The Citizen Who Changed The Government And You’ve Never Heard Of Him.

You’ve probably never heard of the name Mark Schlefer who passed away last November at the age of 98. His lasting effect on governments at all levels and the people of the United States cannot be overstated and yet most people would say “who?”

Schlefer flew 36 combat missions as a bomber pilot in World War II, but that is not his most enduring contribution to the country.

Schlefer started a fund to provide tuition assistance for minority children at D.C.-area private schools. But that too is not his greatest accomplishment for the country (although it may be for the lives of children and parents in the DC area.)

In the 1960’s Schlefer spearheaded to move for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, (FOIA) that is now law at the federal level and in all 50 States and the District of Columbia.

Schlefer was working as a maritime lawyer for a shipping company. The company had been denied tariff documentation by the Federal Maritime Commission to stop at the Mariana Islands. Schlefer asked for the legal opinion written by the in house lawyers of the Maritime Commission that justified the Commission’s denial.

Schlefer was told the opinion was “confidential.”

The logic of the government was impossible to comprehend. Schlefer’s company was being told to abide by an interpretation of a law, but yet the company could not see the interpretation itself, essentially making it impossible for the company to go to court and challenge the interpretation.

Schlefer learned that he was not alone in facing such obstacles.

Through the Bar Association, he came across other lawyers that were facing the same issue, which led him to California Representative John Moss, who with an association of newspaper editors, were fighting the ballooning number of “classified” documents due to the Cold War. Moss sought information as to why over 3000 Federal employees had been terminated based on accusations of Communist ties. Moss, as a sitting Representative, got nowhere within the government in seeking any sort of transparency.

Schlefer walked into Moss’ office and handed him a copy of a draft legislation – the draft that would become the Freedom of Information Act.

Despite privately being against the Act, President Johnson signed the act on July 4, 1966.

Arguably, the most important aspect of the Act is that it leveled the playing field. No longer were people denied access to government information because the government didn’t feel like they needed it.

The Act treats all people and groups in requiring transparency in government because all American citizens have the right to know what the government is doing.

In fiscal year 2019, the federal government received 858,952 FOIA requests. When you think of the number of requests made at the state and local levels, it is clear that the impact of Schlefer’s draft legislation is more than anyone could have imagined.

Sadly, we are seeing a disturbing trend of agencies at the Federal level to turn down requests at a great rate than before. We are also seeing local governments increase costs for information that the public owns in an attempt to make getting such information too expensive for the average person.

This happened with the Brevard County Board of Commissioners who without cause increased prices for information under the Florida equivalent of FOIA – the so called “Sunshine Law” found in Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. The move to increase fees was initiated by then Chairperson Bryan Lober, who decided and then convinced other Board members that the public needed to pay more for information and documents that the public owns owns.

Sill, none of the transparency we take for granted today would have been possible without the draft legislation written by Mark Schlefer.

RIP, sir.

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