A popular government without proper information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy —or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.
So, we've got a farce. Or maybe a tragedy. Madison's words notwithstanding, what we've got is a government that pretends to guarantee—through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—the right of citizens to examine how taxpayer-funded agencies go about their business.
In fact, the FOIA promises little and delivers even less. Consider the federal government's role in El Toro International Airport planning. For years, this paper—along with anti-El Toro activists—has submitted numerous FOIA requests to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in hopes of getting the real story on El Toro, the story the county so fearfully guards. As the federal agency that will ultimately accept or reject the county's airport plan, the FAA is key to any understanding of where El Toro stands today.
Yet the results have been pathetic. The FAA has proved no more willing than the county to disclose its El Toro activities.
Our most recent request was made on June 7, 2000, and it asked for copies of every El Toro document—all notes, e-mails, memos, letters, faxes, reports and studies —generated from July 1, 1999, to the date of the request. Because that request was broad, the agency distributed it to four suboffices, each of which was instructed to respond separately. So far, only two of them have, the most recent just two weeks ago.
Aside from a lot of copies of county-generated charts and maps—all of which were publicly released more than a year ago—we've gotten shit.
Or, rather, shit and one six-page list labeled "Documents Withheld." Documents Withheld cataloged 87 records the feds weren't about to let us see; these records included notes, e-mails, memos, letters, faxes, reports and studies—exactly what we had asked for.
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SHOW ME HOW
The agency's reason for its massive exemption was simple and, sadly, perfectly legal: "To allow release of these records would discourage the open and frank discussion between agency employees, which are helpful in making decisions." The FAA also said that releasing these records would "create confusion in those cases where recommendations and opinions are not adopted."
In other words, the FAA believes that the people who live around El Toro either aren't smart enough or trustworthy enough to deal with what they're discussing. FOIA is great, they tell us, but don't even try to get copies of records showing what government officials are actually doing.
We are by no means alone in having to deal with this. On Jan. 21, El Toro website editor Leonard Kranser—who's had his own problems squeezing records out of the agency—wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times blasting the FAA for exactly this kind of stonewalling. "The FAA makes a joke of the FOIA law," wrote Kranser. "They repeatedly refuse public access to vital data on the safety, efficiency and environmental impacts of their plans."
The only solution is the obvious one: appeal, appeal, appeal. It's demoralizing, time-consuming and expensive, but sooner or later, something will emerge. Knowledge may be power, but in this country, it still takes a lot of power to get just a little knowledge.