KECI: Tester public information bill a good example for cities

HELENA — Sen. Jon Tester has sponsored a bill that would force the federal government to put most public documents online, providing information to the average citizen with just a click of a mouse.

It’s too bad some lower levels of government in Montana aren’t following his lead, a Helena attorney said.

Mike Meloy, an attorney who provides freedom of information advice to the media through the Montana Newspaper Association, said he approves of the bill the Montana Democrat has introduced, and said he hoped it would prompt local city governments to follow suit.

“It’s a great start and about time the federal government did this,” Meloy said. “Maybe if Senator Tester’s bill passes it will serve as a basis for local government to do the same thing.”

On May 6, Tester sponsored the Public Online Information Act, a bill that would put all federal public documents and records in a “free, searchable, online clearinghouse.”

“Now it’s time to raise the bar and set new standards for public access, and make sure transparency is keeping up with online technology,” Tester stated in a press release. “Because a little sunshine on government is always a good thing.”

The bill sets up a 19-member Public Online Information Advisory Committee to create rules on making public information available on the Internet for free. The bill would reportedly deal with documents created after the law was passed.

“The creation of this vast new information library will empower citizens of the United States to gain a better understanding of how their government functions and what it does in their name,” the bill states. “It will also give innovators new tools to build on this information and provide better goods and services to the people of the United States.”

Tester’s staff did not return an e-mail and telephone call seeking comment for this story. The bill is a companion piece to legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Steve Israel, D-NY, according to press release from Tester’s office.

Meloy said that in the federal system, the requests for documents are made through a federal Freedom of Information Act law and experience people typically have with that law is “you may or may not get something, but it sure takes a long time to get it, if you get it.”

Meloy said in Montana a number of state agencies put documents online, but most local government entities don’t.

“People still have to go and ask for the documents,” he said. “At some point in time it would be nice to have those documents online as well.” He said it would also save the government time in searching document requests.

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