The late I.F. Stone was a legend among fellow journalists, who gave him high praise for keeping a close eye on official Washington, D.C. But his admirer’s did not follow his example, which did not depend on a fierce competition for “access” to “informed sources” but rather a quiet, patient and tedious-seeming technique: He simply read publicly available government documents that few if any others did and reported what he discovered in his newsletter.
As this year’s Sunshine Week stirs proclamations and manifestos stressing the need for open government, it’s easy to forget that transparency assumes a citizenry that cares enough to scrutinize that which is made available. But how often do we encounter such persistent, painstaking watchdogs, with steady attention to open information rather than a clamor for details concerning a particular controversy, after which keen interest in public issues fades? And how reassuring, even inspiring it is when we do come across the few who seem to pay close and constant attention to what public records show—and who share what they find interesting with the rest of us, not for pay but out of a sincere sense of public service? Consider this remarkable citizen profiled by Sena Christian in the Roseville Press Tribune (photo by Philip Wood).
Roseville resident Theresa McInnes loves the country she’s called home since becoming a U.S. citizen in 1959 — and this sentiment has prompted her to become a proponent of accessing public records.
Over the past decade, she has been a regular visitor to the Roseville City Clerk’s office where staff knows her by name. The retired government auditor has asked for hundreds of pages worth of documents and publishes her subsequent reports in the Friends of Roseville FOREfront newsletter. She isn’t a member of the citizen’s watchdog group.
“I love this country and the open government it promises to us all,” said McInnes, who originally hails from the island of Norderney. “In that area, the people of Roseville are getting short shrift from their city. With my work, I would like to be their voice.”
McInnes exemplifies someone who takes advantage of the California Public Records Act, which passed in 1968 and is similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Sunshine Week started March 11 and runs through Saturday as a way to highlight these laws that allow people to access public information.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote the public’s right to know what the government – from the local to federal level – is doing and why, and is spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
“The idea is to take a week during the year to focus on open government to get people talking about it. My sense this year is that it’s growing,” said the association’s Executive Director Richard Karpel. “It’s important for the quality of our democracy. If people don’t know what their government is doing, it’s hard to know how they should vote or what direction they should take.”
The city of Roseville received 233 public records requests from January 2011 to the present, according to statistics provided by city spokeswoman Megan MacPherson. The City Clerk’s office spent 221 hours responding to these requests.
Those statistics don’t include the several requests made monthly by Press Tribune reporters, nor do they include hours spent fulfilling requests by other city departments.
Roseville Mayor Pauline Roccucci said the city must maintain transparency to ensure people’s trust in their local government.
“It’s the citizen’s right to have access to public records and know their tax dollars are being used wisely and that their elected representatives are making good ethical decisions,” Roccucci said.
McInnes first researches the rules and regulations related to the specific issue she plans to investigate. Then she goes to the City Clerk’s Office and fills out a Public Records Request specifying the information she wants.
She said this department is usually helpful in fulfilling her request, which they must provide immediately or within 10 working days if the records aren’t readily available. But that’s when the helpfulness ends, she said.
“The big problem is the city manager’s office with the advice from the city attorney,” McInnes said.
She often battles with the city on her requests, including her current attempts to obtain records concerning the Roseville Community Development Corporation. She was informed that the city “does not maintain these records (as the corporation) is a private, nonprofit corporation that is separate and distinct from the city of Roseville,” according to a letter from City Clerk Sonia Orozco.
“But they’re operating with our money,” McInnes said.
She has researched all sorts of issues through the years, including travel and meal expenditures. She is still frustrated with the city’s report on the Westfield Galleria arson in 2010 and believes critical questions weren’t answered.
Karpel said citizens should be persistent in seeking information that is legally available.
“People just have to be vigilant,” he said. “And if they run into walls, look for organizations that can help.”