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.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Seattle spent $2.9 million in fight for Sonics

A public records request by the Seattle P-I disclosed that before the Sonics packed up for Oklahoma City, Seattle spent $2.9 million in legal fees to keep the 40-year team from uprooting.

More here.

Posting of SSNs receive 1st Amendment protection

Betty Ostergren wanted to give public officials a taste of their own medicine, and a federal judge is not standing in her way:
A federal judge has ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of Virginia privacy activist Betty Ostergren to publish the Social Security numbers of public officials on her website. She posted the numbers to protest the Virginia government's policy of posting public real estate records online that included people's Social Security numbers. The decision—and the associated publicity for Ostergren's website—may prompt Virginia politicians to hurry up and fix their own website.

For several years, Virginia has been making the real estate records available for a nominal fee from a commonwealth website. Ostergren, wanting to give public officials a taste of their own medicine, began reproducing the records of legislators and court clerks—Social Security numbers and all—on her website.

More here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Great use of FOI in college athletics coverage

The eligibility issues surrounding prized recruit MarQueis Gray typify the academic question marks associated with the first full recruiting class of Gophers football coach Tim Brewster, according to data obtained by the Star Tribune.

Gray was the centerpiece of a group of 31 February signees that was ranked among the nation's top 20 by several recruiting services. But high-ranking university officials admit it was also a class filled with academic concerns.

The Star Tribune requested college entrance scores for incoming freshman football players from every Big Ten school last summer under the nation's Freedom of Information Act.

Minnesota's freshman class had the lowest scores among the eight Big Ten programs that complied with the request, and the scores were significantly lower than for the recruiting classes in the final years of Glen Mason, who coached the Gophers from 1997 to 2006.

More here.

FOI at work: Obtaining records on foster-child deaths

A Freedom of Information Act request led to a disturbing find: four children assigned to foster homes by the Arkansas Department of Human Services have died in the last few months.

But the DHS is refusing to disclose more details citing a state statute that “Information on a pending [child maltreatment] investigation is confidential and may be disclosed only as provided in this section” — a section that does not include reporters or the general public.

Four children assigned to foster parents by the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) have died in recent months — a shocking number for a state that hasn't had a foster-child death since 2003.

The number came to light thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request to the agency from the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF).

But DHS has refused to release information about the nature of the deaths except to say that two of them are under investigation as maltreatment cases. Even after the State Police made an arrest in one of those cases on Aug. 11, DHS declined to comment further, citing a statute that prevents disclosure of ongoing department investigations.

Which raises the questions: When is DHS justified in withholding information about foster-child deaths? What sort of information should it be able to conceal? Is the public's need to know about the circumstances of the deaths outweighed by DHS's need to complete an investigation before putting details out in the open?

The Times asked DHS for basic information about the deaths: names if available, location and — most importantly — circumstances of death. What caused each child to die? What distinguishes a case that apparently involves child maltreatment from one that doesn't?

More here.

Kentucky attorney general rules in favor of college newspaper

Another college newspaper fights against heavily redacted police reports. The attorney general ruled that "Eastern Kentucky University improperly relied on KRS 61.878(1)(a) in redacting the address of persons whose names appeared on incident reports." However, since The Progress receives its police reports directly from the police department as a courtesy, officers can still black out addresses and other information they deem necessary. The staff is working with the university counsel in hopes to begin receiving uncensored reports without having to file -- and wait -- for a formal request.

Near the end of last semester, the Progress staff got fed up with vast quantities of black ink clouding the police reports we received from the Eastern police department every week. The reports were so heavily redacted we couldn't list names in the police beat without running the risk of libeling someone.

Remedying the situation was tricky because the Progress wasn't formally requesting the reports from the university. Eastern police gave us the reports we used each week as a courtesy, which meant they could remove whatever information they desired before giving them to us. And since formal requests could take weeks to process, our only option was to take the readily available censored reports.

We had to figure out how to end the unnecessary redactions without delaying information to our readers.

In order to determine what the police department was redacting that couldn't be redacted when a formal request was made, we sent a pair of "Freedom Of Information Act" requests to the university, asking for copies of about a week's worth of police reports. When we got these reports, we were surprised to see just as much black ink on the formally requested reports as on the freebies we got from the police department. On some reports, even more information was redacted on the formally requested version.

More here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Defense Department's information systems remain unreliable

Journalists aren't the only ones struggling for accurate information from the Defense Department. According to a column on govexec.com, Air Force leaders have struggled to obtain up-to-date information reports needed to make crucial decisions on determining risks and assessing readiness. The column goes on to describe the Air Force's Transparency Integrated Product Team:

Like nearly all responsibilities of government, defending the nation's citizens and interests is driven by knowledge. National defense not only requires knowledge of an adversary's intent and capability, but also of the U.S. military's resources and readiness to deter, dissuade, disrupt or defeat the unwanted action by the enemy.

During the past six decades, the Defense Department has developed thousands of information systems to support decision-making. Interconnectivity at the machine-to-machine level of these systems is uneven. As a result, leaders at every level of the Air Force must often rely on manual, labor-intensive processes to obtain information that should be readily available.

At units worldwide, for example, commanders and directors routinely must know their "burn rates," or how quickly they are spending allocated funds, particularly compared with similar units. They must determine variables ranging from whether their people and equipment are ready for deployment to whether discrepancies noted in workplace and housing inspections have been resolved. Yet obtaining routine information reports can be challenging and time-consuming.

The root causes are many. In large organizations, critical data are scattered across components, time zones and information systems. As these pockets of data are connected machine to machine, meaningful information can be extracted across the entire organization. Otherwise, the data assist only a limited few.

More here.

Court Prohibits Publication of D.C. Madam's Suicide Photos

An invasion of privacy argument raised by Deborah Palfrey's mother against the public dissemination of the photos was honored by Florida courts:

Police photographs taken after the so-called D.C. Madam committed suicide can be viewed under the state’s public-records law but are not allowed to be copied or published.

That’s after a judge ruled on the matter on Aug. 15.

In May, 52-year-old Deborah Palfrey hanged herself in a shed outside her mother’s mobile home in Florida. Her mother found the body.

More here.

$10 for a denial? Sheesh!

Shiawassee County, Michigan, Sheriff Jon Wilson may have violated Michigan's Freedom of Information Act when he charged The Argus-Press $10 for a one-page FOIA request denial.

A Freedom of Information Act request can be made by anyone to obtain information from public agencies.

Wow...imagine the market potential of charging $10 per DENIAL.....

The Argus-Press requested information regarding the Law Enforcement Information Network rights of former Corunna Police Officer Angelo Panos. The sheriff's department keeps record of who has LEIN rights within the county.

In Wilson's Aug. 18, two-paragraph denial, he stated, “...internal labor issues are not subject to FOIA. I have no knowledge concerning the details of Mr. Panos' employment issues.”

Wilson sent a letter to Panos Aug. 18 detailing Panos' employment issues. “Chief (Kim) Williams called Lt. (Mike) Ash and advised that you were no longer employed with the City of Corunna,” the letter to Panos reads. “At that time, Lt. Ash requested (Central) Dispatch to remove your LEIN rights.”

Wilson also sent The Argus-Press an invoice for $10 for the FOIA denial.

More here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Meetings in Restaurants: Quit It Already!

Two directors of North Dakota's workers compensation agency broke the state's open meetings law by meeting in a restaurant to discuss business without public notice, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said.

Stenehjem, in a legal opinion Monday, said the Workforce Safety and Insurance agency must draft minutes of the illegal meeting and provide a free copy to anyone who asks. Former WSI executive Jim Long, who filed a complaint with Stenehjem about the meeting, must receive a free copy, the opinion says.

Workforce Safety's operations are supervised by an 11-member board of directors. The board also has smaller subcommittees, which report to the full board.

Meetings of the smaller groups and the full board both require public notice under North Dakota's sunshine law, which is triggered if enough committee members show up to allow their respective boards to take votes and make decisions.

Stenehjem said the open meetings law was violated May 21 when Mark Gjovig, the chairman of the full board, and board member Mark Jackson met at a Bismarck restaurant the night before a scheduled meeting of the full board.

More here.

As the World Turns....

The e-mail saga in Missouri turns a new chapter...

A bipartisan pair of prominent attorneys renewed a lawsuit Monday seeking e-mails from Gov. Matt Blunt's office while asserting it has violated Missouri's open-records law.

The amended lawsuit also renews an assertion that someone acting under the control of the governor's office sought to destroy backup e-mail records to avoid complying with a Sunshine Law request by The Associated Press.

The new version of the lawsuit was filed by former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell and Republican attorney Louis Leonatti. They were appointed by a Cole County judge as assistant attorneys general on the case after Blunt's office objected to the legal authority of a St. Louis lawyer chosen by Attorney General Jay Nixon...

Last month, Cole County Judge Richard Callahan ruled that Nixon's selected investigator, Mel Fisher, had no legal authority to sue the governor's office on behalf of the attorney general. But the judge subsequently appointed Maxwell and Leonatti to the investigation and delayed the dismissal of the lawsuit to give them time to decide whether to continue or drop the case.

Maxwell, speaking for the duo, said it seemed Fisher's investigation had "been hampered" by the governor's office and its attorneys and determined the case should go forward. They largely adopted the assertions in the original lawsuit filed on behalf of Fisher by St. Louis attorney Chet Pleban.

More here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

An Interesting Symposium Article on Access...

This is a nice summation of the current law of access as it applies to environmental issues, and a call for reform...

A glance at the piece reveals some nice arguments:

Where does this leave us? In my view, there is now a significant and growing dissonance between the promises made by our federal right-to-know laws and their performance. Part of the problem, of course, is entrenched resistance by government officials (of both political parties) to giving the public the ability to stand over their shoulders while they do their jobs. People do not want to do their work in a fishbowl. Legislation cannot change human nature. Nor can legislation safeguard access-to-information laws from subversion by administrations hostile to the ideal of openness. But there is much that legislation could do to recalibrate the way our right-toknow laws work in practice. In my view, it is time to overhaul our nation's right-to-know laws in three important ways:First, right-to-know laws should place an affirmative duty on the government to make environmental information available to the public.

The article is here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

USA Today Unveils Tremendous Records Set

From Poynter's wonderful Al's Morning Meeting:

Until today, hospital death rates were closely guarded secrets, discussed in board rooms but beyond the reach of patients whose lives are on the line. That changed Wednesday morning when USA Today posted on its Web site the government's best estimates of heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia death rates for every U.S. hospital for two years.

Now anyone with access to a computer can directly compare a local hospital with the one across town to see how it stacks up against the biggest medical institutions nationwide. Death rates from heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia are widely viewed as yardsticks of a hospital's overall performance.

The report is here.

Nice column on some secrecy at FSU...

Seems that FSU is stonewalling over acess to an NCAA document...

Not much sunshine in Orlando this week because of Tropical Storm Fay.

Not much Sunshine in Tallahassee either due to another tropical storm on the horizon -- a top-secret list of alleged NCAA violations.

The Sunshine we're talking about is the State of Florida's Sunshine Law, which Florida State is once again trying to finagle around amid an academic fraud scandal that has turned into a national embarrassment for the Seminoles and their athletic department.

A quick legal briefing: Our state's Government-in-the-Sunshine law and corresponding Open Records Act provide almost unfettered and timely public access to documents, tapes, photographs and just about everything else generated by state-funded agencies.

More here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Homeland Insecurity in Texas...

So, the governor of Texas and the DPS are arguing that the expense records -- the expense records! -- of the security detail are sensitive. Sure, because evildoers will no doubt be honing in on where the Texas Guv's security detail stayed...a year ago....

The Texas Department of Public Safety is appealing a court decision that granted the Houston Chronicle and two other newspapers access to travel records filed by members of Gov. Rick Perry's security detail.

Attorney General Greg Abbott's office filed notice of appeal Monday with the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin.

The Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News and the Austin American-Statesman sued the DPS for refusing to release copies of expense vouchers for troopers' travel with the governor last year and in 2001.

The state contended that releasing the information could endanger the governor, his family and other people traveling with him.

But state District Judge Scott Jenkins questioned that claim and ruled Aug. 1 that the newspapers should be granted access to the records. Attorneys for the newspapers argued that the expense vouchers were "super-public information" that didn't pose a threat to anyone.

Perry usually pays his own travel expenses from political funds, but his bodyguards have spent thousands of taxpayer dollars guarding the governor on trips throughout the U.S. and to several foreign countries.

The newspapers have obtained lump sum amounts of security spending, but the DPS has refused to release expense details.

More here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Jack Landau, FOI Warrior

It's hard to put into words the impact of Jack Landau on press freedom and freedom of information in the United States, but the Post did a nice job:

Jack Landau, 74, a founder of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, died Aug. 9 of complications from emphysema at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington County. He was a longtime Falls Church resident.

The committee, a Washington-based legal defense and research center for reporters, was created in 1970, when the nation's news media were facing an increasing number of government subpoenas demanding that reporters name confidential sources.

A group of journalists, including Benjamin C. Bradlee of The Washington Post, Mike Wallace of CBS and Tom Wicker of the New York Times, gathered at Georgetown University to discuss the need to provide legal assistance. They formed a committee that initially operated part time.

Mr. Landau, a reporter-lawyer covering the U.S. Supreme Court for Newhouse News Service, was an early member of the steering committee. In his spare time, he also started the First Amendment Hotline, the first free legal guidance service for journalists involved in First Amendment and freedom-of-information issues.

More here.

Ah, the Cost of Secrecy

Sometimes, secrecy means that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, as evidenced by this story:

Secrecy could add to the steep cost of Florida's proposed $1.75 billion buyout of U.S. Sugar.

While state water managers held closed-door talks with U.S. Sugar about buying the company's 187,000 acres, Palm Beach County in April approved a U.S. Sugar plan for rock mining right in the middle of the area targeted for Everglades restoration.

The mining approval likely boosted the value of those 7,000 acres, according to appraisers. That could mean taxpayers will end up paying more for a big piece of the buyout, proposed to re-establish water flows between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

Sugar cane land in that area appraises for about $3,400 to $5,500 an acre, compared with up to $11,000 an acre for rock mines, according to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser's Office.

Here's the killer quote:

"None of us knew anything about it," County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said about the buyout, which was announced in June. "Now they bring up this U.S. Sugar deal. ... It's very confusing to the public and to elected officials."

More here.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Iowa Guv Sits On Flood Report Draft

Gov. Chet Culver's staff refused this week to release a draft report that outlines Iowa's housing recommendations after the floods.

The final report will be used to help state leaders navigate upcoming recovery efforts. What it says — largely a product of public input — could play a major role in the amount and types of additional assistance provided to families affected by the flood.

Culver's spokeswoman, Courtney Greene, said the Rebuild Iowa Office will release all drafts of the report on Aug. 25, after a the task force has had time to respond with possible revisions. The public will have time, after that, to recommend revisions and suggestions, she said.

"This office is committed to transparency as it relates to the Rebuild Iowa Office," Greene wrote in a statement.

But key pieces of the report, which was written by a consultant who monitored public meetings, could be altered by the task force before the public has an opportunity to view the document, an open-records advocate said.

"Decisions that are made out of the public eye breed suspicion by citizens," said Kathleen Richardson of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

More here.

An Interesting Look At Texas E-Mail Saga

An open source site takes a look at one man's drive to open the e-mail of Texas Gov. Rick Perry to public scrutiny:

John Washburn takes public records seriously. Recently, the 45-year-old computer software tester from Wisconsin decided to take on Texas Gov. Rick Perry over his e-mail retention program -- or lack of one.

Perry's office automatically deletes virtually all its e-mails every seven days, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Washburn, who viewed the retention period as "obnoxiously short," developed a computer program that every four days automatically requests all e-mails sent to and from Perry's office staff. When he received the first batch more than 8,000 e-mails covering four days -- he promptly posted them online.

More here.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Here is a Treat: BBC Series on FOI

Give a listen...this is really interesting stuff. Plus, how often do we have documentary treatment of our beloved subject?

The links to the shows are here.

FOI AT WORK: Obama Plane Had "Emergency"

Control tower tapes show the pilot of U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign plane told air traffic controllers he had an "emergency" when he made an unscheduled landing during a campaign trip last month.

At the time, the Federal Aviation Administration and Midwest Airlines, owner of the MD-80 charter airliner, said the landing was not forced by an emergency.

ABC News reported Thursday that tower tapes it obtained through a federal Freedom of Information Act request show that the pilot, who was having trouble controlling the pitch of the plane, told an FAA air traffic controller "at this time we would like to declare an emergency and also have CFR (crash equipment) standing by in St. Louis."

More here.

Tully Center Publishes Grim Report on State of Access to Military Justice

The Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today released a comprehensive study on the lack of public access to military court proceedings. The Tully Center’s researchers found more than one-third of military bases surveyed do not allow public access to information in military court schedules, and another 20% only give out partial information. The Reporters Committee published this research as part of an 8-page guide including information on the problems reporters encounter in covering military courts, the relevant law and helpful resources.

The report is available here.

The Mayor Wants A Teensy Bit of Control...

File this under the broad heading of "trickle-down fascism, in which mayors and county commissioners and such try to build their own West Wing message control juntas. Last I checked, public employees have First Amendment rights, too.

The mayor wants to be notified before city employees talk to the news media.

Mayor Sharon McShurley, in a memorandum distributed yesterday to city and sanitary district employees, said all "public announcements" must be reviewed by her or someone she has designated "to ensure accuracy (and) that it is well written and appropriate for the intended audience."

A union official accused the mayor of trying to restrict free speech, which McShurley denied.

"I can tell you that the intent is not to keep employees from talking to the media," she told the Muncie newspaper, The Star Press. "I think they have a responsibility to let us know if the media is asking for something."

The policy requires employees to notify their immediate supervisors before press interviews and to have supervisors present during interviews "to the maximum extent practicable." Supervisors' role would be to "attest to the accuracy of the interview" and follow up with the news media.

More here.

Bill Seeks to Overturn Photo Ban on War Dead

The Department of Defense would be required to grant journalists access to ceremonies honoring fallen military personnel under a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The legislation is significant because it would, for the first time since Vietnam, let photojournalists capture the powerful images of flag-draped caskets arriving on American soil during wartime.

The Fallen Hero Commemoration Act, or H.R. 6662, was introduced July 30 by Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), a member of the House Committee on Armed Services.

The bill states: "The Secretary of Defense shall grant access to accredited members of the media at military commemoration ceremonies and memorial services conducted by the Armed Forces for members of the Armed Forces who have died on active duty and when the remains of members of the Armed Forces arrive at military installations in the United States." It was referred to the Committee on Armed Services.

Jones voted to authorize the Iraq war, but he later supported a timetable to withdrawal troops and opposed the troop surge in 2007. Jones has spoken frequently in support of veterans' interests and displays a poster outside his office showing the photos of fallen service members from the Marine base in his district, according to his Web site.

His bill has six co-sponsors: Rep Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.)...

In the five years of the Iraq war, during which more than 4,100 U.S. troops have died, photos of military caskets have leaked out on at least three occasions.

In 2004, a defense contractor named Tami Silicio snapped a photo of flag-draped coffins at the Kuwait International Airport and provided it to The Seattle Times, which published the picture on its front page.

Also in 2004, Russ Kick of the The Memory Hole Web site published more than 300 photos of returning war dead he obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which the Pentagon later said was granted by mistake.

In 2005, University of Delaware professor Ralph Begleiter released more than 700 photos by military photographers showing ceremonies honoring returning military dead. Begleiter obtained the images through a FOIA request and a lawsuit.

More here.

OSS Files Opened: Julia Childs Was a Spy?!?!

Before she became a famously untidy television chef, Julia Child had a secret career as an American spy, winning praise for her attention to detail as she managed the flow of classified communications from remote posts in Ceylon and China during World War II.

Long before he appeared on screen as a lunatic general in "Dr. Strangelove" and a corrupt cop in "The Godfather," Sterling Hayden was parachuting into fascist Croatia as a secret operative for America's fledgling espionage service.

And decades before he was named CIA director, William J. Casey was running clandestine operations for the agency's predecessor -- the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS -- from its European headquarters in London.

The U.S. government pulled back the covers on these careers in espionage and thousands of others Thursday, granting public access for the first time to previously classified personnel files of Americans who served in the OSS.

More here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chile Passes FOI Law!

Congrats, Chile!

State agencies will be obligated to provide information requested by citizens in a time frame of 20 days and a Council for transparency will be created to monitor the law. Pro Acceso Foundation had a leading role in the process of passing the law through Congress.

The Law on Transparency of Public Functions and Access to Public Information of State Agencies, was passed today, August 11, 2008, in a ceremony presided by the Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet.

This new law will permit to significantly reduce the “areas of reserve”, present until now in the management of the public administration. In fact, the law requires that all state agencies provide information to any citizen who wishes to request information within a time frame of 20 days, finally putting into practice the principles established in the political constitution that “the acts and resolutions of state organs, we well as the reasons and procedures they use, are public”.

Additionally, all state agencies are obligated to provide, through their website, up-to-date information regarding their structure, personnel, salaries, contracts signed with other institutions, transfer of funds, and the results of any internal audit conducted.

One of the central features of the law is the creation of a Council for Transparency (Consejo para la Transparencia). This institution will have the mission of monitoring the execution of the law recently passed, and defend the right of access to public information. Additionally, citizens who do not receive the information they requested will be able to go to this Council, who will then determine whether the information requested is public or not.

The Council for Transparency will have four members, who will be proposed by the President of the Republic and then ratified by the Senate. The Council must be established 60 days after the passing of the law.

One of the events that triggered the discussion on the need to have a law that guarantees access to public information was the verdict of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2006 in the case Claude Reyes v. Chile, that condemned the State of Chile for denying access to information in the hands of the Foreign Investments Committee about the environmental firm Trillium. The presentation of this case in court was carried out by Pro Acceso Foundations, as part of its program on international litigation.

Pro Acceso actively participated in the discussions held by members of the parliament and other organizations linked to the theme, in the process of passing the new law in Congress. On many occasions, representatives of Pro Acceso, assisted the Parliament to discuss international norms on access to information and made multiple proposals which were incorporated by those responsible for the project.

Pro Acceso’s participation was also manifested today, through the participation of its representatives in the Ceremony presided by President Bachelet in the “Palacio la Moneda”.

More info here (in Spanish).

Cool Stuff: Quizzing the Candidates on Open Government in WA

Passing along...from this blog...

Earlier this year, the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) submitted an open government questionnaire to candidates around the state and asked for their position on 10 key government reform issues identified by WCOG. Candidates were asked to take a “yes” or “no” stance on topics including proposals to require taping of executive session of public agencies and stiffen penalties for Open Public Meeting Act violations and destruction of public records.

A summary of the responses submitted by all candidates, plus the individual surveys filled by each one, have been posted on the WCOG Web site at www.washingtoncog.org.

“The Washington Coalition for Open Government is happy to be able to provide this service to our members and to the people of Washington so they will know more about where the candidates stand on government openness, transparency, and accountability,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Coalition. “I hope they will make note of which candidates failed to respond to our survey, and ask those candidates pointed questions about where they really stand on the people’s right to know what their government is doing.”

The Washington Coalition for Open Government is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and defending the people's right to know in matters of public interest and in the conduct of the public's business. Members of the coalition represent a broad range of interests, including the news media, public affairs, law, current and retired public officials, business and labor.

For more information, contact WCOG President Toby Nixon at 206.782.0393 or visit the WCOG Web site at www.washingtoncog.org.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

We Want to Build a Power Plant....Secretly

State District Judge E. Wayne Phillips of Lewistown has ruled the city of Great Falls should not have refused to release drafts of documents to members of an environmental group last year.

The documents involved the city's relationship with the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative. SME and the city of Great Falls have proposed a coal-fired power plant east of the city.

At one point in his ruling, Phillips called a position taken by the city in the case "disingenuous." The ruling was dated June 12, but a mixup in the Clerk of Courts office prevented the parties from being notified until this week.

Anne Hedges, program director for the Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center, said she expected a positive ruling and wondered "how the city could argue this case with a straight face."

"It's a wakeup call to the city of Great Falls," Hedges said Thursday.

More here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

NY Web Records Site Sues Over Data

An Albany-based think tank is suing Kiryas Joel's public school district for ignoring a document request that 730 other districts fulfilled.

The Empire Center for New York State Policy claims Kiryas Joel never responded to six letters since March 31 asking for copies of the contracts for its superintendent and teachers union — the same information it sought from every other New York school district.

The center has since posted the contracts it got and other public records — including a database of salaries for all 263,000 state employees — on a Web site (seethroughny.net) that attracted so many viewers when it went online July 31 that it crashed.

Now, the center is taking legal action against the only three school districts that flouted its request: Kiryas Joel, Uniondale and Mount Markham. Those districts could be liable for the center's legal costs if found to have violated the state Freedom of Information Law.

Kiryas Joel Superintendent Joel Petlin says there's a simple reason he never supplied the records: his office moved on March 1, and he never got the Empire Center's letters.

He said he'd be happy to fulfill the request, although he has no teachers contract to provide. The staff of his tiny school system — which serves fewer than 250 special education students from the Hasidic community — are paid on a salary scale the administration has set, Petlin said.

Kiryas Joel's village government and public school have a shaky record of complying with the public records law. The Times Herald-Record asked both for copies of their payrolls — records that governments and school districts routinely provide — three times last year and got no response.

In addition, village officials have ignored five requests from the newspaper since December 2007 for copies of building permits, Planning Board minutes and code violations. Those records were sought after a mudslide occurred in a construction area.

More here.

Colorado Guv Sues for Cell Phone Records

This ought to be a rather high-profile test of the arguments surrounding the public records status of cell phones...

The Denver Post today sued Gov. Bill Ritter after the governor's refusal to turn over 19 months of cellphone records that would show some of who Ritter has called and been called by since taking office in 2007.

The newspaper claims it is entitled to a list of calls made and received by Ritter during the 19 months related to his work as governor.

Ritter only occasionally uses his state-issued cellphone but carries a second cellphone not provided by taxpayers. The governor's office has refused to allow Post reporters to see the itemized bills for that phone, arguing that it would invade the governor's privacy.

Attorneys for the paper disagree.

"It is obvious that if any high-ranking government executive may 'privatize' his conduct of public business by establishing a private account or dealing with private providers of communications technologies, it would allow government officials to unilaterally create a vast and unacceptable 'loophole' in the requirements" of the Colorado Open Records Acts, said the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit filed in Denver District Court, the newspaper filed two requests for the records, one on July 6 and the second July 28.

The first request asked for the itemized phone bill from Ritter's personal cellphone for January and February 2007.

The second request asked for 19 months of cellphone bills — from January 2007 through July 2008 — which reflect the official calls placed or received by Ritter during normal business hours.

More here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Unhealthy Alliances: When Journalists Lie Down With Sources...

Two important journalism organizations are urging local broadcast stations and newspapers to avoid arrangements with hospitals that improperly influence health coverage, saying unethical partnerships interfere with independent news coverage of health care.

The Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists are concerned about news media that publish or broadcast stories, reports, news releases and interviews prepared or paid for by hospitals.

The ethics codes of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists call for fair and accurate reporting and editorial independence. But editorial cutbacks, along with pressure on hospitals to market profitable services, may be eroding these standards.

More here and here.

In several recently reported cases, local hospitals have exerted editorial control by supplying pre-packaged stories and other content to news organizations. In some but not all cases, hospitals paid for this special influence. Earlier this year, a Maryland newspaper sold its weekly health page to a local hospital and put the hospital in charge of providing content. The arrangement was halted amid community protest after just one published issue. Broadcast examples include airing of hospital-produced segments with hazy branding or no branding at all, leading viewers to believe the local station reported the story. In some cases, the hospital-created material is even transmitted to a station through an affiliated news network.

Even if disclosed, arrangements in which television or radio stations or newspapers hand over editorial decision-making to hospitals violate the principles of ethical journalism and betray public trust. Content produced by hospitals does not fulfill the duty of news organizations to provide the public with independent medical reporting.

Ethical problems are compounded when media outlets fail to adequately disclose the source of the content, misleading viewers, listeners or readers into thinking it is legitimate news.

AHCJ and SPJ believe:
- News organizations should fully disclose the source of any editorial information not independently gathered, whether video, audio, photograph or print material.
- News organizations should not run prepackaged stories produced by hospitals unless they are clearly and continuously labeled as advertisements.
- News organizations should not favor advertisers or sponsors over competing health-care providers when choosing sources or story topics and should strive to employ a wide variety of sources.
- News organizations should develop guidelines for the public disclosure of sponsors and advertisers. These guidelines should prohibit news personnel from appearing in or participating in sponsored programming or advertisements.

The groups said: Our journalistic mission requires us to hold doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies accountable to the public. In doing so, we commit to fair and transparent reporting of medical issues.

The Association of Health Care Journalists, based at the Missouri School of Journalism, is an independent, nonprofit membership organization of more than 1,000 health reporters and editors in the United States and 21 other nations. Along with its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, it is dedicated to advancing public understanding of health care issues and improving the quality, accuracy and visibility of health reporting, writing and editing.

The Society of Professional Journalists, based in Indianapolis, is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry through the daily work of its nearly 10,000 members; works to inspire and educate current and future journalists through professional development; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press through its advocacy efforts.

The SPJ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

Both AHCJ’s Statement of Principles and the SPJ code say journalists should:
- Be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.

Ohio: New Site to Put Records Online

COLUMBUS – The Buckeye Institute today announced its Center for Transparent and Accountable Government. The center, led by former Statehouse reporter Mike Maurer, will collect and post online state and local government budgets, employee contracts, public records policies and other information.

"Transparency and open government crosses ideologies and is equally supported, and equally opposed, by both major political parties," said Maurer. "The Coburn-Obama bill, of which both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain were initial sponsors, requires federal government contracts to be posted at USAspending.gov. Ohioans deserve the same type of transparency from their state and local governments."

The center's first two initiatives include a candidate transparency pledge and an open government "wiki" Web page.

A Pledge for Transparency and Accountability in Government will be distributed to all candidates for elective office, at all levels of government, from townships and school districts to the General Assembly. It asks that candidates acknowledge the importance of Internet availability, the legal basis of transparency in the state and federal constitutions, and the use of practical, current technology, such as searchable databases and relevant cross links.

The pledge is attached to a White Paper on Transparency published as a Buckeye Institute Policy Brief, describing state and private efforts to make budgets, checkbooks, contracts and awards, and a wide array of government data easily accessible. The report is available online at www.buckeyeinstitute.org.

OhioSunshine.org, a publicly editable "wiki" Web site, is available to all citizens and can be edited by local activists across the state. The site is dedicated to open government, and it will allow citizens to monitor how well state and local governments provide information to the public.

"We like to say that there are 11 million pairs of eyes to ensure good government in Ohio," said Maurer. "While many of our government officials deserve credit for working to provide government data the way it must be provided today, over the Internet, the fact is that Ohio is behind its peers in government transparency."

Examples of state governments that are doing a better job than Ohio include the state of Alaska, which has its entire checkbook online, and the state of West Virginia, which has its entire public employee payroll online.

Buckeye Institute President David Hansen said that open, easily available information is essential to good government.

"The legitimacy of Ohio government rests on the consent of the governed, but that consent doesn't mean much when so much of government occurs hidden, or deeply buried," Hansen said. "Twenty-First Century information technology should be applied to draw back the curtain that stands between government and the people."

The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions is a nonpartisan research and educational institute devoted to individual liberty, economic freedom, personal responsibility and limited government in Ohio.

An Interesting Look at Voting Records in SC...

This is a rather interesting issue...

Trying to track down a legislator's voting record might be a little like chasing Bigfoot: First, you have to find out if it really exists.

Open-government advocates argue the state Legislature's lack of roll-call votes — revealed in a new study — is designed so that legislators have "plausible deniability" when comes to taking a stance on controversial bills.

South Carolina's legislative leaders, though, say they and their colleagues want to be on record when it comes to important bills, that taking roll call on procedural matters would clog the system and cost money. Besides, they reason, a bill that passes without a roll-call vote indicates unanimous support on the House and Senate floors.

Further, the South Carolina Policy Council's analysis of roll-call votes on its own is misleading, legislators say.

What the conservative think tank found is that the House called roll on 8 percent of the bills that became law this year, while the Senate did so only 1 percent of the time. That practice is at odds with standards in most states nationally and in South Carolina's neighboring states.

Gov. Mark Sanford's office did not hesitate in condemning the Legislature.

"It's a shocking lack of accountability," the governor's press secretary, Joel Sawyer, said. "Our entire system is built upon this idea of people standing up and being counted and then being held accountable for their actions come November.

More here.

Thanks, U.S. Wildlife Services!

Since I blasted them a week or so ago in an AP story, let me praise them now....

The U.S. Department of Agriculture division that kills problem wildlife says it will do the math to report how many wolves, robins, and other species it kills each year on a nationwide basis.

Wildlife Services spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said Monday from Washington, D.C., that the decision came after the conservation group WildEarth Guardians filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the information.

Wildlife Services has been posting the nationwide totals since 1996, but this year for the first time switched to a state-by-state format, forcing anyone interested in national trends to do the math themselves.

Wendy Keefover-Ring of WildEarth Guardians says this was an attempt to avoid public scrutiny.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

CPI Unveils News Report on Toxins

A wonderful new FOI-driven series....by one of my favorite grad students.

When two-and-a-half-year-old Amber Nickol McKeown got head lice, her mother put the child in a warm bath and massaged Osco Lice Treatment Shampoo into her scalp. Problem solved.

But the little girl’s condition deteriorated quickly. Her chest turned red. She labored to breathe. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and her skin peeled off in clumps. Seventy-two hours later, Amber was dead - an autopsy showed her death had been triggered by exposure to a type of pesticide called a pyrethrin and its accompanying impurities, according to the family’s lawsuit.

While Amber’s story is an extreme case, it clearly shows the hidden hazards of household pesticides and the need to revisit their safety. The Center for Public Integrity’s new report, Perils of the New Pesticides, reveals that these so-called “safe” pesticides, used in thousands of consumer products, accounted for more than 26 percent of all fatal, “major,” and “moderate” human incidents in the United States in 2007, a 300% increase over the last decade.

This Center for Public Integrity project provides the public with a searchable database of products containing these pesticides so consumers can check for incident reports on harmful pesticides used in their own homes. The Center’s reporting also pushed the EPA to fast track its study of the pesticides’ effects, something the EPA was not planning to do for years until the Center showed officials what was happening.

More here.

UK FOI: Journalists Make 11% of Requests

Freedom of Information requests were condemned last year as being abused by "lazy journalists", but the media was responsible for only 11% of them.

The details are contained in the Northern Ireland government's annual report on Freedom of Information.

It said the 11 NI government departments received a total of 3,164 such requests during 2007.

Of these 62% were from members of the public, 13% from businesses and 11% from the media.

Solicitors, public representatives and researchers account for the remaining 14%.

More here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

FOI At Work: Army Segregating Iraqi Prisoners in Crates

The U.S. military is segregating violent Iraqi prisoners in wooden crates that in some cases are not much bigger than the prisoners.

The military released photos of what it calls "segregation boxes" used in Iraq following a FOIA request by a blogger.

Three grainy black-and-white photos show the rudimentary structures of wood and mesh. Some of the boxes are as small as 3 feet by 3 feet by 6 feet tall, according to military officials. There was no image released of a box that size.

The average Iraqi male is 5 feet 6 inches tall, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Health. That leaves little room for a prisoner to move once placed inside.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Sign of the Future: FOI Requests Go Social Nets...

A new Web site has been launched to root out some of the lesser known documentation of Salem County government.

Launched by the Salem County Watchdog Association, the site provides archived and current documents secured through open public records requests.

The brainchild of Shirlee Manahan, www.salemcountywatchdog.org is a cyber-library providing information such as who among employees has a county-issued cell phone or vehicle, along with news of the day and budgetary information.

"This is a non-partisan, non-political Web site. I made a simple inquiry for public records in 2006 and was told no," said Manahan, a Pennsville resident. "The Web site was designed to save citizens the time, delay and cost of making individual requests for documents."

Manahan believed strongly that her denial was a violation of the Open Public Records Act and took her case to the Government Records Council.

More here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Kentucky Law OKs E-Mail Notice

Local governments in Kentucky will now be able to notify news organizations about their special meetings by e-mail.

The new provision in Kentucky's open-meetings law took effect in July. Touted as a money- and time-saver, it allows local governments to send meeting notices electronically to any agency member or news organization that asks in writing for e-mail communications.

"It gives the media and the public more timely notification of the special meetings, as well," said Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office. "Because you never can ensure when a mailed letter is going to arrive by the postal service."

More here.

Kentucky Law OKs E-Mail Notice

Local governments in Kentucky will now be able to notify news organizations about their special meetings by e-mail.

The new provision in Kentucky's open-meetings law took effect in July. Touted as a money- and time-saver, it allows local governments to send meeting notices electronically to any agency member or news organization that asks in writing for e-mail communications.

"It gives the media and the public more timely notification of the special meetings, as well," said Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office. "Because you never can ensure when a mailed letter is going to arrive by the postal service."

More here.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

E-Mail Meetings In Colorado...

Two Louisville residents have lodged a formal complaint with the Boulder Valley school board alleging members violated the state’s open-meetings law by using e-mail to discuss public business in private.

On several occasions in the past year, three or more members of the seven-member school board exchanged e-mails discussing issues related to the demolition, reconstruction and proposed preservation of Louisville Middle School, according to documents disclosed through a request under the Colorado Open Records Act.

Ty Gee, an attorney and longtime community activist, and John Leary, a former Louisville councilman, have demanded the board “take remedial action” by creating a policy to ensure “a violation does not occur again.”

“The school board should have known about the Open Meetings Act,” said Gee, who, along with Leary, has opposed demolition of the middle school’s historic facade. “If you’re an elected official, there are certain basics.”

More here.

Huge U.S. Sugar Deal: Did it Violate Florida Sunshine?

A former U.S. attorney sued South Florida water managers Friday, alleging their initial talks about the proposed $1.75 billion U.S. Sugar buyout violated the state's Government -in-the-Sunshine Law.

Among other steps, Dexter Lehtinen wants a Palm Beach County circuit judge to toss out the South Florida Water Management District's "statement of principles" outlining the broad terms of the deal, which could convert 187,000 acres of farmland into marshes and reservoirs to help restore the Everglades.

The suit complains that Gov. Charlie Crist's representatives and district leaders, including members of the district's board, "participated in secret negotiations" on the proposed deal before Crist announced it June 24.

"The transparency issue is critical," Lehtinen said in an interview. "They have developed this without revealing the details and without answering the serious questions. The Sunshine Law is designed to allow the public to get answers to those questions."

Water managers defended the deal, calling it one of the most important moves to protect the Everglades since the creation of Everglades National Park in 1947.

In a statement Friday, the district said it "remains committed to open government and conducting itself according to the letter and spirit of the law throughout these complex and delicate negotiations."

More here.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Carter Center Unveils Declaration

This just in from the Carter Center's initiative on access to information...

In July, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter forwarded the Atlanta Declaration and Plan of Action for the Advancement of the Right to Information to all heads of state and leaders of the major international organizations and financial institutions. President Carter urged these leaders to ensure the right of access to information and its implementation and enforcement. The Atlanta Declaration and Plan of Action (please see attached) was the product of the Carter Center’s International Conference on the Right to Public Information, held February 27-29, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia. The more than 125 participants, representing governments, civil society, international organizations and financial institutions, private sector, donors and scholars, from 40 countries who met to discuss the successes and future challenges to the establishment of a right of access to information.

The Atlanta Declaration and Plan of Action, serving as a framework for advancing this human right, finds that access to information is fundamental to dignity, equity and peace with justice, and that a lack of access to information disproportionately affects the poor, women and other vulnerable and marginalized societies. The Declaration calls on all states and intergovernmental organizations to enact legislation and instruments for the exercise, full implementation and effective enforcement of this right. It further encourages all stakeholders to take concrete steps to establish, develop, protect and promote the right of access to information. The Declaration is available in Spanish, French, Chinese, and Bulgarian (Portugese coming soon).

More here.

Mississippi Court Denies Access to Animal Research Records

The Iams Company's records from seven years of pet food research at Mississippi State University are not public documents, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

In 2006, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued Mississippi State University.

It alleged the school violated the Mississippi Public Records Act by denying PETA access to records of dental experiments and other tests on animals conducted since 1999 for Iams.

Iams had argued that the experiments were the company's intellectual property.

Iams said it had made a substantial investment at Mississippi State to develop and protect that property.

PETA said it didn't want trade secrets. PETA said it only wanted to know what happened to the animals at Mississippi State.

PETA claimed Mississippi State wanted an advance fee of $40,497 for the documents it requested. When it reduced the number of pages asked for, PETA claims MSU told them that only 19 of the requested pages would be sent and the cost would be $1,000.

More here.

Texas DPS Ordered to Release Protective Detail Info

The Texas Department of Public Safety must release to the public travel information about Gov. Rick Perry's protective detail, a state district judge ruled Friday.

Judge Scott Jenkins found no evidence that releasing the records would place Perry or anyone else in imminent danger.

Two news companies had sued DPS for access to the documents. They were requested last year under the Texas Public Information Act by reporters from the Austin American-Statesman as well as the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, both of owned by Hearst Newspapers LLC.

The newspapers reported the judge's decision online Friday.

"This is a very good day for public disclosure," said Matthew Baumgartner, an attorney for the newspapers' publishers. "If a basic accounting document can be restricted on security grounds, there's no limit to what can be withheld."

The requested documents contain travel expenses for the state troopers who accompany Perry and his family on trips, including trips that are not official state business.

In a hearing before Jenkins, DPS argued that releasing the information would compromise the safety of the governor, his family and others who travel with them because it could provide useful details to someone trying to do them harm.

More here.

Washington State Supremes Protect Teachers' From 'Stigmatization'

The state Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday that pitted the fear of stigmatizing an innocent teacher against the threat of allowing sexual predators in the schools to escape detection.

The scenario before the court was this: A teacher is accused of sexually abusing a student. The school decides the allegation is unsubstantiated. Under state law, should the teacher's name be disclosed?

By a 6-3 vote, the court fell on the side of accused teachers. The names of teachers must be disclosed only in cases where sexual misconduct has been found or some form of discipline has taken place, the court ruled. In unsubstantiated cases, the details of any investigation may be disclosed — but with the teacher's name redacted, or blacked out.

The issue was brought before the court by 15 teachers from the Seattle, Bellevue and Federal Way school districts. The teachers asked the judiciary to prevent their districts from releasing their identities in response to a public-records request by The Seattle Times.

More here.