolving public records disputes in Texas. Agencies must appeal to the office before denying a records request, and the office issues decisions in these cases. It also receives complaints regarding excessive fees for records, which can be resolved with financial penalties. Residents can also file suit over public records disputes. For alleged violations of open meetings law, residents can file complaints with their local prosecutor or pursue private litigation.

UTAH

Members of the public can appeal denied or delayed records to the State Records Committee, which can issue orders in disputes. The committee’s orders can be appealed in court, and residents can also sue over records disputes without going to the committee first. The Utah Attorney General’s Office does receive complaints about open meetings disputes, which can be resolved through training or admonishment, though the office has never brought a judicial action to enforce the open meetings law. The Utah Government Records Ombudsman can also provide information and guidance to individuals seeking records or trying to appeal denied records requests. Members of the public can also go straight to court in open meetings disputes.

VERMONT

Vermont does not have an entity that adjudicates complaints about public records or open meetings issues. Members of the public can resolve such disputes by suing in court.

VIRGINIA

In Virginia, residents’ only option for definitively resolving complaints about alleged violations of open meetings or open records law is to pursue legal action. Residents can also seek advice and opinions from the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. But the courts are the final arbiter in open government disputes.

WASHINGTON

Open meetings and public records law disputes in Washington are typically resolved in court. There is an open government ombuds in the Washington Attorney General’s Office, but the ombuds does not enforce open government laws and instead provides education and answers questions.

WEST VIRGINIA

In West Virginia, residents’ only recourse for resolving complaints about alleged violations of open meetings and open records law is to file a lawsuit.

WISCONSIN

Open government disputes in Wisconsin are resolved in court. Members of the public, in addition to the Wisconsin Department of Justice and district attorneys, can settle complaints about public records and open meetings issues by suing. The Department of Justice’s Office of Open Government receives complaints, requests for enforcement, and inquiries about open government laws.

WYOMING

Generally, open meetings and public records disputes in Wyoming are resolved in court. Members of the public can file complaints about alleged violations of public records law with the Public Records Ombudsman in the Wyoming governor’s office. The ombudsman can mediate between residents and public bodies, but it has no authority to enforce compliance.

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This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and CNHI News. Reporters across the U.S. from both organizations contributed.

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The AP’s support of local democracy coverage receives funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here.

Josh Kelety, The Associated Press



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