Fighting to keep public records open

Saturday, March 18, 2006

R. Bradley Tombs can't have a computer disc of Ocean County topographic maps. Big homeland security threat, officials told him.

Yet he can get much the same information, fast and free, from the Internet. And for $600, he is welcome to buy paper copies of the maps from the very municipal utilities authority that wouldn't hand over the disc.

So why is he tussling with the state Government Records Council, the Department of Homeland Security and an appellate court?

"Any time government is going to deny me my liberties, I'm going to stand up for it," said Tombs, an environmental and engineering consultant from Point Pleasant Beach. "The information I've requested has nothing to do with protecting homeland security. Some people live in flood plains and they want to know their elevations. That's where the information is."

Even relatives of Sept. 11 victims have run into access problems. A group called 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism, which says it represents more than 6,000 survivors and family members, has turned to Congress for access to thousands of documents denied to them by the Transportation Security Administration.

In one instance, the group sought a videotape of hijackers at Washington Dulles International Airport. Although the tape had been broadcast on NBC-TV -- and is available on the MSNBC Web site -- the transportation agency has classified the footage as "sensitive security information" and declined to release it.

The group says the transportation agency gave the same label to information that has appeared in the Congressional Record and in newspapers.

Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the agency operates with "an obligation to protect."

"There are security directives and standard operating procedures," Davis said. "We don't want to make any information to be made public that could be used by the wrong people."

Today marks the end of Sunshine Week, a national public-awareness campaign organized by advocates of open government. Increasingly, those advocates say, authorities are invoking the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to deny access to contracts, drawings, photographs -- all sorts of records that rightfully belong to the public.

"One of the many downfalls of Sept. 11 was that it made national security a local interest in ways that it had never been before," said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri.

"Typically, when we were talking about national security, we were really talking about Washington and the Pentagon," he said. "Now you see every Tom, Dick and Harry on the local level [citing] national security."

Yet Americans recognize the value of open records, according to two polls released this month.

The Scripps Survey Research Center found that 62 percent believe public access to records is essential to good government. Twenty-two percent believe the federal government is "very secretive" and 30 percent believe it is "somewhat secretive." In another survey, by the AccessNorthwest project of Washington State University, 80 percent said democracy relies on open government.

In New Jersey, legislators created the Open Public Records Act in 2002 to widen access to official documents. Beth Mason of Hoboken, president of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, said the changes made to the state's public-records laws in 2002 -- intended to widen access to official documents -- don't go far enough.

"There is a cultural shift that needs to take place, with ethics, responsibility and service to the public that's not in a protectionist-type mind-set," she said.

Two years ago, Mason went to City Hall looking for the renovation plans for a town house. She was denied access, she said, on grounds that the plans could compromise security.

In an interview, she pointed out that for many condominium and rental buildings in Hoboken, Web sites offer floor plans and video tours. A free Google program shows satellite images by street address. If terrorists are turned away from City Hall, she reasoned, they'll find what they're looking for elsewhere.

By the time Mason got a look at the plans, the town house's renovation -- an extra floor -- was under way. It was too late to object to such a change in an historic neighborhood. But she sued the city for allegedly violating the state's Open Public Records Act, and the matter is pending in Superior Court.

"They're your documents," Mason said. "They're my documents. They're not owned by government. Just like a public library, we should be able to walk in and see them."

Tombs, the environmental consultant from Point Pleasant Beach, started looking for CDs of topographic maps in 1998 -- three years before the terrorist attacks. Since then he has seen his request go from the Brick Municipal Utilities Authority to the state Government Records Council to an appellate judge to the Department of Homeland Security.

"We have our valves located on that map," said Patrick L. Bottazzi, chairman of the utilities authority. "This is highly sensitive security information. We don't know where it is going to go."

Tombs said the matter may go on for years.

"I will win," he said. "It's just a matter of when."