When it comes to public information, there are wants and there are needs.
Sure, the public wants to know about a Fox News pundit's "falafel" fantasy as it appears in court records, but the public needs to know what the government is doing with our tax dollars. We want Nick Nolte's medusa-hair mugshot, but we need to know whether our elected officials are trading legislative favors for campaign contributions.
Since 2005, the American Society of Newspaper Editors has sponsored Sunshine Week (March 16-22) to educate the public on its right to access government information.
SFR's contribution this year is version 2.0 of MuckrakersGuide.com, a toolshed of links and resources for digging up public records. First launched on Jan. 9 [Cover story: "The Paperless Chase"], MuckrakersGuide.com features more than 200 links to databases and search engines that will help citizen watchdogs.
If Americans can count on 15 minutes of fame, Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, says they can also be certain to face what he calls the "FOI Moment."
"They'll wake up one day and through whatever combination of events that's taken place in their lives, they're going to have a burning need to get some information from their government," Davis, who also sits on the Sunshine Week Steering Committee, says. "That's the tough nature of selling freedom of info as a concept. It doesn't matter to most people on a daily basis, but it will eventually matter a great deal to them at least once. I can almost guarantee it."
In New Mexico, public information is perpetually on the back burner. On a scale of "dark" to "sunny," the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida rates most of New Mexico's access laws as "cloudy."
During the 2008 legislative session, New Mexico lawmakers failed to pass any open government or ethics reforms, including proposed increased funding to improve the Secretary of State's campaign contribution Web site.
Gov. Bill Richardson also rejected requests from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (NMFOG) to add opening conference committees to the public to his legislative call.
"The rest of the legislative session is open and when they go into conference committee, that's where the meat of the work is done," NMFOG Executive Director Leonard DeLayo says. "That's where they do their bargaining…we feel that should be done in public and openly and it's not."
Opposition to open government is subtle, Davis says, usually coming from government employee associations that are cool to the idea of increased scrutiny.
"What I always I say is, it sounds to me like they need to put on their big-boy pants and behave like men and women," Davis says. "We air our grievances in public in a democracy and sometimes it is rough and tumble and feelings get hurt. So be it. That's how the system works."
Whether you're looking for data on chemical spills, congressional earmarks or Kiefer Sutherland's arrest record, MuckrakersGuide.com will help you on your quest.
New additions to the link roll:
Follow the Oil Money
Oil Change International provides this resource, which will create information trees to map the oil- and gas-related money flowing to congressional and presidential candidates.
Iraq: The War Card
The Center for Public Integrity recently unveiled this database of statements made by the Bush administration that have later been proven false. The repository is searchable by dates and phrases.
Forbes' People Tracker
The magazine for power players also offers a free service for tracking the career paths of power players, including compensation and stock options.