Posted in Behind the News

Shining a light on public records changes in COVID-19 era

, by Patrick Maks

This Sunshine Week, AP is examining the backsliding of press access and government transparency in the wake of pandemic-induced changes to public records and meeting laws.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, many governors and state legislatures across the U.S. suspended all or parts of their state’s sunshine laws, citing challenges brought on by the coronavirus. They said it was necessary because their states were responding to an unprecedented crisis and many government employees had been sent home to work remotely.

A year later, many of those restrictions remain in effect.

An AP review found that governors of six states – Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and South Dakota – have thwarted records requests citing a wide range of exemptions.

House Speaker Del. Eileen Filler-Corn gavels in the session to an empty Virginia House of Delegates chamber after a Zoom legislative session at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The reporting showed records requests languish for months or are ignored altogether. Some meetings of state legislatures and their committees exclude the public because of virus concerns. While more local bodies are livestreaming their meetings, some no longer allow live feedback or testimony.

AP has yet to receive records from about 20 states for pandemic-related documents from last spring.

“The public benefits when a news organization produces a story that reveals something a government agency, official or politician wanted to keep hidden from sight,” AP State Government Editor Tom Verdin said.

He continued:

“What they don’t always see is how difficult it often is to produce that work. Agencies delay, obstruct and even outright ignore requests for information the public has a right to see, even when requested under state or federal open records laws. That’s the point of Sunshine Week – to put the focus once a year on the right of the public and news organizations to have access to this information and to highlight the ways local, state and federal agencies often try to thwart that right.”

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information – an effort that has long been a priority at AP. It is sponsored this year by AP and the News Leaders Association.

AP’s Sunshine Week coverage has included stories detailing public officials’ evasion of sunshine laws, delayed access to public records and how the pandemic is redefining public access to government meetings.

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