Del Mar man helps to launch The Naked Government projectBy Marsha Sutton
NakedGovernment.org is a new project co-founded by Del Mar Internet entrepreneur Michael Robertson that is intended to make government more transparent. In addition to actual documents from governmental agencies, the site will also contain names of individuals and organizations that have made Public Records Act requests for specific documents.
“Every day, there are thousands of public document requests … across the United States,” he said. “My belief is all those should be public. For example, who is asking what of the water companies? In a lot of respects, I think that is more interesting than the actual documents. That’s the kind of information that will help citizens better manage, or police if you will, the government that runs their lives.”
The concept stems from Robertson’s belief that, once an agency or news organization makes a PRA request and gains access to information, that information should be made available to the public in its raw, unfiltered form.
The site will be Wiki-driven, he said, much like Wikipedia, where users he called “information envoys” will find those document requests and contribute documents and information directly to the site.
“I’m creating a Wiki-powered service where all public records will be searchable by who has made the request [and] what they requested, and you can view the actual documents,” he said.
Robertson said he and his partner John Parres didn’t want to launch the site empty, so they requested payroll information of 50 school districts from across the country chosen at random, although the Los Angeles Unified School District and the San Diego Unified School District – as well as Robertson’s hometown Del Mar Union School District – were specifically selected.
“We’re collecting some documents now so there will be some critical mass in the system, so hopefully others will get the vision and help with the task,” he said.
Robertson said the DMUSD was not the only district to refuse their request, but was the only district to refuse based on privacy rights.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “They don’t want to get sued by the teachers’ union. That’s the interest they’re trying to balance.”
But he believes the law is on his side and governmental organizations “need to understand that it’s the citizens’ money here.” Some do, he said, and some don’t.
“We have had a couple people say no,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of school districts say, astonishingly, we don’t have that information. It’s preposterous. … Others have said you’ll have to pay to get that information.”
Robertson said reasonable costs associated with Public Records requests are fair but that some districts are suggesting that assembling the requested data will require many hours of programming time, adding up to expenses that Robertson called “outrageous.”
“So we are putting pressure on them to comply,” he said. “When we get pushed back, we’re trying to be polite but firm and encourage the organization to do the right thing.”
He said the reason NakedGovernment.org is needed is because not everyone is forthcoming. “There’s some people involved in this process that think the government doesn’t work for its citizens,” he said.
Del Mar’s initial noncompliance particularly frustrated Robertson.
“I’m a taxpayer in Del Mar; I’ve got two kids in the Del Mar schools,” he said. “That’s why it was so amazing. …The last thing the school district should be spending money on is hiding public information from concerned citizens.”
Most districts have been fully cooperative and compliant, he said, including LA Unified which was one of a handful of governmental bodies that was given a more expansive list of information requested for the site.
“We should have hundreds of document requests from LA Unified in the system,” he said.
Initially, the site will launch with extensive information from half a dozen institutions including LA Unified, the Port Authority in San Diego and the Dept. of Water in Los Angeles.
“So for a handful of organizations you’re actually going to see what kind of requests they get [and] who is making that request,” Robertson said. “And it’s amazingly revealing to see. You see people asking about pension data – these are reporters … Then you’ll see unions coming in and making their own requests. … It’s quite fascinating what is happening, and that’s the kind of information I want to make public.”
In addition, there will also be the school district payroll information from almost every state in the union.
Robertson, a Del Mar resident with children attending Del Mar schools, has founded, grown and sold several Internet companies, one of which was MP3.com which was the first company to popularize digital music.
NakedGovernment.org is set to launch later this month.
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