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Wednesday, February 12, 2014
FOI Toolbox

Records custodians need training, too

By Lynn Walsh

The Florida legislature passed a bill last year that requires training for constitutional officers. That would include people like the governor, sheriffs, county commissioners and school superintendents.

It’s a four-hour training requirement and has to address the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees and the state Sunshine Laws.

After attending a recent training session where I heard several local public information officers speak, I wondered how Florida’s requirements for training compared to other states. So I contacted representatives in the 50 states and Washington, D.C., to ask.

I heard back from about half and learned most states do not have any public records training requirements for those working with public records. These are the same people making decisions about what you can and cannot access.

I wasn’t surprised by this, but I am baffled. And here’s why:

• If people working with state public records laws are not required to have formal, uniform training, h ow does the public know that each person isn’t just responding to the public records request "as they always have"?

• How can we be sure the "custodians" of our public records actually know the laws?

While Florida has a requirement for some training, that requirement does not cover a PIO acting on behalf of the sheriff or the school superintendent. It also is not standardized training.

According to the bill, the training requirement can also be met “by completion of a continuing legal education class ... if the required subjects are covered.”

To me, Florida’s requirement doesn’t go far enough. But it is more than most states currently have.

In South Dakota, the attorney general offers training events focused on open meetings and open records laws, but it is not required. There is nothing in the law that requires officials to attend trainings.

Oregon also offers training, but again, attendance by PIOs or someone in a similar position is not required. The Oregon State Archives Division and the Oregon Department of Justice offer numerous trainings throughout the year on public records.

(Some of the trainings offered by the Archives Division were available online until recently. According to one of the archivists, the videos were pulled down to be updated along with the rest of the division’s Web page.)

Some states take the requirement a step further than Florida: Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Illinois. All require some sort of training, and it has to be either approved by the state attorney general office or directly provided by the office.

Beginning in 2006, Texas required formal training in state open government laws for “elected and appointed public officials.” The Office of the Attorney General offers the training through free online videos.

In Illinois, electronic training is required for both the state public records request and open meetings acts, said Maryam Judar, a lawyer with the Citizen Advocacy Center. Each public body has to identify someone as its freedom of information officer, and that person is required to complete the training.

The Illinois attorney general oversees the training, and it must be completed by the FOI officer within 30 days of them taking office. assuming the position. Members of the public can also take the training.

The Citizen Advocacy Center is a non-profit community legal organization. According to its website, it works to build democracy by strengthening the public’s resources and institutions for self-governance.

For most of the states, it is non-profits like this one that work with the public and government employees, training them in state open records laws. While these trainings are not mandatory, many of the organizations travel around the state in an attempt to provide easier access for those who want it.

For North Carolina, one of those organizations is the School of Government at the University of North Carolina. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information conducts open government trainings and seminars.

We know records custodians are expected to follow the state open records laws that are in place. But without formal training requirements, can we be sure they really know the laws they are supposed to abide by?

When you think about the changes that may be made to the law each session, are they as up-to-speed with the laws as they need to be?

The next time you make a public information request, I hope you keep this in mind. Maybe even ask what sort of training requirements your local and state organizations have in place.

And just be sure none of them are citing exemptions or withholding information just because “the agency always has.” Remember, these are laws, not agency guidelines.

Lynn Walsh is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist. She currently works for the E.W. Scripps National Digital Desk. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. On Twitter: @LWalsh or Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.

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