Archive for Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sunshine’ audit tests Kansas counties

Open-records exercise shows many locales still in the dark on compliance

March 13, 2007

In a nationwide audit of county compliance with the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, a full 36 percent of Local Emergency Planning Committees were found in violation of the law.

On the other hand, 44 percent of the communities provided the EPCRA-mandated Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan with minimal interference, as required by federal law. The balance of the sites provided some part of the document that was requested.

Eighteen Kansas counties were audited, including 10 by employees and interns from the Lawrence Journal-World and 6News. Of the 18 counties, eight provided the plan, six provided part and four didn't have a plan or refused the request.

Johnson County complied with the request.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors organized the audit as part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to defend open government and freedom of information.

Auditors, a combination of journalists and members of civic groups, usually did not identify themselves as members of the media.

The law that auditors tested, EPCRA, was enacted in the mid-1980s in response to a major disaster in Bhopal, India, caused by an American company. The act requires county governments in the United States to establish, update and make available for public review disaster-response plans.

Auditors frequently met with roadblocks, including claims of national security or such high fees as to be unreasonable for an individual to pay. One Maryland county demanded $1,700 for a copy of its report. On another occasion, the Ohio State Highway Patrol sent out an 88-county alert that anyone requesting the public document be reported to their office.

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