Editor's Note

The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lots of FOIA Logs Online for Perusing...

Ever wonder who is requesting stuff through FOIA at federal agencies? Government Attic is starting to post a bunch of FOIA logs, and it makes for some interesting reading...

Check it out

Can You Take Digital Pics of Public Records Instead of Copying?

Ah, the creative folks over at the New Times in Phoenix have created a bit of a row, when a reporter started snapping digital images of public records...

More here. It's a bit bizarre, in a fun way...

San Diego Media Appeal FOI Case

Three news organizations, including The San Diego Union-Tribune, have appealed a judge's decision barring Vista officials from making public the identities of employers registered under the city's day-laborer law.
The litigation was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the city in July to block the release of the names of the employers to an anti-illegal-immigration group based in North County. In June, the group filed a request for the list under the state's public-records law.

Vista began requiring in July 2006 that anyone hiring day laborers off the street register with the city. The list of employers had been released to the Vista Citizens Brigade, an offshoot of the Minuteman Project, and others until the ACLU sued.

Last month, Superior Court Judge Michael Orfield ordered the city not to release the list. He ruled that the employers' right to privacy trumped the public's right to know their identities under the California Public Records Act.

More here.

Pennsylvania Bill Nearly Ready...But A Long Way From What It Was...

In a marathon session, the Pennsylvania House has put the finishing touches on an open records bill.

The debate over nearly 13 hours disposed of nearly 100 amendments. Democrats successfully fought back Republican-led attempts to delay consideration of the freedom-of-information bill. A final House vote is expected in mid-November.

The bill now barely resembles what was introduced early this year by freshman Representative Tim Mahoney, a Fayette County Democrat. But it does have what's known as the "flip of presumption." That means if it becomes law government records will be presumed open to public inspection unless there's a specific reason for secrecy.

Coverage here.

Those e-mails? The ones about you? Can't have 'em. But we'll send the to reporters...

When an attorney fired by Gov. Matt Blunt tried to get records from the governor’s office about his termination, he was told those documents were closed for personnel reasons.

The refusal to provide the records came the same day Blunt’s office released hundreds of pages of e-mails and documents to reporters that included intimate personal details about Scott Eckersley, the administration lawyer who was fired Sept. 28.

In a letter to reporters the day the documents were released, administration officials insinuated Eckersley may have liked “group sex” and illegal drugs.

Eckersley, the former deputy chief counsel for Blunt’s office, has said he was fired after challenging the administration’s position that it did not have to save e-mails and could routinely delete them. He said he is now the victim of character assassination in retaliation for speaking out.

At a news conference in Springfield on Tuesday, Blunt denied Eckersley’s claim and said the firing had been “handled appropriately.” He said that Eckersley was fired for working for another company on state time.

More here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Want A Job Fighting Secrecy?



OpenTheGovernment.org is searching for either a Program Assistant or an Associate to help run a coalition addressing government transparency issues.

OpenTheGovernment.org is a coalition of consumer and good government groups, environmentalists, library groups, journalists, labor and others united to make the federal government a more open place in order to make us safer, strengthen public trust in government, and support our democratic principles. It was founded in 2003 as a result of increased government secrecy. OpenTheGovernment.org has a small two-person staff serving a steering committee of 15 people representing members of coalition. The coalition operates with assistance of coalition members and paid consultants.

The coalition’s goals are to:
• Broaden the base of national, state and local organizations active on right to know and anti-secrecy issues. The current constituency base of nonprofit organizations, media allies, prominent citizens and others willing to respond to crises and advocate for the right to know is inadequate to meet today=s trend against openness.
• Advance right-to-know at the federal and state levels through legislative and other vehicles. These vehicles may be useful as a tool or set of tools to organize around or as policy objectives in and of themselves.
• Better publicize secrecy efforts through the media using messages that resonate with the public and are framed in a way that is supportive of improving hometown safety.

OpenTheGovernment.org is searching for the best fit for its small office. Depending upon a candidate’s qualifications, s/he may be considered for either the position of Associate or Program Assistant. The coalition has two full-time staff located in Washington, D.C. One position is available and will report to the Director. The Associate would have greater responsibility for developing and carrying out policy positions, including lobbying, and for coalition-building and strengthening activities.

The position involves working with the Director to

• Involve interested parties (organizations and individuals) in openness and anti-secrecy activities;
• Coordinate and participate in meetings with Congressional offices;
• Coordinate coalition work on issues related to openness and secrecy;
• Represent organization at coalition meetings, and cultivate relationships with coalition partners;
• Research, track, and analyze legislation on government openness and secrecy, and co-author the annual Secrecy Report Card, a report that uses quantifiable measures to examine the growth of government secrecy;
• Plan and organize annual national teleconference during "Sunshine Week," and work with experts to engage online audiences with games and flash animation; and
• Identify potential funders, write proposals, organize funders’ briefings and report on existing grants.

Other responsibilities include

• Assisting in creating action alerts and frequently updating the coalition's website;
• Producing a bi-weekly e-newsletter sent to more than sixty-five partner organizations and over 2,000 individual subscribers; and
• Managing membership database, answering the phone, and performing other tasks when needed.

Qualifications for Program Assistant
• Applicants should have a demonstrated interest in issues of government openness and accountability
• One year advocacy experience, including policy analysis and research, strongly preferred
• Bachelor’s Degree in political science or related field
• Excellent oral and written communications skills
• High level of initiative and ability to work independently in a fast paced, changing environment
• Skills in using online technologies creatively a plus
• Experience working with coalitions a plus

Qualifications for Associate
• Applicants must have a demonstrated interest in issues of government openness and accountability
• 3-5 years advocacy experience, including advocacy-oriented policy analysis and research, required
• Bachelor’s Degree in political science or related field
• Experience working with coalitions strongly preferred
• Excellent oral and written communications skills
• High level of initiative and ability to work independently in a fast paced, changing environment
• Skills in using online technologies creatively a plus
• Experience with fundraising a plus

The salary range for the Program Assistant is $27,000 to $31,000. The salary for the Associate position would be based on experience. Benefits include employer-paid health and dental coverage and retirement plan.

How to Apply

This position is open immediately. Please indicate if you only want to be considered for one of these positions. OpenTheGovernment.org is an equal opportunity employer, and encourages minorities and women to apply.
Send cover letter, resume and salary requirements by email (with the words “Associate” or “Program Assistant” in the subject line) to pmcdermott@openthegovernment.org, or mail/fax to:

Associate or Program Assistant Search
1742 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., 3rd Floor
Washington, D.C. 20009
Fax: 202 234 8494

Website: www.openthegovernment.org

Key Ruling in Dallas E-Mail DIspute...

E-mail continues to create FOI issues across the country, and this ruling in Dallas sends a strong signal...

State District Judge Gena Slaughter has ruled that the city of Dallas must release e-mails requested more than 22 months ago by The Dallas Morning News, including messages from city officials' personal accounts or hand-held devices used to conduct city business.

In late 2005, two News reporters submitted separate Texas Public Information Act requests for access to e-mails from several Dallas officials, including City Manager Mary Suhm, former Mayor Laura Miller and housing director Jerry Killingsworth.

The News filed the lawsuit in July 2006 after exhausting other efforts to obtain the information, said David Starr, vice president and deputy general counsel of Belo Corp. Belo is the parent company of The News.

More here.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Upping the Ante in Georgia

From the Associated Press:

A Georgia lawmaker says she wants to make it a felony to deliberately violate the state's Open Records Act.

State Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, said she plans to introduce a bill to make the law easier to understand and possibly eliminate some exemptions.

Chambers said she would make "willfully and knowingly violating" the Open Records Act a felony, with a fine of up to $5,000. Under current law violations are a misdemeanor, subject to a $100 fine.

The law requires public officials to allow citizens to view and photocopy most government documents. Exceptions include medical or veterinary records, confidential police and prosecution investigative files, individuals' Social Security numbers, and others.

Chambers said she believes the law is confusingly written and that many violations result from misunderstanding it.

"Just trying to read it and understand it would be a major accomplishment," she said. "It's so hard to find what you need in the law, and then once you do find it, it's so hard to understand.

"There will always be people who flagrantly violate the Open Records Act. But there are also people who violate it because they don't understand it."

Hollie G. Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said there is "room for improvement" in the Open Records Act, but her main concern is not that the law confusingly written.

More here.

Another Day, Another Secret Hold in Congress...

I'm not sure what, exactly, it is about secret holds that so offends me....oh yeah! It's the SECRECY, and the lack of accountability, and the breathtaking arrogance....

Great story on a new hold....

A Kentucky senator is blocking legislation that would overturn President Bush's 2001 executive order giving presidents and former presidents more power to halt indefinitely the release of their White House records.

While Republican Sen. Jim Bunning acknowledges using a parliamentary maneuver known as a "secret hold" to stall the measure, he has not made it clear why he opposes bipartisan legislation praised by some scholars for providing access to the inner workings of presidential administrations.

Bush has promised to veto the measure if the Senate passes it because it would "improperly impinge on the president's constitutional authority."

The House cleared the same bill, sponsored by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., by a wide, veto-proof margin last April. Open government groups are pressing the Senate to follow suit, hoping to override a veto.

Bunning's hold on the bill comes as the White House faces a possible temporary restraining order to bar its administrative office from destroying back-up copies of some 5 million missing e-mails documenting the inner thinking of top presidential aides. Federal law dictates that the e-mails be preserved as part of the public record.

"It's all part of the same continuum: a complete lack of respect for the public and the public's right to know what this president did and why," said Anne L. Weismann, chief counsel for the watchdog group Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Wow. Read on and you'll be quivering with outrage, unless you are a fan of the secret presidency...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Take FOI for Granted?

Not after you read this heroic tale:

THE men who attacked Ivan Y. Pavlov waited beside his car outside his home.

They knocked him over from behind, stomped him and kicked him in the head. None of them spoke. They stole nothing. As Mr. Pavlov lay curled defensively on the street, they trotted away. Then they tried to run him over with their car.

Mr. Pavlov rolled clear, he said. The car sped off. “It was my good luck that there were four of them,” he said recently, recalling the attack in 2006 with a mix of drollness and lawyerly precision. “They were pushing each other out of the way to kick me and got in each other’s way.”

Mr. Pavlov was hospitalized for a week. The police later told him the attack appeared to be related to his work — a mission to pry open stores of government information that he says are essential to Russian public life and that by law should be in the public domain, but are kept from view by corruption and apathy.

The battle for personal and political freedom in Russia is often framed as a contest between the Kremlin and its critics over the rights of assembly, speech and suffrage, and for an independent judiciary, legislature and media.

Mr. Pavlov leads a quieter but still dangerous campaign: legal battles for what he calls, simply, “the right to know.”

As the director of the Institute for Information Freedom Development, a private organization he founded in 2004, he strives to teach government agencies that stores of information in their possession — manufacturing and sanitary standards, court records, licenses, fire codes, public tenders, administrative decrees, agency phone directories, registries of public and private organizations — should be made available for all to view.

HIS work is necessary, he and his supporters say, because much of the basic information of governance in Russia has never been made public, even after the Constitution codified the public’s right to nonsecret information in 1993.

My favorite quote:

“Nobody defended the basic right — the right to know, to have access to information,” he said. “People cannot have their freedom, and realize all their other rights, without this right.”

More here.

In Ohio, FOI panel eyes e-mail...

State and local government officials should no longer be allowed to skirt Ohio public-records laws by using private e-mail accounts to conduct official government business.

That is the view of a 22-member committee created by the legislature to examine public-records issues. The panel approved its final recommendations yesterday, including one that says electronic communication "in the course of public business should be treated consistently under existing public records laws and court decisions."

"We want to make sure nobody is gaming the process by doing public work on private devices," said Sen. David Goodman, R-New Albany, a co-chairman of the Privacy/Public Records Access Study Committee.

"It's a very sensitive area because technology is changing every day. But the general idea is if you're doing public work, it's a public record no matter what device you use."

More here...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

New Study from BGA and NFOIC...

States failing FOI responsiveness

Better Government Association (BGA) and National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) give 38 out of 50 states "F" grade in overall responses to FOI requests.

If citizens can't take action to enforce their right of access shy of filing suit, what good are FOI laws?

When it comes to responsiveness measures, not much good at all.

BGA and the NFOIC have united to review the recourse afforded citizens in the public records laws of all 50 states, and the conclusions make for some relentlessly depressing reading.

Some findings include:

Citizens often have their requests denied and the only way they can gain access to records is by appealing the agency's denial.

When it comes time to appeal, in the vast majority of states a citizen has little or no recourse, save for the courts. Receiving even a low score of 66% puts a state in the top ten of the rankings.

Take a look at the numbers for your state, and then for other states, and you'll come to one inescapable conclusion: state FOI laws are in desperate need of reform.

The BGA report might simply confirm what you already knew about FOI in your state, but it should serve as a catalyst for change.

The overview—as as well as criteria and results—are online and linked from here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

AP Sexual Misconduct Story Raises Issues in Maine...

Gov. John Baldacci admitted Tuesday that a state statute aimed at protecting the confidentiality of educators who are stripped of, or denied, teaching certificates ultimately fails to protect the public.

As part of an in-depth probe into sexual misconduct in schools, The Associated Press recently tried to obtain teacher decertification records from Maine’s Department of Education.

The AP, which uncovered countless cases of abuse across the country during its seven-month investigation, even submitted a Freedom of Access request to gain access to Maine records.

The state DOE, however, denied that request, citing a law that prohibits the release of any information related to why teacher certificates have been suspended, revoked or denied.

Baldacci said the law clearly needs to be revisited.

"We have one of the most thorough systems in the country when it comes to background checks and fingerprinting teachers to protect the safety and well-being of our students in Maine," the governor said in a statement Tuesday. "The way it stands right now, a teacher in Maine can commit a noncriminal inappropriate act and have their license revoked without having that information released to other states. We need to change that policy to protect not only the children of Maine, but children in other states as well."

More here.

A Great new federal FOIA site...

When you are feeling a bit blue, check out GovernmentAttic -- a new web operation dedicated to, in their words, “rummaging in the government’s attic.”

Peruse an eclectic collection of files on a wide variety of subjects on line -- and new content is being posted frequently.

Heck, their logo alone makes me giggle:

HUGE AP series on school sexual misconduct

The Associated Press used scores of public records in its massive, national investigation of sexual crime in America's schools. Here is one of many, many stories running across the country this week.

A total of 2,570 educators nationwide were punished for sexual misconduct from 2001-05, representing about a quarter of all educator misconduct cases in that time period. The total number of times an action was taken against a teacher's license for sexual misconduct was 2,625 (more than 50 teachers lost licenses in more than one state).

Licenses were revoked in 1,636 of the cases; surrendered in 440 cases; suspended in 376
cases; and denied in 108 cases. Other punishments were handed out in the remainder of the cases. Students were clearly identified as victims in at least 1,467 of the sexual misconduct cases. The victim was a young person, a category including students, unidentified youths, family members and neighbors, in at least 1,801 of the cases. Educators made physical contact in at least 1,297, or 72 percent, of the cases in which the victims were youths. The remainder
were cases that did not involve physical contact, including verbal sexual harassment and other offenses.

Among the findings:

-- There were criminal convictions in at least 1,390, or 53 percent, of the cases.

-- Nearly nine out of 10 of the educators punished for sexual misconduct were male.

-- At least 446 of the cases that the AP found involved educators who had multiple victims.

The seven-month investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were
revoked, denied, voluntarily surrendered or limited from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Young people were the victims in at least 1,801 of the cases, and more than 80 percent of those were students. More than half the educators who were punished by their states also were convicted of crimes related to the misconduct.
Much, much more here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Load of Bull...

From an agricultural critic friend of mine comes word of an under-the-radar federal FOIA exemption in the making:

Today the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee released its preliminary drafts of the Chairman's mark for all titles of the Senate's 2007 Farm Bill; the Committee markup of the bill is set for tomorrow, October 24, 2007, at 9:30 A.M.

The draft of the livestock title contains a FOIA exemption for information in the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). This proposed exemption flies in the face of all
reasonable standards of open access to government. Since 2005, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA has been collecting what the USDA itself calls "phone book" information on farms and other premises that hold livestock in the United States. USDA/APHIS is presently maintaining this information in a database called the National Premises Information Repository in Fort Collins, Colorado. For each livestock location, the
information consists of nothing more than basic contact information, i.e., the name of a contact person, an address, a telephone number, and in some cases an email address, and the species of livestock kept at that location.

Yet at the behest of industrial farming interests, the Senate Agriculture Committee sees fit to propose that this "phone book" information should receive a new exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Even more alarming, the proposed exemption purports to override all state freedom of information laws that might pertain to similar records.

The pertinent section of the draft bill is set forth below in its entirety:

Sec. 10305. Protection of Information in the Animal Identification System.

The Animal Health Protection Act (7 U.S.C. 8301 et seq.) is amended --

(1) by redesignating sections 10416 through 10418 as sections 10417 through
10419, respectively; and
(2) by inserting after section 10415 the following:

Sec. 10416. Disclosure of Information Under a National Animal
Identification System.

(a) Definition of National Animal Identification System. -- In this
section, the term 'national animal identification system' means a system for
identifying or tracing animals that is established by the Secretary.

(b) Protection from Disclosure. --

(1) In general.--Information obtained through a national animal
identification system shall not be disclosed except as provided in this

(2) Use. -- Use of information described in paragraph (1) by any individual
or entity except as otherwise provided in this section shall be considered a
violation of this Act.

(3) Waiver of Privilege of Protection. -- The provision of information to a
national animal identification system under this section or the disclosure
of information pursuant to this section shall not constitute a waiver of any
applicable privilege or protection under Federal law, including protection
of trade secrets.

(c) Limited Release of Information. -- The Secretary may disclose
information obtained through a national animal identification system if --

(1) the Secretary determines that livestock may be threatened by a disease
or pest;

(2) the release of the information is related to an action the Secretary
may take under this subtitle; and

(3) the Secretary determines that the disclosure of the information to a
government entity or person is necessary to assist the Secretary in carrying
out this subtitle or a national animal identification system.

(d) Required Disclosure of Information. -- The Secretary shall disclose
information obtained through a national animal identification system
regarding particular animals to --

(1) the person that owns or controls the animals, if the person requests
the information in writing;

(2) the State Department of Agriculture for the purpose of the protection
of animal health;

(3) the Attorney General for the purpose of law enforcement;

(4) the Secretary of Homeland Security for the purpose of homeland security;

(5) the Secretary of Health and Human Services for the purpose of protecting public health;

(6) an entity pursuant to an order of a court of competent jurisdiction; and

(7) the government of a foreign country if disclosure of the information is necessary to trace animals that pose a disease or pest threat to livestock or a danger to human health, as determined by the Secretary.

(e) Disclosure under State or Local Law. -- Any information relating to animal identification that a State or local government obtains from the Secretary shall not be made available by the State or local government pursuant to any State or local law requiring disclosure of information or records to the public.

(f) Reporting requirement. -- To disclose information under this section, the Secretary shall --

(1) certify that the disclosure was necessary under this section; and

(2) submit to the Committee on Agriculture of the House of Representatives
and the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry of the Senate a
copy of the certification.

In Pennsylvania, Secrecy Prevails...Again?

In a sharp turnaround, two public access advocacy groups are calling for the defeat of an open records bill headed for a House floor vote.

Officials with Pennsylvania Common Cause and the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association withdrew their support for the bill after the House State Government Committee substantially rewrote it during a three-hour meeting Wednesday night. They say the bill should either be sent back to the committee for a cleanup or voted down on the floor.

“This bill is a mess,” said Common Cause Director Barry Kauffman. He said the measure’s preamble declaring the importance of a free flow of information between government and its citizens is undermined by other provisions spelling out exemptions and procedures designed to keep documents ranging from letters to e-mails under wraps.

The exemptions in the measure are so broadly defined that an exchange of letters between a lawmaker and cabinet secretary on a policy issue could be kept off-limits to public eyes, said PNA lobbyist Deborah Musselman.

Their sour assessment of the bill is at odds with a hopeful note struck by a coalition of public access groups early in the week. At their press conference, ranking lawmakers outlined progress on the issue of making government records more accessible to the public. Faced with a wealth of proposals to reform state government in the wake of the controversial 2005 pay raise, House and Senate leaders have said strengthening the existing open records law is their top priority this fall.

The House bill still includes a widely agreed-on presumption that records should be considered public unless stipulated otherwise and puts the burden of proof on an agency or government as to why a record shouldn’t be made public. The dispute is over a 20-page “omnibus” amendment to the bill introduced by Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, the House panel chairwoman.

More here.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bad News From PA...

HARRISBURG, Pa., Oct. 19, 2007 -- The Pennsylvania House of
Representatives is poised to vote on legislation that would reform
Pennsylvania's open records law. Unfortunately, the legislation, as
amended, would actually result in less access to Pennsylvania

"Although legislators and other state leaders have voiced their
commitment to open records reform, House Bill 443, as amended, would be
a significant step in the wrong direction," said Tim Williams, PNA
president. "The PNA opposes this legislation, but remains hopeful that
Senate Bill 1, the open records reform bill in the Senate, will lead to
meaningful reform and will make Pennsylvania government more open and
accountable to its citizens."

It is widely recognized that Pennsylvania has one of the worst open
records laws in the country. A 2002 survey by the Better Government
Association ranked Pennsylvania's open records environment 48th out of
the 50 states. The Commonwealth tied with Alaska, and only Alabama and
South Dakota were considered worse.

Since last year, however, there has been a growing chorus in support of
reform. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) has made
open records reform a priority, as have Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny),
Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fayette) and Gov. Ed Rendell.

To that end, three lawmakers have introduced bills to change the open
records law. In the Senate, Majority Leader Pileggi is the sponsor of
Senate Bill 1 and Sen. Ferlo has offered Senate Bill 765. Rep. Mahoney
is sponsoring House Bill 443.

"As originally introduced, House Bill 443 contained a number of
provisions that the PNA supported," explained Williams. "As amended,
however, it would mean a real step backward for Pennsylvania citizens.
The amendment contains numerous, unprecedented exemptions, including
broad exemptions for 'correspondence' and all 'e-mail.' As written, the
proposal would provide for less access than we have today."

"Just as problematic is the process used by the House to rush this bill
to a vote. The amendment was presented at the last minute, and the
stakeholders were not given a chance to participate," Williams
continued. "If this is reform, we don't want it."

PNA believes Pennsylvania's open records law must be amended to create a
presumption of access to agency records. The burden must be on the
government agency seeking to deny access. Just as importantly, any
exemptions to access must be clearly and narrowly written to protect
only those records that need to be protected. These would include
individual medical records, records that would disclose ongoing police
investigations, and homeland security related documents.

The PNA urges citizens to contact their legislators and tell them to
vote "no" on House Bill 443. The public has a right to access its
government. This bill closes more records than it opens and is not in
the best interest of Pennsylvania citizens.

The PNA, founded in 1925, is a nonprofit, trade association. Its mission
is to advance the interests of Pennsylvania newspapers, promote the
importance of a free and independent press and provide a forum for
critical and innovative thinking about the future of journalism and the
newspaper industry.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

In Atlanta, Unrest Over Secret School Deals

This is an issue that resurfaces frequency, in which school districts and school board make multi-million land deals behind closed doors. In fact, the folks right here in Columbia, Mo., recently raised sufficient cain to get the school district to reverse a land deal and re-open the proceedings...

Gwinnett school board members have authorized spending about $40 million on land for six new schools in closed door meetings over the last year.

Discussion and votes — since July 2006 — took place during multiple executive sessions, meetings that are closed to the public. A move that some watchdog groups consider unfair to parents and others who want to be involved in the process.

But the practice is nothing new. Board members have voted on land purchases in secret for more than 30 years. They defend their actions as necessary to protect their negotiations so they can get the lowest price.

"We feel we are being extremely good stewards of the public's money," said Carole Boyce, board vice chairwoman. "Why do we need to change it if it works?"

Advocates for open government say the board makes it impossible for the public to know about the land until the deal is complete. That means Gwinnett parents have no say in where their children's schools should be built.

More here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Rarity: Judge Tosses Officials From Office for Sunhine Violations

A judge threw a dozen elected officials out of their jobs because they were hand-picked behind closed doors, dealing a severe blow to secrecy that open-government advocates hope serves as a warning to other cities and counties.

The Knoxville News Sentinel and a citizens group sued the Knox County Commission, alleging it violated the state's Open Meetings Act in January, when it filled vacancies for eight commissioners and four countywide officers, including the sheriff.

"This is a spark that could catch fire in Knox County and spread throughout the nation," said attorney Herb Moncier, who represented the citizens group. "The people took back their government."

The vacancies arose because of a Jan. 12 ruling by the state Supreme Court, which upheld term limits prohibiting county officeholders from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms. All 12 of the officials had exceeded that, including some re-elected only a few months before.

County commissioners met on Jan. 31 to fill the positions, but the jury found that commissioners deliberated and voted in secret. Secret deliberations continued during recesses in the meeting, and the vacancies were filled with what Moncier described as "relatives, cronies and supporters."

More here.

Federal Employee Salaries and Locations: You Can't Have It...

In a simply stunning federal FOIA decision, a U.S. District Court judge has sided with the government, buying wholesale the "a terrorist somewhere, in some cave, is doing voluminous research on the location of federal employees..." argument...

A judge says the federal government can legally withhold the names, salaries and positions of more than 900,000 federal employees from a Syracuse University agency that for years has made the information public.

Chief U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue determined the privacy rights of the employees could be compromised by release of the information to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC. The judge also agreed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management that the release of certain information could compromise national security.

"It's a bad decision. It flies in the face of 220 years of federal history," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Who is employed by the federal government and what they make has never been kept a secret in this country, unless you're a covert operative. This is an example of privacy interests running amok."

People, you have NO idea how revolutionary an idea this is. The story also contained this little nugget:

The federal government began publicly naming its employees and releasing the related information in 1816.
Where does the secrecy end if the courts buy arguments like this?

More here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Well, this about sums it up....

Leave it to The Onion to find real-life examples this good...as a fine member of the U.S. House proposes that his colleagues vote on a bill that none of them could possibly have read without laughing out loud...

Watch the
Proposed (Classified) Bill Will Defend Against Flesh-Eating (Classified)video.

I'd tell you what I think...but it's classified.

Friday, October 12, 2007

HUGE news from PA....

A newly created FOI coalition and a great press association are teaming to make a huge difference in Pennsylvania...

Pennsylvanians who have lobbied long and hard for a law ensuring broad access to state records should expect such a proposal to make it to Gov. Ed Rendell's desk this fall, the Senate majority leader says.

"It's been my objective to have that bill passed in the Senate before we leave this fall," Republican Sen. Dominic Pileggi said in an interview with the New Era's editorial board on Thursday.

"I was hoping to get it passed in the month of October. It might bleed into early November. I'm optimistic that once we get the bill through the Senate that the House — I've been in touch with members of the House — will take the bill up quickly so we can get it onto the governor's desk," Pileggi said.

Rendell, who met with the New Era last October before his re-election, said he would support an open-records law that presumes all records held by agencies — including the Legislature — are available to the public. "I agree with that," he said.

Members of both parties in the Republican-controlled Senate say the meaningful reform of the open-records law is at the top of the agenda when they return.

More here.

Interesting Wikipedia-Related FOI Lawsuit in Arkansas

Two Associated Press journalists sued Arkansas officials Friday for allegedly violating the state's Freedom of Information Act by withholding information about which government computers were used to edit entries on Wikipedia.

AP Arkansas News Editor Kelly P. Kissel and reporter Jon Gambrell filed the lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court against Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and officials with the state's Department of Information Systems.

The lawsuit asks the court to order state officials to reveal the physical locations of five computers that were used while editing information about politicians on the popular online encyclopedia that allows anyone to submit or make changes to articles.

In August, Gambrell reported that state computers were used to edit information about Republican presidential candidate and former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Beebe and others. Using a Web site called WikiScanner that tracks changes to Wikipedia, Gambrell could see that the edits were made by computers with numeric Internet addresses assigned to the state.

Huckabee's entry was changed to delete information about a controversial pardon and his frequent use of a state-owned airplane while Beebe's was changed to eliminate an inaccurate reference to his having a male "life partner" rather than his wife Ginger.

Officials, however, refused to say which agencies or offices are assigned to the numbers and have said hackers could use the information to attack the state's computer system.

More here.

The Guvenator Vetoes Open Meetings Bill

Ahhhhnold ran on an openness platform, then became a big fan of cherry-picking meetings...

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed legislation sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) that it says would close a loophole opened up by a state appellate court decision that allows members of public bodies to make an end-run around the state's open meeting law.

In its latest legislative bulletin to members, CNPA reported that Schwarzenegger, who made government transparency a prominent campaign issue, vetoed the bill, SB 964, that would have restored the open meeting law's prohibition against public body members using a series of private communications to determine what action to take on a public issue.

That prohibition in the law known as the Ralph M. Brown Act was "gutted" by a 2006 appellate court decision, CNPA told members.

The bill passed in the Assembly 70-2, but was opposed by many state colleges, school administrators, and the California School Districts Association, CNPA said.

In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said "it is of the utmost importance to ensure openness and transparency of local government decision making." But he said the bill's solution to the "perceived defect in the Brown Act" revealed by the appellate court's decision was the wrong solution.

"In its attempt to solve the issue, this bill imposes an impractical standard for compliance on local officials and could potentially prohibit communication among officials and agency staff outside of a public meeting," he wrote. "I urge the Legislature to consider legislation next year that more judiciously addresses the problem of serial meetings that result in public policy decisions."

More here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Foster Kill Foster Child, So Let's Make Foster Parent Information Secret?

Am I missing something here, folks, or did the Ohio legislature just react to the killing of a foster child by making it impossible for us to scrutinize foster parents?

The Ohio House on Wednesday narrowly voted to exempt all personal information of state approved foster parents and prospective foster parents from the state's public records law.

The 52-44 vote to shield the information, including names, came after legislators debated the best way to ensure the safety of foster children and foster parents.

Although the foster parent information is not now exempt from the public records law, the state's policy has been not to release the information. A lawsuit filed over that policy by a newspaper is before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Making the records public would give unhappy birth parents information needed to find the children taken from them, said Rep. Jeff Wagner, R-Sycamore, sponsor of the exemption.

Sometimes birth parents used "violent means" to get their children back, said Wagner, a former foster parent. His proposal would make the information public if foster parents lost their state certification or were convicted or charged with a crime,

The legislation was drafted in response to the 2006 death of 3-year-old Marcus Fiesel of Middletown, whose foster parents, Liz and David Carroll Jr. of Union Township in Clermont County, were convicted of killing him and are serving life prison sentences. Marcus was left tied up in a closet while the Carrolls spent a weekend in Kentucky.

The legislation - with the amendment - passed 87-9.

More here.

Monday, October 08, 2007

FOI At Work...Online Credits

Sixteen Sacramento city firefighters were paid an extra $50,000 cumulatively for higher education credits they earned from online schools that often grant degrees with little or no course work or classroom study, a newspaper reported.

Their 5 percent raises were stopped after fire officials began investigating when a dozen more firefighters applied for the pay hikes, according to city payroll records and other documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee under the California Public Records Act.

More here.

Uh Oh...Concealed Permits Secrecy Again...

Back in March, in an effort to demonstrate access to public records, the Roanoke Times printed the names and addresses of every concealed weapons permit holder in Virginia. Now a new proposal would keep the public from using the Freedom of Information Act to access identifying information about permit holders.

"A lot of the folks who were upset had gotten the permit to protect themselves from a stalker, from an ex-boyfriend, or girlfriend that was violent towards them," says Delegate Morgan Griffith. The last thing they wanted was their gun carry status and address printed for everyone to see. But even if the Roanoke Times had not printed the list, it was still available to any citizen who submitted a FOIA request to get it.

A subcommittee of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is recommending personal identifiable information of concealed carry holders be kept private. Under their proposal, folks could request statistical information, like what percentage of the population in the Roanoke Valley has a concealed gun permit.

More here.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Safer, Or Just in the Dark?

In Washington, data that was made public after a horrific pipeline explosion is now secret, thanks to the threat of terror...

A three-judge panel ruled Tuesday in favor of a coalition of pipeline companies that sought to keep certain pipeline data out of the hands of the public and the media.

Citing potential terrorist threats and improper procedure by a lower-court judge, the Washington state District of Appeals Division II panel sent the public records requests back to a lower court for a potential trial.

The ruling was disappointing to media organizations, which sought location information on oil and natural gas pipelines.

“I am terribly disappointed,” said Ken Bunting, associate publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The P-I, along with several media organizations including The Bellingham Herald, sought the pipeline data. “I understand that people are concerned about the threat of terrorism, but the threat of terrorism has led to some irrational interpretations of law.”

At issue were detailed pipeline data called shapefiles. The data include specific parts of the pipeline, such as compression stations and valves. The information can be placed over other maps to see where those parts are located in conjunction with businesses or homes or perhaps environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands.

The data were made public by the Pipeline Safety Act of 2000, which was passed after a 1999 pipeline leak explosion that killed three people in Bellingham.

The oil and natural gas companies, with the help of state Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, and Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, nearly closed the data to the public during the 2006 legislative session, but were unsuccessful.

A GREAT idea in Pennsylvania...

As support for providing greater access to public records grows, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association is providing in-depth interviews with sponsors of open records legislation on its blog, www.passopenrecords.org.

Jamie Blaine, a former newspaper publisher who edits the blog, sat down with Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, sponsor of Senate Bill 1, and Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fayette, a freshman lawmaker who is sponsoring House Bill 443. Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, who also has sponsored open records legislation, Senate Bill 765, is expected to provide an interview in the near future.

Blaine asked the sponsors about their motivation for strengthening the state’s Right To Know Law and questioned them on specifics of their bills, including how they would treat lawmakers’ records, whether Penn State’s records should be subject to the law, and which exemptions to access they believe are necessary.

“Lawmakers are saying this is a priority issue for the General Assembly so we asked the sponsors of the legislation exactly what they are expecting and what they are hoping to accomplish through their measures,” said Blaine. “We will post their responses on the blog.”

PNA has been calling for more government openness for years but had been met in the past with significant opposition from legislators and others. Tim Williams, PNA President, said that last year taxpayers across Pennsylvania rediscovered their collective voice in demanding government accountability. People want better and easier access to government information, and lawmakers are listening, he added.

Pennsylvania has a reputation for having one of the worst open records laws in the country, and a 2002 survey by the government watchdog group Better Government Association ranked Pennsylvania’s open records environment 48th out of the 50 states. The commonwealth tied with Alaska. Only Alabama and South Dakota were considered worse. On the final report card, Pennsylvania received a grade of F.

As part of its reform effort, PNA also is sponsoring the Open Records Challenge, which asks citizens to obtain open records from their communities and share their experiences on the blog. The deadline for the Challenge is Oct. 5 and information is available at www.passopenrecords.org. Winners will be announced at an event on Oct. 15.

PNA believes Pennsylvania's open records law must be amended to include the following:

1. Acknowledgment that records belong to the public

The public is entitled to know and be informed fully about the conduct and activities of government.

2. Improved definition of "public record" and a presumption of access

Records in the possession or control of a public agency must be presumed to be accessible to the public. The law should include specific exemptions for records that are not public.

3. Burden of proof on agency

In Pennsylvania, the person seeking access must prove a right to that access. In most states, however, the burden is on the agency to show that specific information is not public under the law.

4. Broader definition of "agency"

The definition of "agency" must include the General Assembly, state-related universities and any organization or entity that relies substantially on taxpayers' money.

5. Administrative appeal/Office of Access

Pennsylvania must create an Office of Access to hear appeals and furnish advisory guidelines, opinions and other appropriate information about the laws to both agencies and citizens.

6. Meaningful penalties

Penalties for open records law violations need to be enforced and the fines increased to make them meaningful.

A Victory In Tennessee, But...

If you want evidence of how important FOI reform in Tennessee is, just review the facts of this one case:

In a sweeping verdict Tuesday, a jury found that the Knox County Commission violated the state's Open Meetings Act when members privately discussed how to fill a dozen appointments for term-limited offices before casting a public vote in January.

The verdict nullifies the appointments, which included several relatives of retiring or sitting commissioners and deputies of former officeholders.

More here.

Sooo....the county commission essentially goes off the whole democracy grid, choosing to "privately" interview "candidates" for public offices? Amazing. Simply amazing.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Important Ruling on Presidential Records Act...

A federal judge on Monday tossed out part of a 2001 order by President George W. Bush that lets former presidents keep some of their presidential papers secret indefinitely.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the U.S. Archivist's reliance on the executive order to delay release of the papers of former presidents is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with law."

Criticized by historians, the November 2001 order allowed the White House or a former president to block release of a former president's papers and put the onus on researchers to show a "specific need" for many types of records.

"The Bush Order effectively eliminated the archivist's discretion to release a former president's documents while such documents are pending a former president's review, which can be extended -- presumably indefinitely," Kollar-Kotelly wrote in a 38-page ruling.

More here.