Puerto Rico: Let The Sunshine In

by John Marino

September 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe need for a clear policy regarding the public's right to know about government dealings was thrown into the spotlight again this week.

While the Puerto Rico Constitution guarantees that the public will have access to "public" information, specific legislation is needed to set out a procedure for the government to follow in delivering it.

It's not just a question of bungling government bureaucrats. Even "learned" lawmakers, such as Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, can get freaked when a citizen or journalist wants to find out something. This week he flatly refused a request by two newspapers to release the names and salaries of those on the Senate payroll.

He argued it would violate the "right to privacy" of his employees, even though they are getting paid with public funds.

The move prompted an avalanche of criticism and the threat of a lawsuit. Pro-statehood and pro-independence lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock,called press conferences to hand out payroll office lists. Former Senate presidents, including Miguel Hernández Agosto of Fas Alzamora's own Popular Democratic Party, expressed bewilderment at the notion that the salaries of public employees are not public information.

By week's end, Fas Alzamora had relented, first releasing the payroll of his own office and then the payroll of the entire Senate. But it shouldn't have taken a controversy played out in the pages of island newspapers all week to get a politician to fulfill a request that should have been fulfilled as a matter of course.

Puerto Rico has no law, such as the federal Freedom of Information Act, that sets out the ground rules of how government information will get released to citizens or the press. And it lacks a "sunshine law," governing access to public documents and public meetings, that most states have on the books. And that's too bad.

When Fas Alzamora finally did release the payroll, it became clear what his stalling was about. The top paid guy at the Senate, José Ariel Nazario, has an annual salary of $109,000, while the second highest paid official, María G. Serbía, earns $98,748 a year.

But the problem here is not just Fas Alzamora, who has always seemed to be enamored of the pomp and circumstance -- shall we say the "regal" aspect -- of government.

Government officials routinely avoid providing information that they might not want to get out. And more often than not, a news outfit or a citizen has to go to court in order to obtain the information.

Just this week, in fact, several citizens groups, who have been fighting for the Navy to end its training in Vieques, sued the Justice Department and the Planning Board to obtain documents related to their discussions with federal officials over the environmental impact of Navy training.

The Puerto Rico government has made 12 recommendations it wants the Navy to follow in order to lessen the environmental impact of its training. None of those recommendations have been followed, and Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez has refused to release the information, arguing that negotiations are still ongoing.

Whether or not such documents would be covered under a "sunshine" or "open records law" is not clear. What is clear is the need for such a law.

Right now, agency heads have no guidelines to follow for releasing information, except for the broad language given in a Supreme Court decision, which ordered agencies to release documents related to the 1978 Cerro Maravilla killings by police of two independence supporters.

Because of that, agency heads often first turn down requests for information they don't want out, and then only relent under pressure. One striking example from the past administration was the refusal of the Government Development Bank to release to a reporter minutes of an Aqueduct and Sewer Authority Board meeting in which the Superaqueduct contract was approved.

A newspaper had to sue the Treasury Department to release a list of "special partnership" records it had on file. And another one had to sue former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón to get his travel expenses released.

The commonwealth has a long history of keeping -- or trying to keep -- the press in the dark about public information, extending back to the days of Luis Muñoz Marín, who was not above calling newspaper editors to try to get stories killed.

In 1991, Hernández Colón signed a hated executive order that required people seeking information to state the reasons why the information was needed. But it's not just the government. Island journalists share some of the blame for keeping sunshine laws off the books.

In 1993, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló signed an executive order aimed at giving the public and press better access to public records. It was designed to revoke the Hernández Colón order, but journalists cried foul, saying no process should regulate public access to records.

That was stupid because agencies do need a reasonable time period to reply with requests.

Right now, a bill in the Senate would provide such a sunshine law. Journalists are right to criticize a lengthy list of exemptions contained in the original bill, but the bill should move forward.

If the administration of Gov. Calderón is serious about making the commonwealth a "transparent government," it should push such legislation to the top of its agenda.

Ironically, Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean, needs more sunshine.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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