Civitas Review

How to Avoid a Public Records Request (A Government Primer)


Since the 1960s, so-called “sunshine laws” have helped to shine the light of public scrutiny into the dark corridors of government. Under state and federal law, any citizen can request documents that are made or kept by government agencies. Open records are vital to our government. They are an invaluable tool for keeping government officials accountable.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop government agencies from trying to get around the law and keep the public in the dark. Just this week, the U.S. Navy accidentally sent a reporter the Navy’s detailed strategy for stonewalling his public records request. The internal memo included several pending FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. For each entry, Navy officials had written helpful advice to their public affairs officers:

I would recommend negotiating with the requester…Josh can help with crafting the language…

Recommend that you provide the requester with an estimate, as I can see the search and review, possible redactions, will be very costly. This may encourage the requester to “narrow the scope.”

This one is specific enough that we may be able to deny.

The sad thing is that this approach is all too common in government. Although public officials pay lip service to transparency, their actions show otherwise. Civitas files public records requests quite frequently, and it is the rare respondent who acts promptly and correctly in accordance with the law. There is an elaborate dance, which often features one or more of the following:

  • The runaround: Oh, sorry, this is the wrong place! You’ve got to talk to Jim in another department. What’s that? You already talked to him? He said to talk to us? Well, that’s just not true. Try talking to Jennifer.
  • The delay: Yes, we have received your request. Yes, it was sent three months ago. We are in contact with our public affairs people. They will advise us when it is completed.
  • The office lawyer: You asked me for every report from the past month. I interpreted your use of the word “every” to mean “some.” Perhaps you are unaware that this is an accepted definition?
  • The accountant: According to our calculations, the cost of responding to your request will be approximately $200,000. Where shall I send the bill?
  • The cricket: *Silence*

These tactics by government are frustrating, and intentionally so. When it comes to open records, sometimes government acts like a small child who would rather throw an hour-long tantrum rather than pick up a toy off the ground. But in the end, the response must always be the same as a parent’s: Be patient, and don’t let up until the child does what he is supposed to do.

Ninety-nine People Issued Free Voter Photo IDs


According to the State Board of Elections, as of last Thursday, 99 people had been issued a free ID "for the purpose of voting" by the DMV.

Not until 2016 will voters be required to show an ID in order to cast a ballot. The new law states that in primary and general elections beginning in 2014, voters will be notified that ID will be needed to vote in 2016. If a voter indicates that they do  not have one of the types of approved identification for voting they will be asked to sign an acknowledgement form and be given a list of the types of of photo identification needed for voting and information on how to obtain an approved ID.

The last line of the provision on voter ID in the new legislation reads: "The list of names of those voters who signed an acknowledgment is a public record."

This is important because its being reported that groups around the state are ready to help voters who do not have an approved form of ID for voting. Here is an article from the Asheville Citizen Times that quotes representatives from the Democratic and Republican Party who are (separately) organizing efforts to help voters get an ID card.

Another Obamacare Application Nightmare


The Winston-Salem Journal documents the trials and tribulations of a local woman trying to sign up for health insurance coverage through the government exchange website. Thanks to the Unaffordable Care Act, her current insurance plan is being cancelled and her new plan would cost roughly double what she is paying now. This left her little option than to log on to to search for alternatives. The W-S Journal article sums up her nightmare experience:

Here’s the synopsis: Instead of finding a better policy, Sauers wound up with an application for a Medicaid program that she neither wants nor needs and cannot cancel. Nor can she appeal the decision.

And before she can get a subsidy to help offset the cost of a private insurance plan she didn’t want to begin with, Sauers has to apply for — and be denied from — a government health insurance program she knows she’s not eligible to enroll in.

Here's the kicker, even if this woman ends up successfully signing up for a policy, there remains serious concerns that the insurance provider will not receive her information accurately (or even at all), and her personal information will be exposed to significant security risks.

War on poverty is deadly


America's half-century long War on Poverty has been a failure. How the war was lost is the topic Robert Rector describes in an insightful piece  in this morning's Wall Street Journal.

Rector writes:

Do higher living standards for the poor mean that the war on poverty has succeeded? No. To judge the effort, consider LBJ's original aim. He sought to give poor Americans "opportunity not doles," planning to shrink welfare dependence not expand it. In his vision, the war on poverty would strengthen poor Americans' capacity to support themselves, transforming "taxeaters" into "taxpayers." It would attack not just the symptoms of poverty but, more important, remove the causes.

By that standard, the war on poverty has been a catastrophe. The root "causes" of poverty have not shrunk but expanded as family structure disintegrated and labor-force participation among men dropped. A large segment of the population is now less capable of self-sufficiency than when the war on poverty began. The collapse of marriage in low-income communities has played a substantial role in the declining capacity for self-support. In 1963, 6% of American children were born out of wedlock. Today the number stands at 41%. As benefits swelled, welfare increasingly served as a substitute for a bread-winning husband in the home.

Isn't fifty years enough time to render a judgment on a failed plan?  Perpetuating trillion dollar social programs that don't eradicate poverty and tear apart the social fabric is no an act of compassion and no way to help the poor.

Sowell: The Biggest Lie in Politics


Thomas Sowell writes about what he labels "the biggest lie in politics," that is, the constant accusation of "trickle-down economics" by leftists to smear opponents' economic policies.

Statists will mischaracterize their opponents' views as being, in the words of new New York mayor Bill de Blasio: "that the way to move forward is to give more to the most fortunate, and that somehow the benefits will work their way down to everyone else." They will then attack this position that they completely conjured up in their own imagination as if they were having an actual debate.

While there have been all too many lies told in politics, most have some little tiny fraction of truth in them, to make them seem plausible. But the "trickle-down" lie is 100 percent lie.

It should win the contest both because of its purity — no contaminating speck of truth — and because of how many people have repeated it over the years, without any evidence being asked for or given.

Years ago, this column challenged anybody to quote any economist outside of an insane asylum who had ever advocated this "trickle-down" theory. Some readers said that somebody said that somebody else had advocated a "trickle-down" policy. But they could never name that somebody else and quote them.

Such "debate" tactics are all too frequent coming from the "progressives." Construct imaginary straw men to slay; then smear and name call these imaginary villains, then claim intellectual superiority. All this obfuscation by the left underscores the great lengths to which they will go in order to avoid the true nature of their political ideology, because they know any true, honest exchange in the marketplace of ideas will not end well for their collectivist and authoritarian vision for society.