By Anastasia Forina
The importance of having a system of open records can’t be overstated.
I got a chance to see how that system works in the United States when I shadowed my mentor at the Chicago Tribune, energy reporter Julie Wernau.
She was working on a story about farmers in Illinois’ LaSalle County who have been driven from their land because of the growing number of sand mine. We went to North Utica, which is about 95 miles from Chicago, where we talked to some of the farmers. Then we visited the local County offices to get records of land sales.
And did we get them!
Moreover, all the records were available in electronic version — scanned and accessible via an electronic catalogue available on the county computers. It allowed us to find very valuable information.
According to the records, some of the sand-mining companies were offering farmers pretty small money for land that could bring quite a big profit if used for fracking to extract oil from the sand.
The median price some of the companies paid to farmers who agreed to sell was about $17,500 per acre — higher than the average farmland price in LaSalle County of $9,000-$12,000. But still low compared to what a company could make on that land.
For example, at the price of $110 per ton, one of the companies expected to reap $99 million a year from just one mine.
Records on land sales included information on the buyer, seller, location, size of land and the price. This information was the key that helped Julie reveal to the public the reverse side of the fracking boom in LaSalle County.
In that case the companies also managed to skirt the County’s ban on new mines — so the records came in handy to illustrate the size of land they bought and the price they paid.
The system of open records has helped many U.S. journalists do investigations and reveal corruption schemes.
I hope a system like this can be introduced in Ukraine. It will require changes to some of the laws, perhaps, but I believe it is possible.
In 2011, Ukraine joined the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative that aims to secure commitments from governments to promote transparency and fight corruption. In 2012, Ukraine adopted its own Open Government Partnership Action Plan to ensure access to public information, promote good governance and fight corruption.
Since then, some of Ukraine’s achievements include: adoption of laws that expanded rights for NGOs and charities; passage of five laws to prevent and fight corruption; and launching of electronic services to provide administrative services in regions of Ukraine.
However, not all of the commitments have been fulfilled. Ukraine still has quite a long way to go to achieve transparency goals. As soon as the new-elect president and government can get back to that Action Plan, I hope it will be implemented in full.