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Obama memo sets records free for public

Last week, noted as Sunshine Week by journalists to promote freedom of information and open government, found it fitting for the Obama administration to issue new guidelines that fulfill President Barack Obama's campaign pledge of transparency in government.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday issued a memo which is traditionally written early in a new administration to lay out guidelines for the executive branch in handling public requests for data, especially under the Freedom of Information Act. In essence, Holder's memo charts a response similar to the one issued in 1993 by then-Attorney General Janet Reno in the Clinton administration. The new guidelines replace those which guided the Bush administration for the past eight years which were more restrictive in allowing the Justice Department great latitude to legally defend executive branch arguments for withholding documents.

Holder's guidelines basically order agencies to release their records and information to the public unless the agency "foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statuary exemptions or disclosure is prohibited by law."

Holder states that "open government requires agencies to work proactively and respond to requests promptly. The president's memorandum instructs agencies to 'use modern technology to inform citizens what is known and done by their government.' Accordingly, agencies should readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request."

Each agency shall be "fully accountable" for administering the FOIA, and "respond in a timely manner" as "timely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency."

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee, called the Holder memo "a refreshing change from the disastrous standard set by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001. We hope it empowers federal employers who manage these public records to improve their services to the taxpayers who request them."

It is indeed refreshing, and we hope that the slow-moving federal government will embrace the idea of open government and handle FOIA requests promptly.

Also during Sunshine Week, we are encouraged that Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, does not support the League of Minnesota Cities' effort to restrict public access by making preliminary budget deliberations by city officials confidential, as the LMC's bill would allow. Olson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Data Practices, said the bill won't get a hearing this session in her committee.