FOIA alive and well

April 5, 2017

 

    Given that this column is being written on Freedom of Information day (which also happens to be the day I was born – I was destined to be a journalist), I need to give kudos first to Bob Klitzkie, and then to Superior Court Judge Maria Cenzon, for their efforts to keep the government of Guam honest. Last month Cenzon ordered Department of Land Management Director Michael Borja to pay a $1,000 fine for failing to provide Klitzkie, a former senator and a lawyer, with documents he requested having to do with the Redemptoris Mater Seminary property in Yona. Ownership of the facility had mysteriously found its way from Guam’s Catholic Church to a religious sect, and Klitzkie was trying to unravel the mystery of how that happened.

 

   Klitzkie says he had to file Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests for the documents five different times, using various methods – email requests, in person requests, and finally a certified letter - to get Borja to hand them over. And then, it was only seven of the ten documents he had originally requested. Borja’s excuse for keeping the other three under wraps, according to Klitzkie, was because they were “personnel matters.”

 

    Klitzkie has stated that the issuance of the title for the Yona property was so badly mishandled by the deputy registrar of titles that it took a year to get it straightened out. He is absolutely correct in that the bungling of the property title in and of itself is not a personnel matter. Whether the Land Management deputy registrar was written up or punished in some way because of his alleged incompetence – now that is the personnel matter. The title documents – no matter their condition - are still public information.

 

    I know this because those documents are public information in part because of me. Back in 1999, as a member and former president of the now-defunct Micronesia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I spent two full weeks sitting in front of a legislative committee testifying as to which GovGuam documents should remain open to the public. Government directors or agency representatives paraded before the senators to testify as to why myriad documents should not be subject to public scrutiny. I, as the MSPJ representative, sat at the table right next to them, objecting to every single one of their requests, with the exception of personnel or medical records. Fortunately, the committee members listened to me. MSPJ gave me the Sunshine Award that year for having been their bastion of freedom of information.

 

    Going back even further in my journalistic career, when I worked at the former Cable News, I was the producer during reporter Kevin Kerrigan’s groundbreaking 1990-91 “Land Scam” series, which exposed how unscrupulous individuals used crooked surveyors to “absorb” huge tracts of unsurveyed government land into adjacent private properties. Kerrigan was tipped off to what was happening by a Land Management employee who noticed the wrongdoing and did the right thing by calling Cable News. Fortunately for us, most of the documents – maps, the registration process – were public record. Back then, we had to hand-write or type out Freedom of Information requests and hand-deliver them to agencies. Most of them were ignored, or the agencies took 10 days or longer to respond.

 

    Land scam and the RMS seminary property are just two examples of why it is vital that people have access to public records. History has shown us that the temptation to commit wrongdoing because of unchecked power within any entity – whether you are a private businessperson, a government official, a member of a religious organization, or even a country’s leader – is often irresistible. The people’s first line of defense against such corruption consists of a free press and access to public documents.

 

    So thanks Bob, for being a true guardian of freedom of information on our island. And to Judge Cenzon, for sending a message to all of our public officials that they have no right to keep from the people what the people have a right to know.

 

Jayne Flores is a long-time journalist. She currently works at Guam Community College. She can be reached at jayne.flores@guamcc.edu

 

 

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