Gov. David Ige’s latest emergency proclamation takes a major step toward reopening the doors to government transparency, more than 16 months after the governor used his emergency powers to suspend open government laws at the start of the pandemic.

The new proclamation issued Thursday reinstates the Uniform Information Practices Act, also called Chapter 92F, which allows public access to a wide range of government records that aren’t typically touted by officials. Access to those records was limited in 2020 when Ige took the extraordinary step to suspend the records law.

The governor also implemented a new law that allows boards and commissions to continue meeting remotely even after emergency measures cease. That law, Act 220, had support from open government advocates and was pushed forward by the state Office of Information Practices.

Masked Governor David Ige speaks during press conference announcing that county and state employees will be required to show proof that they are vaccinated against COVID-19 by Aug. 16 or undergo weekly testing under new emergency rules announced Thursday in response to a surge in coronavirus cases.
Gov. David Ige has lifted a suspension of the state’s public records and open meetings laws. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Ige was criticized for suspending the records and meetings laws as his emergency rules were considered among the most restrictive in the U.S. Ige partially walked back the suspensions in April 2020 but kept the hold on records because of what he called an influx of requests related to the pandemic.

Lifting the suspension means that, in most instances, government agencies must fill records request in 20 business days from receipt. It also restricts the ways in which government agencies can drag their feet in filling a records request.

Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said lifting the suspension will compel state agencies to follow timelines set out by the Office of Information Practices, which handles appeals when records requests are denied.

“Now, the disputes before OIP can proceed more expeditiously,” Black said.

On Friday, the OIP said in a letter that it does not plan to grant any extensions to state agencies over records appeals and urged state agencies to “immediately file any responses previously requested by OIP.”

Fewer Backlogs

Ige modified the records law suspension in February to restrict the ways government agencies could move slowly on records requests. For example, an agency could request more time if it had to review paper files or if dealing with a records request would directly hamper the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was also an exemption for agencies processing backlogged records requests “in good faith with reasonable effort.”

“In the last few months, fewer and fewer agencies had the backlogs that would have made them rely on the suspension,” Black said.

State lawmakers tried to pry open the records law during the last legislative session with a bill that would have prohibited the governor and county mayors from suspending access to public records and statistics. The measure stalled in the last days of the session.

The new proclamation also implements rules to allow individuals to participate remotely during meetings of state boards and commissions in line with new legislation passed this year, although the new law doesn’t technically take effect until Jan. 1.

Boards are required to file public notices of meetings six days before they’re due to occur, and the boards are allowed to recess up to 30 minutes to deal with any technological issues that may occur during a public meeting, according to OIP.

Under the new guidelines, board members must also be visible and audible. Black says the new rules should also allow members of the public to testify via video and not just over the telephone.

The OIP encouraged boards to use the time until January to practice the new meeting law procedures.

“Any errors in execution will be a departure from the proclamation’s guidelines rather than a potential sunshine law violation,” OIP’s letter said.

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.

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