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, February 28, 2009

Navy decides to close inspection reports

Inspection reports on the Navy's ships, aircraft carriers and submarines are now classified information, the Navy Times reported. The reason for the change is not yet known.

The Navy has classified regular reports about the material condition of its fleet, an about-face from when the reports were accessible as public documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The reports, filed by the Board of Inspection and Survey, or InSurv, contain the findings of meticulous, days-long inspections that cover every detail of the workings of surface ships, aircraft carriers and submarines.

In December, InSurv president Rear Adm. Raymond Klein decided the reports were to be classified, said Linda Alvers, the FOIA coordinator for Fleet Forces Command. She said she did not know why. Also unclear was whether the classification order applied only to InSurvs performed after December, or whether it included reports from before then.

More here.

Judge orders fed. govt. to release documents

From the AP:
A judge has ordered the federal government to turn over documents related to the shooting of a fleeing drug smuggler or to explain why it is withholding them. The shooting led to the imprisonment of two Border Patrol agents and later a commutation of their sentences by President George W. Bush. The judge, Richard Leon of Federal District Court, acted in response to a suit by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, which got no response from the Departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security after filing Freedom of Information Act requests two years ago for records relating to the smuggler, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila. Judicial Watch says it wants the government’s records to answer questions about the prosecution of the agents and how regularly the Justice Department offers immunity to drug smugglers to help prosecute law enforcement officers.
More here.

How do you define 'interview'?

The University of Nebraska released the records of all candidates interviewed for the university's presidency after a ruling by the attorney general, the Nebraska City News-Press reported. The university had released information on its four finalists but not other candidates who weren't selected as finalists but did participate in informal "interviews." Information on applicants who agree to be interviewed for public jobs is public record. However, the university didn't consider the informal "interviews" to fall under this law.
The University of Nebraska must make public the records of job applicants who are screened in face-to-face meetings, the state's attorney general said in an 2004 opinion.

Attorney General Jon Bruning ordered the University of Nebraska, a public university, to disclose the names of eight candidates it interviewed for the school's presidency. Within hours, university officials complied with the order, which had been requested by the Omaha World-Herald , the Lincoln Journal Star and The Associated Press.
The university had previously made public the records of its four finalists for the presidency, but refused to release information pertaining to four other candidates who were interviewed by its search committee but not officially named "finalists" for the job.
More here.

Texas Supreme Court to decide if birth dates are public records

The Texas Supreme Court is waiting to see if state lawmakers will pass a bill that would exempt state employees' birth dates from the state's public records laws, the AP reported. If lawmakers don't, the court has decided it will hear the case. Journalists argue that without birth dates, it's nearly impossible to distinguish between employees with the same name. Texas Comptroller Susan Combs' office is concerned that the release of such information will lead to identify theft.
The Texas Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider whether state employees' birth dates are public information or must be shielded under a right to privacy.

Media and freedom of information advocates say birth dates are necessary to distinguish employees who may have the same name. Texas Comptroller Susan Combs' office has said they should be private under common law and the state Constitution.

The court did not set a date when it would hear arguments, suggesting it would wait to see if state lawmakers will write an exception for date-of-birth information into state public records laws. Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, has already filed such a bill.

More here.

Changes to N.M. open government bill 'cripple' it

A New Mexico bill promoting transparency has turned sour for open-government advocates, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported. The proposed bill was intended to reduce the time agencies have to produce the information from FOI requests (from 15 days to 10) and clarify that requests can be made via e-mail. The bill's sponsor, Ken Martinez, is now trying to restore the bill after a substitute by the House Health and Government Affairs Committee stripped out the quicker-release provision and added in new exemptions, which would allow the denial of public records to someone a public body is in litigation with. The exemptions tend to be broad, such as exempting "records of a public body, that, by their nature, must be confidential in order for the public body to avoid the frustration or a legitimate government function."
Open-government and press advocates say proposed new exemptions to the state's public records law have made a good government bill turn bad.

House Bill 507, sponsored by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, aimed to speed up the response time for getting public records, as well as make clear that e-mail can be used to make a formal request under the act.

But a committee substitute for the measure being pushed by executive agencies under the Richardson administration stripped out the quicker-release-of-records provision from the bill. Meanwhile, the new bill would create new exemptions to the Inspection of Public Records Act — changes that Martinez cannot support and never intended.

More here.Link

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Are burial records from a psychiatric hospital cemetery public record?

The Nebraska Supreme Court will decide on this question, the AP reported. Although HIPAA protects medical data, death records are considered public records in Nebraska.

The Nebraska Supreme Court will determine whether people buried in a former psychiatric hospital cemetery took their right to privacy to the grave with them.

The Adams County Historical Society wants names of the 957 people buried in the Hastings Regional Center cemetery between 1909 and 1957 made public.
The state has maintained that the federal medical privacy law prohibits the release of the names.
More here.

Obama reverses media ban on casket photos

The new policy on photographs of fallen troops' caskets has not been ironed it, but families will have a choice of media presence at Dover Air Force Base, the AP reported. No timetable has been set for when the new policy will go into effect.
The Obama administration is reversing an 18-year ban on news coverage of the return of war dead, allowing photographs of flag-covered caskets when families of the fallen troops agree, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

"My conclusion was we should not presume to make the decision for the families," Gates said in announcing results of a quick review of a ban that had stood through Republican and Democratic administrations.

Although details are being worked out, the new policy will give families a choice of whether to admit the press to ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the entry point to the United States for the caskets of overseas war dead.

More here.

Tenn. bill to close handgun records passes House subcommittee

The Tennessee House subcommittee pushed along a bill to close gun-permit application records, The Tennessean reported. Next, the full House Judiciary Committee will discuss the bill, which allows $2,500 fines for disclosing the records.
A House subcommittee passed a series of gun-related bills Wednesday that would allow handgun carry permit holders to carry their guns in restaurants, wildlife areas and state, but not local, parks.

A bill that would close handgun records to the public also passed the House Judiciary Criminal Practice Subcommittee, where about a dozen gun bills were heard. The session was a victory for House Republicans. House Speaker Rep. Kent Williams, an Elizabethton Republican, attended in a show of support for a bill that would allow handguns in wildlife areas.

During the meeting Williams sided with Democratic Rep. Janis Sontany to encourage lawmakers to remove local parks from a bill that would allow handguns in parks throughout the state.
More here.

Ore. mayor's office tries to charge $1.5 million to pull records

When KATU in Portland, Ore., initially asked for Mayor Sam Adams' phone, calendar and e-mail records, the mayor said other media outlets had requested them so "they're around already." Soon after, KATU received estimates of more than $1.5 million to receive the public records. ("According to the Office of Management and Finance, it would take a single employee 10 years to get the records.") A new estimate of $194.03 was later provided, but KATU has yet to get the records.
In Oregon, public records are open to everyone and in many cases are free.

So when KATU received a quote of $1.5 million from the city to pull public records from Mayor Sam Adams' office, you can imagine the sticker shock.

It all started weeks ago when the mayor issued a public apology over the scandal involving his relationship with a young intern. During the press conference, KATU requested Adams' phone, calendar and e-mail records from the spring of 2005, when the then city commissioner was developing a relationship with 17-year-old Beau Breedlove.
More here.

UK Justice Secretary uses Hotmail account for official business, gets hacked

IT PRO reports another example of why officials should not use non-government e-mail accounts.

UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw has been criticised by a security vendor for using a Hotmail account for government business - an account that was subsequently hacked by Nigerian scammers.

Reports said that the fraudsters sent out hundreds of emails carrying the heading ‘The Right Hon Jack Straw MP’ to constituents, government chiefs and council bosses among others.

Mr Straw's adviser could not be reached for comment at the time of publication, but according to the Telegraph, Mr Straw said there were no security issues as the email address of his Blackburn constituency, rather than his ministerial account, was targeted.

More here.

Bill introduced to make online Wash. tax searches possible

A bill introduced in the state Senate would help clear up confusion about Washington's 1,790 taxing districts, Washington Policy Blog reported. The proposed online database would allow citizens to search by address for the types of taxes, tax rates and taxing districts the locations fall under. A tax rate calculator would provide potential taxes (such as property, sales, business, vehicle, etc.) by district.

According to the Washington State Department of Revenue (DOR), as of 2008 there were 1,790 taxing districts in the state whose officials impose various taxes on Washingtonians. Unfortunately for taxpayers, there is no single comprehensive resource available to help individuals and businesses learn which taxing districts and rates they are subject to, and how much officials in each taxing district add to their total tax burden. A typical home, for example, can be located in as many as ten different taxing districts.

To help improve the transparency of state and local taxation, Washington Policy Center proposed last summer the creation of an online searchable database of all tax districts and tax rates in the state. The proposal is modeled after last year’s SB 6818: Promoting transparency in state expenditures, which was unanimously adopted by the legislature and signed into law. SB 6818 was based on WPC's recommendation for the state to adopt a searchable budget website.

More here.

N.M. on route to accepting FOI requests electronically

Although some states already fill requests sent via electronic methods, the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act currently "requires response to 'oral' and 'written' requests for public records," the New Mexico Independent reported. The bill now moves to the House Judiciary Committee.

A bill that would require government agencies in New Mexico to accept requests for public records via e-mail and fax cleared its first hurdle on Tuesday.

House Bill 598, sponsored by state Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, was given a do-pass recommendation by the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee on a vote of 6-1, with only state Rep. Zachary Cook, R-Ruidoso, voting against it.

“The citizens in our state should have ready access to government documents without artificial barriers,” Cervantes said following Tuesday’s vote. “E-mail is an integral and accepted means of communication, and no less so than a mailed letter or postcard.”

More here.

Wash. considers bill concerning transparency via the Web

A bill introduced in the state of Washington would help merge citizens and their government via the Internet, The Washington Blog reported. The bill would require meeting agendas to be posted within 72 hours before the start of the meeting (24 hours for special or emergency meetings) as well as the text of any rule or ordinance to be discussed. Meeting minutes would have to be posted within 15 business days.

There has been a lot of talk at the national and state level about bringing government into the 21st Century and taking advantage of technology to help connect citizens with their government. A bill introduced today would put the force of law behind that talk.

Consider the following sections from SB 6098 - Requiring public agencies, special purpose districts, and municipalities to post certain information on their web sites:

(1) The agenda of all regular meetings of the governing body of every public agency, special purpose district, and any municipality that owns or maintains a web site shall be posted within seventy-two hours before a meeting. The agenda of all special or emergency meetings shall be posted within twenty-four hours before a meeting. The posting shall indicate if the agendas are in draft form.

More here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

May soon be easier to recover legal fees in Ark. FOI cases

The Arkansas House will soon vote on a bill that "would require attorneys' fees to be paid by a defendant if a plaintiff 'substantially' prevails in an FOI lawsuit," the AP reported. Winning plaintiffs would have to file a claim with the Arkansas State Claims Commission to recover these legal fees.
Legislation that would make it easier for plaintiffs who win Freedom of Information Act challenges to recover attorneys fees from government officials is headed to the House for a vote.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday advanced a proposal that, in most cases, would require attorneys' fees to be paid by a defendant if a plaintiff "substantially" prevails in an FOI lawsuit. The measure by Rep. Lindsley Smith, D-Fayetteville, would not allow courts to force state agencies to pay attorneys' fees in FOI cases.
More here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ill. attorney general tries to stop agencies from ignoring FOIA

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan continues pressing for more teeth in the state's FOIA, Legal Newsline reported.
Illinois government agencies should be fined up to $1,000 each time they refuse to allow citizens to view basic public records, the state attorney general says.

Calling for increased transparency in state and local government, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan told state lawmakers Wednesday that reforms are needed so agencies don't shirk their responsibilities under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Speaking to the recently-formed Joint Committee on Government Reform, the Democratic attorney general said ethics reforms in the Land of Lincoln are well overdue, following the ouster of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose administration routinely denied media and citizens' requests for basic public documents.
More here.

Debate over release of gun permit databases fires up in Tenn.

For $80.50, the Tennessee Department of Safety will release the name, date of birth, address and permit issue and expiration dates for all gun permit holders. However, obtaining that information may soon be impossible, and printing it may result in a $2,500 fine, the AP reported. A bill to make gun permit databases confidential and publication of them punishable by fines will go before the House Criminal Practice Subcommittee on Wednesday.
Tennessee lawmakers are ready again to try to muzzle state records that list who has a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and this time they are considering making it a crime to publish information about gun ownership.

The measure sponsored by Rep. Eddie Bass, a Democrat from Prospect, would make information on gun permit holders confidential and exempt from the state's open records law. The bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday by the House Criminal Practice Subcommittee.

For 12 years, similar legislation has failed to make it to a floor vote, but this year's version has a new twist and a better chance of passage now that Democrats who previously blocked the bill, including former Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, no longer control the House.

More here.

Utah bill to strengthen privacy protection on records gets revised

Utah citizens can argue that the public benefit in releasing a private or protected record outweighs the reasons for closing it. The new version of this bill requires those arguing for the release of "records that would jeopardize the life and safety of an individual" provide "clear and convincing evidence for disclosure." The requestor only has to prove by a "preponderance of the evidence -- or slightly more than 50 percent -- that the records should be made public" for seven other categories of private records, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

A bill that would restrict public access to some government records, cleared the Senate Government Operations Committee on Tuesday after significant changes were made.

"The measure originally sought to prevent the balancing test" weighing public access vs. privacy interests, said Jeff Hunt, an attorney representing the Utah Media Coalition. The coalition initially opposed HB122, which is sponsored by Rep. Douglas Aagard, R-Kaysville, and backed by state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

When a government record is classified as protected or private, someone can argue that the public benefit of disclosing the information outweighs the need for privacy.

More here.

Unanimous vote for tougher Ind. public records bill

After passing the Senate, a bill that would allow Indiana judges to fine those who blatantly violate public records laws moves to the House, The Indianapolis Star reported.

The Indiana Senate voted 49-0 today for a bill that seeks to put more teeth into Indiana’s public records laws.

Senate Bill 232, sponsored by Sen. Bev Gard, R-Greenfield, now goes to the House for consideration. The bill would allow for people who blatantly violate open records laws to be fined.

More here.

No exemptions for names, birthdays of Pa. contractors

The new Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruled that names of employees are public records, even if the employees work for government contractors, the AP reported. Government employees' birth dates are also not exempted from the Right-to-Know Law in the state.
Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records says the names of employees of government contractors and the birth dates of government employees are public records.

The new agency said in its first batch of rulings that the names and dates of birth aren't covered by the many exceptions to the state Right-to-Know Law.

The Quakertown Community School District had granted a request to release payroll forms for a subcontractor working on a school renovation project, but redacted the employees' names.

More here.

Coalitions form to track stimulus spending

National Journal Online reports the "growing fiscal oversight craze both on and off Capitol Hill." Thirty groups have "banded together" to create the Coalition for an Accountable Recovery. Another smaller group, Bailout Watch, was spearheaded by OMB Watch. George Mason University has created a "Stimulus Watch" wiki, and House GOP Whip Eric Cantor announced a "stimulus-watch program" encouraging reports on how contractors and agencies spend the $787 billion.

As federal spending on bailouts and the economic stimulus soars into the trillions, the Obama administration faces growing pressure to account for just where all those taxpayer dollars are going.

"To spend that much money that quickly is inviting fraud and abuse," warned Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. Her group is one of 30 that have banded together to form the new Coalition for an Accountable Recovery. It's a diverse alliance of anti-tax activists, community organizers and government transparency watchdogs all tracking the $787 billion stimulus package.

The coalition of strange bedfellows brings together progressives, libertarians and conservatives, noted Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, which co-chairs CAR with Good Jobs First, a policy center promoting accountability in economic development. Other coalition members include the Center for Cities and Schools, Public Citizen and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

More here.

Wash. bill to rein in harassing FOI request may hurt legitimate ones

What's to stop a persistent person with an FOI request from being deemed a harassing one? That's the question concerning many open government advocates, the Seattle Times reports. State officials say some FOI requesters, such as prisoner Allan Parmelee have become nuisances but also on that list is a woman fighting the school district's treatment of her autistic son. One bill could make inspection fees for public records legal in the state, which currently can only charge 15 cents per page if the requester wants copies. Others advocate increasing copying fees and increasing the number of documents made confidential.

Washington's Public Records Act says government documents are available for anyone to scrutinize. From the mayor's e-mails to the governor's travel expenses. All you have to do is ask.

But some people are asking way too much, flooding agencies with costly demands, in some cases just to harass public officials — or at least that's the story being told to the Legislature by cities, school districts, ports and prisons.

They're pushing bills to allow governments to charge higher copying fees, make more documents confidential — even seek court orders to bar requesters' intent in "annoying, tormenting or terrorizing" government workers.

More here.

Nearly $130,000 for 13 days of work?

FOI at Work!
The Times Union in Albany, N.Y., used an FOI request to uncover that the police union president only worked 13 days in 2008. Many of those days were holidays, when the city had to pay him time and a half plus regular pay. When he's away on union business, the city must pay a replacement commander overtime.
Thirteen days.

That's the number of days police union President Lt. Robert Hamilton worked for the city in 2008 when he grossed $129,908 with overtime and retroactive pay, according to city financial records obtained by the Times Union under a Freedom of Information request.

Hamilton spent most of the rest of his time on union business, according to department attendance sheets. Police officials have previously said an officer at the top of the pay scale earned, on average, about $10,000 in back pay resulting from last year's contract settlement, which is included in Hamilton's gross earnings.

More here.

Dunbar, W. Va., charges $10-an-hour research fees

Two law students at West Virginia University are researching whether Dunbar city officials can legally charge the $10-an-hour research fee for filling FOI requests, in addition to the 35-cent-per-page photocopy charge, The Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette reported. The city said the fee is necessary because staffers are overwhelmed with requests; however, only six FOIA requests were filed since November.
Dunbar city officials have gotten six requests for information under the state Freedom of Information Act since November.

In January, members of Dunbar City Council decided to start charging a $10-an-hour research fee to look up public information to fulfill FOIA requests. City officials said the fee was necessary because employees in the city clerk's office were overwhelmed with requests for information.

City officials also charge 35 cents a page for photocopies.

More here.

President's auto task force owns foreign cars??

FOI at Work!
The Detroit News used public records to find out whether members of the Presidential Task Force on the Audio Industry and the policy aides who will assist them own American cars. The results are pretty scary for the Detroit auto industry.
The vehicles owned by the Obama administration's auto team could reflect one reason why Detroit's Big Three automakers are in trouble: The list includes few new American cars.

Among the eight members named Friday to the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry and the 10 senior policy aides who will assist them in their work, two own American models. Add the Treasury Department's special adviser to the task force and the total jumps to three.

The Detroit News reviewed public records to discover what many of the task force and staff members drove, but information was not available on all of the officials, and records for some states were not complete.

More here.

Bill to close gun permit records gains support from sheriffs, legislators

Oregon legislators, sheriffs and gun-owner groups are rounding support for a bill that would exempt lists of concealed handgun permits from state public records laws, the AP reported.
Sheriffs around Oregon have been sending an unusual letter to holders of concealed weapons permits with this message: If you don't want the public to know you've got a permit, we'll try to help you out.

The letter from the sheriffs says newspapers and others are trying to get lists of people who have concealed handgun permits, sparking a legal challenge that's pending in the Oregon Court of Appeals.

And as the appeals court mulls the issue, Oregon lawmakers are pursuing legislation to take those records completely out of public view by prohibiting their release under the Oregon public records law.

More here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Settlement in Fla. case means taxpayers, not city officials, will likely foot legal bills

A settlement in the case against Venice, Fla., city officials, including the mayor, for using private e-mails to discuss plans for the municipal airport will result in the "city government as a whole" taking the blame, The Herald (Fla.) Tribune reported. No individuals will admit wrongdoing, and therefore they will not be responsible for legal bills. Taxpayers likely will pay the 10 months of mounting legal fees for both sides. The City Council is slated to vote on the settlement Wednesday; however, only one city council member is not involved in this case in any fashion, creating a major conflict of interest.
On the eve of a groundbreaking open government trial involving top Venice leaders, attorneys for both sides reached a tentative deal Thursday to settle the case without the officials admitting wrongdoing.

Instead, the settlement pins the blame on the city government as a whole.

The arrangement creates a potential conflict of interest and could force taxpayers to cover the legal fees for both sides, which could top $1 million.

More here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Meeting tapes are not exempt from Penn. FOI

Pennsylvania's tougher FOI law, which went into effect in January, does not exempt audio tapes of meetings, the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition reported. The advisory opinion was issued by Terry Mutchler of the state Open Records office. Franklin Park borough, which sought the advice, is expected to adopt a policy outlining how long tapes will be retained by local governments or stop having the secretary record government meetings.
Pennsylvania's open-records chief says audio recordings of government meetings are public records that must be provided to people who request them.

Terry Mutchler of the state Open Records Office issued an advisory opinion sought by Franklin Park borough in Allegheny County.

The borough secretary tapes council meetings to help in writing the official minutes.
More here.

More details from the Pennyslvania Freedom of Information Coalition here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

FBI investigated Valenti's sexual preference

FOI at Work!
The Washington Post obtained previously confidential FBI files that indicate that J. Edgar Hoover's deputies investigated whether Jack Valenti was gay. No proof was found. President Johnson approved the investigation.

When Beltway insider Jack Valenti died two years ago at age 85, he was playing the role of intermediary between Washington and Hollywood as the theatrical, snowy-haired president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

But back in 1964, Valenti was a Houston ad executive newly installed at the White House as a top aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson. And J. Edgar Hoover's FBI found itself quietly consumed with the vexing question of whether Valenti was gay.

More here.

N.O. mayor's e-mail, calendar deleted

The administration of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was ordered to stop "destroying correspondence" after it was sued for deleting e-mail sent to and from the mayor and for deleting most of his 2008 calendar, The Times-Picayune reported. Apparently, the mayor's calendar was only kept in electronic format, and no e-mail or calendar information prior to June 30 can be retrieved. WWL-TV news anchor Lee Zurik filed a public-records request for the data in January and then filed suit. The Nagin administration says its server had capacity problems, which will be fixed.

Orleans Parish Civil Court Judge Rose Ledet delivered a stinging rebuke to Mayor Ray Nagin's administration Tuesday after learning that virtually all of the e-mail sent and received by Nagin last year and much of the information on his 2008 calendar have been erased in an apparent violation of the state public-records law.

Clearly disturbed by the revelation, Ledet ordered the Nagin administration to immediately halt the practice of "destroying correspondence" of the mayor and members of his executive staff.

The tense scene played out during a hearing in Ledet's court for a lawsuit filed against the Nagin administration by WWL-TV news anchor Lee Zurik, who sought the e-mail and calendar information in a public-records request filed in January.

More here.

Still time to submit your vote for most wanted unclassified document

More than 80 suggestions have been received so far by the Center for Democracy and Technology and Open the Government, Nextgov reported. March 9 is the deadline to vote. Look for the results during Sunshine Week, March 15-21.

Also, Recovery.gov is now online and will include a searchable database of stimulus-related spending.

Less than a month after President Obama gave administration officials 120 days to develop a governmentwide transparency directive, watchdogs are compiling a list of the 10 "most wanted" unclassified government documents currently unavailable in an easily accessible format.

ShowUsTheData.org, a project just launched by the Center for Democracy and Technology and Open the Government, has received more than 80 suggestions so far, with financial industry bailout funds and Congressional Research Service reports topping the list. Other popular requests include details on the rationale for and usage of USA PATRIOT Act powers, congressional voting records, and memoranda from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

Internet users have until March 9 to vote for the unclassified information or data they most want to see posted or updated. The results will be released during Sunshine Week, March 15-21.

More here.

More calls for Illinois governor to overhaul state FOIA

Attorney General Lisa Madigan is the latest open-government advocate to ask for an overhaul of Illinois' FOIA, The Chicago Tribune reported. She suggests that the public access counselor be able to make binding, rather than advisory, decisions when citizens approach Madigan's office for assistance in obtaining records. David Bennett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association, told the paper that the state's FOIA "is not worth the cost of building a fire to burn it."

Atty. General Lisa Madigan today called for an overhaul of the state's Freedom of Information Act, saying the climate of secrecy and corruption that permeated former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration had laid bare weaknesses in current law.

Now in her seventh year in office and considering a run for governor, Madigan called for knocking down barriers that local and state officials reflexively use to refuse routine requests from journalists and other citizens basic public records.

She also proposed giving the public access counselor in her office the ability to make a binding, rather than advisory, decision when citizens go to the attorney general for help in wresting information from reluctant government officials.

More here.

Fla. legislator introduces budget openness act

Florida Rep. Dorothy Hukill says her proposed "Track Your Taxes -- Florida Budget Openness Act" would be "the strongest of its kind in the nation."
State Representative Dorothy L. Hukill (R-Port Orange) filed legislation to open up government spending to all Floridians. The “Track Your Taxes – Florida Budget Openness Act” will allow citizens to use the Internet to track their state and local tax dollars. This far-reaching legislation will be the strongest of its kind in the nation and reflects Florida’s continued commitment to open government.

The bill, House Bill 971, provides access to every dollar raised and spent by state and local governments through a single searchable website, accessible on www.MyFlorida.com. The website would provide information on the date, source, and purpose of each expenditure and revenue, and would allow citizens to view online any government contract in which taxpayer dollars are spent.

“In these tough economic times, it’s more important than ever for government to be open and accessible to the taxpayers. People need to know that their hard-earned money is being spent wisely,” Hukill said. “By using the Internet to shine a light on government spending, we can ensure that government always remains accountable to the citizens it represents.”

The bill is being sponsored in the Senate by Senator Ronda Storms (R-Valrico).

Deadline extended for Hall of Fame

Open Government Hall of Fame deadline extended
to March 1, 2009.


Heroes of the 50 States:
The State Government Hall of Fame

There are heroes among us.
Heroes who may be well known within their respective states and communities, but whose labors have gone unrecognized elsewhere.
Heroes whose efforts have kept state and local government records and meetings open and accessible to their fellow citizens.
It is time to recognize these heroes in the same way we recognize the heroes of the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The Open Government Hall of Fame honors those whose lifetime commitment to citizen access, open government and freedom of information has left a legacy at the state and local level.

ELIGIBILITY

The Open Government Hall of Fame is open to anyone who has made a substantial, sustained and lasting contribution to open government or freedom of information within one particular state. Even if the nominee has been active in national efforts or national organizations, the judges will only consider accomplishments at the state level.

Nominees may come from government, the media, the non-profit sector, the legal profession, or any other area of endeavor that involves citizen access to government records, meetings and procedures.

Nominees may be living or dead, active or retired.

NOMINATIONS

Nominations should include the following:
  • Cover letter identifying the nominee and the person or group making the nomination.
  • Adequate support material to demonstrate the worthiness of the nominee.
Please send all nomination materials to:

Charles Davis, Executive Director
NFOIC Headquarters
University of Missouri
Reynolds Journalism Institute
Columbia, MO 65211

Nominations must be received by March 1, 2009.

JUDGING

All nominees will be evaluated by a screening committee of SPJ and NFOIC leaders, who will select the winners.

For questions, please contact Charles Davis at 573/882-5736 or daviscn@missouri.edu.

Proposed act would be 'blow to the public's right to access vital scientific data'

The Association for Health Care Journalists warns that new House legislation could limit public access to federal research.
Legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 3 “would constitute a blow to the public’s right to access vital scientific data” if it goes forward, according to a statement by the Association of Health Care Journalists.

The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, HR 801, introduced by U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. and others, would reverse a National Institutes of Health policy that requires federal research grantees to provide their peer-reviewed articles to PubMed Central, a free online database. Under the existing policy, manuscripts resulting from federally-funded research must be made publicly available within 12 months of their publication date.
More here.

Extravagant banker neglected to pay his own taxes

From the AP:
Public records show disgraced financier R. Allen Stanford owes hundreds of millions of dollars in federal taxes.

The records show four federal tax liens against Stanford totaling more than $212 million. The liens are from 2007 and 2008.

Federal officials charge Stanford with bilking investors out of billions of dollars by claiming unrealistic returns. His bank is closed following a raid Tuesday.

More here.

Utah bill to weaken FOI passes House

The Utah House supported a bill that would exempt records prepared for pending litigation as well as anticipated legal action from the public records act. Open-government advocates are concerned with how lawyers will define "anticipated legal action." The bill will now go to the Senate, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

A bill that would change Utah's public records act passed the House on a 43-27 vote Wednesday.

HB122 would allow some records to be classified as private or protected if prepared for pending litigation -- lawsuits already filed -- and anticipated legal action as well.

The measure has been opposed as a significant dilution of state open records law by a coalition of media organizations, which includes The Salt Lake Tribune.

More here.

Pollution violations fines totaled $55 million in 17 years

FOI at work!
In 17 years, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control handed out $55 million in fines among more than 6,000 violations, the AP reported. FOIA records made the analysis possible.
An analysis by a Charleston newspaper shows that South Carolina health and environmental regulators have imposed about $55 million in fines for pollution violations since 1991.

The Post and Courier reported Tuesday that it reviewed 17 years of records from the Department of Health and Environmental Control that included more than 6,000 violations.

The records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows the state issues about 350 civil citations a year for about $3 million in fines.
More here.

Bed bugs multiplying in NY

FOI at work!
FOI request filed by "New York vs. Bed Bugs" confirms that complaints about the insects have numbered more than 9,000.
The bedbug policy advocacy group "New York vs Bed Bugs" had to file a Freedom of Information request to get the city to confirm what everyone already suspected: New York's bed bug population is booming! The group says there were more than 9,200 bed bug complaints to the city's 311 line last year, a 34% jump over 2007. The hottest neighborhoods for bed bugs right now are found in central Brooklyn, northern and eastern Bronx, midtown Manhattan, eastern Queens, and the north shore of Staten Island, the Daily News reports. In an attempt to turn the tide, the City Council will consider bills next week that would ban the sale of used mattresses, train exterminators, and force city agencies to develop a united strategy. Last month the Times called for a bed bug task force to focus on the resilient bastards, noting that "there are a lot of agencies that do a little about bed bugs, but nobody that can help with the whole shebang."
More here.

Also, "New York bedbug complaints increase 34% in a year" by NY Daily News, here.

Homeland Security may have violated privacy of activists

FOI at Work!
Via an FOIA request, The Washington Post obtained an e-mail indicating that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security forwarded information about a Washington area anti-war group to Maryland State Police.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security tracked peaceful activists using information shared with the Maryland State Police, government documents show.

Maryland's two senators, Democrats Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, and civil libertarians are worried that privacy rules may have been violated by revelations in documents obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, The Washington Post (NYSE:WPO) reported Tuesday.

E-mail obtained by the newspaper indicate Homeland Security was able to track the 2005 protest plans of a peaceful Washington area anti-war group based on information shared with the Maryland State Police, whose spying activities on the DC Anti-War Network, or DAWN, have drawn much criticism.
More here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Vote for your 10 most wanted

The FOIA blog reported that a new Web site is collecting citizens' votes on what government records should be open to the public. The deadline to request a document and vote is March 9.

OpenTheGovernment.org and the Center for Democracy and Technology has launched a website entitled Show Us the Data: The Most Wanted Federal Government Documents, with the help of Sunlight Labs.

This website gives users the opportunity to vote on what what government information should be freely available on line in a usable format, but is not.

More here.

S.D. Senate leader optimistic about open records bill

Sen. Dave Knudson is optimistic that his bill to create a presumption of openness concerning government records will pass through the Legislature, the AP reported. He's prepared for amendments. However, the South Dakota governor supports the opposite theory -- the presumption of closure unless the law dictates that a record must be public.
The sponsor of a bill declaring that most government records are open to the public says he’s optimistic he can shepherd the measure through the 2009 Legislature.

Sen. Dave Knudson, R-Sioux Falls, will get a chance to explain his presumption of openness measure when the Senate State Affairs Committee holds a public hearing on SB147 Wednesday morning in the Capitol.

The Knudson bill takes the position that all government records are open to the public unless specifically closed by a state law.
More here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

EPA originally wanted stricter C8 limits

FOI at Work!

The EPA wanted to limit C8, a toxic chemical, to 0.2 parts per billion but then agreed to a 0.5 limit, the Charleston Gazette reported. The chemical is used by DuPont's Washington Works plant to make nonstick products, such as Teflon. The Gazette secured EPA memos discussing the 0.2 limit from the lawyers of DuPont plant neighbors. The lawyers received the memo from an FOIA request. Officials say the change was due to a calculation error.
Federal government scientists originally sought a much tougher standard for the toxic chemical C8 than was included in a nationwide health advisory issued last month, according to an internal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency memo.

More than three years ago, EPA staffers proposed that the agency rewrite a deal with DuPont Co. to mandate a C8 limit of 0.2 parts per billion, according to the memo.

"EPA's intent is to seek consent through negotiations with DuPont," the memo said. "However, the order could be issued unilaterally if agreement cannot be reached."

More here.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

NY Daily News compiles list of city's top overtime employees

With more than $100,000 in overtime pay, several city employees are making more than the mayor, the NY Daily News reported.

The lean times have yet to catch up with city government's bonus babies - scores of workers are still racking up hefty six-figure overtime.

The king of New York overtime remains Pablo Martinez, a Board of Elections senior systems analyst who scored $144,768 in overtime last year. He has been top overtime dog for several years.

Adding his base pay of $91,210, Martinez made $235,978. Not exactly A-Rod money, but it's still almost $11,000 more than the mayor's official $225,000 salary.

More here.

Bill to allow background checks on Ark. officials voted down

The Arkansas House voted down a bill that would have resulted in public criminal history checks on elected officials and candidates for public office, Arkansas Business reported. The information is still public but remains difficult to obtain and compile.

House lawmakers rejected Friday a bill by Rep. Dan Greenberg that would have made the criminal records of elected officials and candidates for public office more accessible to the public.

The bill, which advanced from the Judiciary Committee after three hearings, was voted down 33-56, with 11 members not voting. The bill would have allowed the release of an official's guilty and no-contest pleas, as well as any pending felony or misdemeanor charges filed in the past three years. The bill, which was opposed by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, did not include traffic violations.

"There's nothing that would be revealed by this bill the public cannot access already," Greenberg, R-Little Rock, said. "The practical problem, as you may know, is for a person to collect this information at present, it would require someone to go to all 75 counties."

More here.

Mass. tells public school system it can't charge $14K for directory data

Cambridge Public Schools argued that it would cost $14,426.88 to compile directory information on its students. This did not even include reproduction costs for the copies of documents. Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records has given the district 10 days to respond with a reasonable charge.

The state’s public records division ordered Cambridge Public Schools to nix its $14,000 charge for public information, saying the school district should be charging a reasonable rate for a complete list of students.

The Chronicle originally made the request in 2007 using the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act to gain access to a list of Cambridge Public School students that would be used for informational purposes, not for publication.

“You are hereby ordered to provide [the Chronicle] with a revised written, good faith estimate which reflects the actual costs of providing the names of the students whose parents have consented to release of ‘directory information,” Supervisor of Public Records Alan Cote wrote in a Feb. 12 letter.

More here.

FOI at work: Johnny Depp's entourage partially funded by Wis. taxpayers

An FOI request for a tally of the expenses that the filmmakers of "Public Enemies" submitted for state tax breaks uncovered the need for improvements in the tax credit law. Taxpayers covered percentages of the cost for costume cleaning, stuntmen's living expenses, Johnny Depp's entourage of chauffeurs and hair stylists, among other expenses. The Commerce Department did prevent filmmakers from claiming the wrap party, the AP reported; however, they were allowed to submit expenses and salaries paid outside of Wisconsin. The film cost the state more in tax credits than it generated in economic activity.

Wisconsin taxpayers contributed $450,000 toward Hollywood director Michael Mann's salary when he came to the state last year to film the big-budget Johnny Depp movie "Public Enemies."

Records obtained by The Associated Press show the state's film tax credits not only covered a quarter of Mann's $1.8 million salary, they paid for a portion of his assistants' salaries, entertainment, meals and stuntmen's living expenses.

The state's tax credits even covered about $100,000 of the cost of Depp's entourage of chauffeurs, hair stylists and assistants, said Zach Brandon, executive assistant at the Wisconsin Commerce Department.

More here.

Presumption may change from openness to secrecy in Conn.

A proposal by Connecticut's Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz would severely undermine the state's FOI laws, the Hartford (Conn.) Courant reported. The span of government records that can be exempted from public disclosure would expand from personnel and medical files to include "documents, materials, photographs, videos, recordings or other tangible objects." Plus, the amendments "presume privacy first," dictating that "the public agency shall not disclose the requested records unless ordered to do so by the Freedom of Information Act."
Connecticut's Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz has proposed turning Freedom of Information laws upside down — sweeping changes that would eviscerate the public's right-to-know laws in an ill-advised, ill-conceived attempt to protect crime victims.

She has proposed expanding the number of government recordsexempted from public disclosure, which now includes personnel and medical files, to include "documents, materials, photographs, videos, recordings or other tangible objects." Making these things public would be considered a punishable invasion of personal privacy.

I'm not sure what she means by a "tangible object," but let's take "recordings" for instance. Let's say there was a bank robbery gone bad where people were shot and injured and one person died. And there was a question that if help had arrived earlier, a life might have been saved. Relatives ask for the impounded bank videos and 911 tapes to try and learn when and how emergency crews got to the scene.
More here.

Poynter: Journalists should give reasons for publishing gun permit lists

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute wrote in his daily column that journalists should not publish databases, such as gun permit databases, just because they are public records. Journalists should explain why they are publishing it, he said. Gun supporters have argued against the publication of these records for years, and Tennessee is considering making such publication a felony.
The Tennessee legislature is considering legislation that would make it a felony to publish the state's concealed carry gun permits [PDF].

For the last 10 years, gun backers in that state have bragged that permitted gun carriers aren't ever charged with gun crimes. That changed this week when a Memphis area man who had a permit and a gun shot another guy and was charged with second degree-murder.

The Commercial Appeal in Memphis proceeded to post the state's concealed carry permit list, and now gun backers are pitching a fit.
More here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Defense Dept. releases first FOIA documents about secret prisons

The U.S. Defense Department and U.S. Department of State released the first batch of records in response to a 2007 FOIA-based lawsuit, MSNBC reported.
The Department of Defense’s involvement in the CIA’s “ghost” detention program is certain, according to three human rights groups -- Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.

They released documents today from the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of State that, they said, prove the existence of secret prisons at Bagram and in Iraq as well as the Department of Defense cooperation with the CIA ghost detention program. They also said the documents show one case where the Defense sought to delay the release of Guantanamo prisoners.
More here.

Proposed Miss. FOI exemption to prevent others from stealing fishing spots

Should the government protect private fishing spots? That's the question many are asking after a Mississippi Senate bill proposed the exemption of privately-built reef locations from the public-records laws., the Sun Herald (Miss.) reported. The bill to shorten the response time for public-records requests died; a bill related to charges for public records is still alive.

Public-records laws have been a hot topic at the Capitol over the last few days.

One measure that would offer exclusions to Mississippi public-records laws is still alive, while another bill that would have lessened the costs citizens pay and shortened the time governments have to comply with such requests died in the Senate Wednesday.

The House and Senate would have to come to an agreement on whether to exempt the locations of privately-built reefs from public-records laws. The measure is part of larger legislation that establishes a program in Mississippi that allows individuals and commercial operations to construct reefs in the Gulf for fishing.

More here.

Bill aims to stop prisoners from creating flood of records requests

A Washington Senate bill would allow courts to enjoin public records requests filed by prisoners in state correctional facilities, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. Supporters say the bill is necessary to stop prisoners from overwhelming the system with absurd requests, such as one asking the number of paper bags bought annually at each Department of Corrections facility. Others are worried that the vague language of the bill may make it applicable to other citizens.
The state Public Records Act of 1972 says its terms should be liberally applied to all citizens, but Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, thinks the law may be too liberal.

Carrell said it "isn't appropriate" to allow certain individuals unlimited access to public records, comparing what has been deemed excessive public record gathering to overfishing a sea of information. The ones doing the overfishing, he said, are those serving time in correctional facilities in Washington state.

The Attorney General's Office says about a half-dozen inmates are abusing the Public Records Act to threaten correctional staffers and overwhelm the system as a means to harass those responsible for keeping them behind bars.

More here.

Minn. county tries to ban cameras at meetings

The group We Are Watching may no longer be able to record and post audio and video of St. Louis County Board meetings, Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune reported. Commissioners say the recorder is distracting and that the tapes are edited and taken out of context.

A St. Louis County commissioner has asked for a legal opinion on whether the board can ban citizens from recording some County Board meetings.

Keith Nelson of Eveleth raised the issue Tuesday at the board’s meeting in Duluth, saying he was concerned that he and other commissioners had been recorded at their Jan. 20 board workshop in Pike Lake.

The group We Are Watching records many County Board meetings, including the workshops, and often posts that audio and sometimes video on the group’s Web site, www.northernmnnews.com.

More here.

Negotiations on stimulus bill kept secret

While a Web site (www.recovery.gov) will be set up for people to monitor the spending of the stimulus plan, the negotiations were far from public, Slate reported. As John Dickerson wrote, "The time for transparency is when a decision is being made, not after it has been issued. Once a piece of legislation has been agreed to, or a project has been put in motion, pointing to a Web site doesn't create much moral pressure to undo the deed."
For President Obama to get a stimulus bill, something had to give. You can have urgency or transparency or a thorough think about things. But you can't have all three. Forced to choose, Obama chose the fierce urgency of now.

The president heralded a deal reached Wednesday in the House and Senate on a stimulus bill, but the process wasn't pretty. Creating legislation often isn't. Instead of finding a Lego piece that fits, lawmakers get a larger one and bite it in half. Never mind the jagged edges.

In this case, not only is the end product ragged—some of the elements aren't terribly stimulative—but the means were ugly. The differences between the House and Senate bills were reconciled mostly in secret by House and Senate Democratic leaders, three Northeastern Republicans, and White House aides. This is hardly unusual for Washington—which is precisely the problem: It's not the change Obama promised.
More here.

Obama fails three early tests

Could his promise have been too good to be true?
The Obama administration, which vowed to usher in a "new era of openness in our country," either has delayed action on requests for access to government records or refused to disclose them in three early, high-profile tests of the pledge.

This week, Justice Department lawyers announced that they'd continue to assert the state secrets argument made by the Bush administration in a lawsuit alleging that five men were tortured abroad in U.S.-run prisons.

In a separate case, the Obama Justice Department has agreed with the Bush administration — at least initially — that the news media shouldn't have immediate access to court records in the ongoing Guantanamo detainee litigation.

More here.

Obama contradiction leads to bill

The Obama administration ruffled quite a few feathers by taking the same position as former President Bush on an issue involving government secrecy and torture, two positions Obama condemned upon entering office. Now legislation has been filed to limit the use of the "state secrets" privilege, the Boston Globe reported. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said the bill "does not restrict the government's ability to assert the privilege in appropriate cases. In light of the pending cases where this privilege has been invoked, involving issues including torture, rendition and warrantless wiretapping, we can ill afford to delay consideration of this important legislation."
House and Senate committees yesterday introduced bills that would sharply curtail the government's use of the "state secrets" privilege, a policy used by President Bush to argue that a lawsuit involving allegations of torture should be dismissed - and a position that the Obama administration has now adopted.

Drafted and filed separately by the House and Senate Judiciary committees, the legislation was filed just days after Justice Department lawyers working for the new administration told a federal appeals court that its position did not differ from the Bush administration's: the court should throw out a lawsuit that accuses Jeppesen Inc., of helping the CIA secretly transport five terrorism suspects overseas for harsh interrogations, on the grounds that the suit involved state secrets that, if revealed, could jeopardize national security.
More here.

Federal shield law may be on the way

The Free Flow of Information Act of 2009 is a dream for journalists who worry about going to jail for not revealing confidential sources. Journalists would only be forced to relinquish this qualified privilege in cases that involve issues such as national security or threats of imminent bodily harm.
Citing the need for a federal media shield law to protect reporters from being compelled to reveal their confidential news sources, U.S. Representatives Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Mike Pence (R-IN) today introduced the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009. In the 110th Congress, the measure Boucher and Pence advanced was approved by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of 398 to 21 in the House of Representatives. The Senate did not take up the measure in the last Congress. Boucher and Pence are joined in sponsorship of the bill by 37 of their colleagues in the House, including Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Vice Ranking Member of the Committee, Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).

"Often the best source of information about public corruption or misdeeds in a large corporation or charity is a person on the inside of the organization who would like to bring the facts to public light, but that person has a lot to lose and to avoid punishment at the hands of superiors will only divulge the information to a reporter if promised confidentiality," Boucher said. "If confidentiality cannot be assured, the public may never learn of the wrong doing and never have an opportunity to take corrective action," he added.

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia currently have statutes protecting reporters from the compelled disclosure of sources of information.

More here.

Time to cure Ill. 'culture of corruption'

The pressure's on new Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn to act quickly in supporting and enforcing the state's FOIA, the Associated Press reported.
Gov. Patrick Quinn's reform commission has urged him to take immediate action to make Illinois government more open and transparent.

"Transparency in government is fundamental to curing the culture of corruption in Illinois government," chairman Patrick Collins said Wednesday in a letter to Quinn.

The commission's report isn't due until April, but Collins says it's important for Quinn to act now because its "preliminary findings give us serious concerns."
More here.

Paper warns that Okla. bill may mean innocent citizens are sent to prison

Citizens beware! That's the message the Ada (Okla.) Evening News conveyed in its editorial on a bill that "would allow the chief medical examiner to withhold the public release of autopsy reports." Without access to records, Oklahoma is opening itself up to possible corruption.
Oklahoma House of Representatives Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Feb. 4 postponed consideration of a bill that would allow the chief medical examiner to withhold the public release of autopsy reports.

The bill was requested by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation following the release of autopsy reports on the unsolved murder of two girls near Weleetka in 2008.

On the surface the bill sounds like a good move, however the committee should throw the bill out and not even consider closing these records to the public. When the government starts closing records to the public it opens the door for corruption. One closed record will soon be followed by another until the public no longer has the right to know the truth.
More here.

Miss. bill would curb inflated fees for public records

Promising news in Mississippi! A bill that would allow government agencies to only charge based on the lowest-paid, competent staff person's salary for reproduction costs has made its way to the Senate, the Associated Press reported.
A bill that cleared the Mississippi House on Tuesday says government agencies could only charge their actual costs for providing public records.

An agency would not be allowed to inflate the cost by including amounts paid to attorneys or others who don't work directly for the agency.

An agency would be allowed to charge for the time it takes a staff member to gather or reproduce the records. But the charge would be limited to the salary of the lowest-paid staff person competent to handle the request for documents.
More here.

Texas Legislature could hide employee birth dates from public

The Dallas Morning News has used the birth dates of state employees to confirm that the Texas Youth Commission had 266 employees with criminal records, that hundreds of Dallas Independent School District employees had criminal records, that some Texas school teachers were registered sex offenders and that "scores of drug and sex offenders are licensed nurses in Texas." Soon, investigations such as these may be impossible in Texas, where legislators are proposing to exempt employees' birth dates from the Texas Public Information Act, citing identify theft concerns.

They're back.

Your legislators are at work in Austin. And they're busily drawing up changes to state law.

One proposal, introduced by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would exempt dates of birth of public employees from the Texas Public Information Act.

More here.

So your kid's school is locked down, but they won't tell you?

That is basically how the Springfield School District in Missouri is interpreting new FERPA regulations. The district will report there is an emergency or lock down at an elementary or high school but will not identify which one, the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader reported. School resource officers have also been redacting not only student's personal information but also the date of the incident from their reports.

This week, the Springfield school district is expected to unveil new guidelines for how to release emergency information to the public.

The district changes are triggered by the U.S. Department of Education enactment of new regulations to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act .

Springfield school officials say the changes likely will mean less disclosure of incident or emergency information.

More here.

Mo. Sunshine Coalition to hold program on Thursday

Missouri finally has a state coalition to unite individuals and organizations interested in promoting government transparency.

A new organization for people who want to promote government openness at all levels in Missouri will hold a public reception and program on Thursday, March 12, in Columbia. The event is free.

The Missouri Sunshine Coalition is seeking individual and organization members from all areas of the public. It will hold a 2 p.m. reception and 3 p.m. program at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the School of Journalism at MU.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has been invited to speak at the 3 p.m. program. Other speakers will be Charles Davis, director of the National Freedom of Information Center, which is based at the School of Journalism; and Mike Wood, director of governmental relations for the Missouri State Teachers Association.

More here.

Mo. citizens ask legislators for stronger Sunshine Law

The current bill would increase the minimum meeting notice from 24 hours to five days for "subjects such as tax increases, eminent domain or tax-increment financing," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Newly elected officials would be subject to the law, even before they're sworn in, and complaints filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission would be made public.
From Brentwood to Cape Girardeau to Rolla, citizens who have battled for more openness at City Hall urged legislators Tuesday to strengthen the state's Sunshine Law.

The witnesses told a House committee that current law provides inadequate notice of public meetings, especially when private land is being taken for commercial development. They also argued for tougher penalties, clearer record-keeping provisions and a right to electronic copies of public records.

"Elected officials should be trying to find ways to conduct business in the open, not to find ways to close things," said Jay C. Purcell, a county commissioner in Cape Girardeau County.
More here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Recordings of 911 calls may no longer be public records

A Kentucky bill that would ban the airing of 911 calls has garnered much support, The Associated Press reported. People would still be allowed to "listen to the call and take notes and to obtain written transcripts of calls." However, certain details, such as name and medical information, would be deleted. The measure is supposed to protect citizens from having their emotional 911 calls released.
A measure that would prevent 911 calls from being aired on TV, radio and Web sites cleared its first legislative hurdle yesterday and now heads to the Senate floor for a vote.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 30 despite the concerns of broadcasters who say it smacks of censorship.

"It certainly starts us down a very slippery slope," said Nancy Cox, a news anchor with WLEX-TV in Lexington.


More here.

Parking tickets skyrocket in Denver, revenues flow in for city

FOI at Work:

CBS4 in Denver uncovered that the number of parking tickets issued by the city of Denver rose to more than 600,000, a 6 percent jump from the previous year. Revenue from the tickets hit nearly $20 million. The station also obtained documents showing "performance standards," usually known as quotas, indicating that employees issuing less than 80 tickets in a seven-hour shift need improvement.

More here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Obama reaffirms one of Bush's state security privileges

Several judges for the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals were shocked when Obama's administration agreed with the Bush administration's handling of a "case involving rendition and torture," The New York Times reported. It was argued that the state secret privilege was for national security reasons, prompting anger from the ACLU.
In a closely watched case involving rendition and torture, a lawyer for the Obama administration seemed to surprise a panel of federal appeals judges on Monday by pressing ahead with an argument for preserving state secrets originally developed by the Bush administration.

In the case, Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian native, and four other detainees filed suit against a subsidiary of Boeing for arranging flights for the Bush administration’s “extraordinary rendition” program, in which terrorism suspects were secretly taken to other countries, where they say they were tortured. The Bush administration argued that the case should be dismissed because even discussing it in court could threaten national security and relations with other nations.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama harshly criticized the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees, and he has broken with that administration on questions like whether to keep open the prison camp at Guant├ínamo Bay, Cuba. But a government lawyer, Douglas N. Letter, made the same state-secrets argument on Monday, startling several judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.


More here.

Wash. legislation could lead to higher FOI fees

The Seattle Times suggests that local governments forget about trying to raise fees for FOI requests and start searching for innovative, cheaper ways to fill requests, such as via e-mail or CD. A bunch of bills introduced would increase the maximum per-page copying charge from 15 to 25 cents, among other tactics that would discourage someone from submitting a request.

Munipal governments are so emboldened by court victories that help keep their secrets, they are getting even more creative about ways to discourage the public from getting documents to which they are entitled.

The common objective of a trio of bills introduced by Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Shoreline, is to boost the costs of getting copies of public documents — a move sure to discourage people with the right to keep tabs on their government.

This effort in blue Washington is especially ironic considering one of President Obama's first acts as president was to direct his agencies to open government records under the Freedom of Information Act — and to use technology to make documents more accessible, more quickly and cheaply.

More here.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Utah bills threatens right to appeal for some records

Utah's open records law is in danger of being weakened as a bill to limit public access to records makes its way to the House floor, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. Individuals could not appeal decisions regarding requests for "records associated with law-enforcement proceedings, government audits and personnel matters." The bill would also protect "records associated with anticipated litigation."

A bill chipping away at public access to government records advanced to the House floor Monday -- despite strong opposition from the Utah Media Coalition.

HB122 -- sponsored by Rep. Douglas Aagard, R-Kaysville, at the request of the Attorney General's Office -- would remove avenues of appeal for records associated with law-enforcement proceedings, government audits and personnel matters.

It also would allow records associated with anticipated litigation -- lawsuits expected to come but not yet filed -- to be classified as protected, without any chance for the public or the media to appeal.

More here.

Secret Congressional records, worth nearly $1 billion, released

More than 6,700 reports from the Congressional Research Service, known as "Congress' brain," were made available to the public by Wikileaks. Because CRS is a branch of Congress, it is exempt from FOIA. Members of Congress, however, may choose to release reports that portray them in a favorable light.

Wikileaks has released nearly a billion dollars worth of quasi-secret reports commissioned by the United States Congress.

The 6,780 reports, current as of this month, comprise over 127,000 pages of material on some of the most contentious issues in the nation, from the U.S. relationship with Israel to the financial collapse. Nearly 2,300 of the reports were updated in the last 12 months, while the oldest report goes back to 1990. The release represents the total output of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) electronically available to Congressional offices. The CRS is Congress's analytical agency and has a budget in excess of $100M per year.

Open government lawmakers such as Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) have fought for years to make the reports public, with bills being introduced--and rejected--almost every year since 1998. The CRS, as a branch of Congress, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

More here.

AG urges new Ill. gov. to review previous FOIA denials

Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked Gov. Pat Quinn to issue an executive order promoting compliance with the state's Freedom of Information Act. Her requests also include the creation of a point person on open meetings and records issues in each state agency and mandatory training for those individuals by her office. She also asked for a review of all open records denials made by the Blagojevich's administration since January 2003.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich's removal from office signals a new direction for how open records issues are handled in state government.

But will it be more cooperation or antagonism? Attorney General Lisa Madigan wants new Gov. Pat Quinn to set a tone of openness right away.

Madigan sent Quinn a letter on his first day in office urging him to issue an executive order making open records access a priority. He should appoint special staffers to oversee records requests and review scores of denials by the Blagojevich administration to see if violations occurred, Madigan said.

More here.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

AP president urges government to improve journalists' access on battlefield

Tom Curley's comments stemmed from a recent report that revealed how the Department of Defense spends nearly $4.7 billion each year on "influence operations."

The president and CEO of The Associated Press called Friday for the government to increase access to journalists on the battlefield.

“No government will give us our rights if we are not willing to stand up and fight for them,” said Tom Curley, who received the William Allen White National Citation at Kansas University on Friday.

He received the award given by the William Allen White Foundation at the Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union.

More here.

Pentagon boosts public affairs arm to influence media coverage of war

Alarmingly stuff: "Public affairs officers argue that they are in a battle with insurgents to shape the public perception of the wars they are fighting, and they will use every means available to push the military's version of events." FOIA records show that the Pentagon public office has provided special arrangements, access to friendly, pro-war bloggers. The number of public affairs officers has increased by 24 percent, and since 2003, 11 AP journalists have been detained in Iraq for at least 24 hours by U.S. forces as potential "security threats."
The black-and-white video starts with a mini-van locked in the crosshairs and the sound of a missile launching. A ball of fire suddenly consumes the van and a palm grove somewhere in Iraq.

"Good shot," says a voice squawking over what sounds like a military radio. Before the one-minute video clip is over, two more SUVs are destroyed by Apache helicopters.

The video is one of dozens brought to viewers around the world by Maj. Alayne Conway, the top public affairs officer for the 3rd Infantry Division. When her unit was in Iraq, her office sent out four to six videos a day to media outlets around the world, as well as posting them on YouTube.

More here.

New Penn. Office of Open Records already overworked

Some citizens don't understand the purpose of the Office of Open Records and have requested help for things like getting the address of an old classmate. Despite some misunderstanding, the office is nevertheless busy sifting through appeals filed by citizens who have had records requests denied and providing "advisory opinions" on certain questions. Lawyers are also trying to "fine-tune the boundaries of Pennsylvania's new law."
As with anything new, Pennsylvania's fledgling Office of Open Records is experiencing some growing pains.

Created Jan. 1 as a result of last year's open-records reform legislation, the office has encountered some interesting cases in its first month of operation.

The challenges include navigating the road between the public's right to know and what people just want to know.
More here.

Northwest Fla. College meeting held at members-only club

A meeting to discuss legislation that would elevate Northwest Florida State College above traditional community college status was held at a members-only club with little public notice. Caterers were told not to post signs directing the public to the meeting room. Consequently, no members of the public were present.
Rep. Roy Sansom and the board of trustees of Northwest Florida State College met in Tallahassee last March to discuss legislation that, once passed, elevated the school above traditional community colleges.

State law requires a get-together like that be held in public. But the meeting, arranged by Sansom at the request of college President Bob Richburg, was held with little public notice at a members-only club in Tallahassee, 150 miles from the Northwest Florida campus in Okaloosa County.

The latest disclosure casts new light on one of the controversial elements of Sansom’s relationship with the school, which derailed his tenure as House speaker and triggered a grand jury investigation. Sansom also faces review by a House special investigator and the state Commission on Ethics headed by state Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

More here.

Fla. teacher union sues school board for closing meetings

Following Miami-Dade School Board's closed-door "executive session" to discuss the budget, United Teachers of Dade sued. The union is asking for the minutes from all the closed-door meetings the board has illegally held and for a court order voiding any actions taken that stem from these meetings.
United Teachers of Dade, Florida's largest teacher union, sued the Miami-Dade School Board Thursday for violating the state's Government in the Sunshine Law and demanded that all budget decisions be made in the open.

UTD's suit alleges that the board broke the law when they met January 30 in a closed-door "executive session" called by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Under Florida law, the board is only allowed to discuss issues directly involving litigation or contract negotiations during executive sessions.

More here.

Transparency after a done deal does little good

The new Right-to-Know Law makes it only voluntarily for Pennsylvania school boards to disclose the terms of contract proposals before they are signed.

Pennsylvania taxpayers have a right to know what their respective school districts are doing -- before it's too late to do anything about it.

The commonwealth's new Right-to-Know Law should have ensured complete transparency. Unfortunately, it does not, according to Terry Mutchler, executive director of the new Office of Open Records.

The public has every right to demand accountability. It should never be forced to come to school boards, hat in hand, begging to be given information about the untold costs to taxpayers.

More here.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Ill. boards stall to release election candidate data

Although the deadline to run for local office was Jan. 26, the Daily Herald in Chicago has not been able to get the addresses and, in some cases, names of candidates from the Wauconda Library District, Oakbrook Terrace Township, Naperville Township and Deer Park Township.

Today's topic might sound self serving, and to a certain extent it is, but it's really all about providing you, the local voters, with what you need to know.

Here's the problem: Far too many of our municipalities, schools, libraries, parks, fire and township boards are refusing to release blatantly public information about the people who are running to represent us.

We can't tell you about these candidates and you can't learn about them yourselves if none of us can find out who they are and how we might contact them. It's as simple as that. It's a basic part of a free, working democracy.

More here.

Del. open government bill would exempt legislators' e-mails

Oh, the irony! Sure, the bill would subject the Delaware General Assembly to FOIA, meaning that the legislature would no longer be exempt from open-meeting laws. However, an amendment would exempt from FOIA all e-mails "received and sent by members of the Delaware General Assembly or their staff" in order to protect the privacy of constituents who e-mails legislators with "their deepest, darkest secrets."
Even as the House mulls a bill intended to make more of the General Assembly's work public, an amendment is being shopped around that would have the opposite effect.

The draft amendment to House Bill 1, which itself would subject the General Assembly to the Freedom of Information Act, would close off access to some information that now is considered public.

The Legislature currently is exempt from the state's open-meeting law, and legislators' e-mails have long been assumed to be covered by that exemption. However, a legal opinion circulating in Legislative Hall concludes that legislators' e-mails to state agencies covered by FOIA are open to public scrutiny.

More here.

Should gun-carry permit applications be public?

Many permit owners are uncomfortable knowing that their addresses, gun purchases and other personal information, such as past addictions, are public records. On the other hand, public gun permit databases could help keep firearms out of the hands of criminals. John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, said the House committees that deal with Second Amendment issues favor privacy.
What some are calling a matter of privacy, others are calling a dangerous idea. At issue is whether or not applications for gun-carry permits should be kept confidential.

Getting a permit isn't only about learning the rules; a lot of personal information must be given up.

"You have to answer a lot of questions," said John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association. "Like, for example, 'How were you discharged from the military?' 'Have you ever been addicted to any kind of alcohol or other substances?' 'Have you ever had any psychiatric problems?' A lot of information is disclosed on the forms that really shouldn't be public."
More here.

Coroner, autopsy reports exempt from Calif. Public Records Act

The Third District Court of Appeal upheld a superior court judge's decision to not force El Dorado County to release coroner and autopsy reports to Kathryn J. Dixon, a reporter planning to write a book on the murder of Elizabeth Cloer.
Coroner and autopsy reports from suspected homicide deaths are exempt from disclosure under California’s Public Records Act, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

Reasoning that the reports present a concrete and definite prospect of criminal law enforcement proceedings, the court rejected a former-California-attorney-turned-publisher’s request for records relating to a Sacramento woman whose bullet-riddled body was found in an open El Dorado County field in 1971.

Phillip Arthur Thompson was convicted in 2008 of the murder of Elizabeth Cloer after a 2003 analysis of DNA left at the scene tied him to the crime.
More here.

Big victory could mean public right to any government-created database

A California appeals court ruled that Santa Clara County must make its geographic information system, which indicates real estate boundaries and other property data, available to the public. The county had denied the California First Amendment Coalition's request for a copy of the real estate parcel "basemap." The argument was that U.S. Homeland Security concerns and copyright protection preempted releasing the information in accordance with the California Public Records Act.
In a stunning victory for freedom of information advocates, a California appeals court has sustained a public right of access to a government database that makes possible highly accurate digital mapping.

Holding that Santa Clara County must make public its geographic information system (GIS) parcel “basemap,” which shows real estate parcel boundaries, appraisals, and other property data, a unanimous Court of Appeal rejected arguments that U.S. Homeland Security regulations and Federal Copyright protection trump the public’s right of access under the California Public Records Act.

More here.

More coverage: Homeland Security Act Does Not Shield County Land Data, Metropolitan News-Enterprise

Files of former Speaker of Texas House wiped out

When Tom Craddick transitioned from Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives to a rank-and-file member, his computer hard drives and electronic records were wiped from his computers. Some files that Craddick requested were saved, but the rest are gone, which his chief of staff says is standard procedure.
Before the House voted Speaker Tom Craddick out of his powerful job, state officials wiped his computers clean and deleted scores of electronic files, raising concerns that important public records may have been destroyed.

Files on one shared computer network drive were saved, but unless Craddick specifically requested them, computer hard drives and electronic records associated with individual employees were deleted, officials said.

Craddick left the speaker's office on Jan. 13, returning to the state House as a rank-and-file member without a vast staff and without the sweeping power the presiding officer wields.

More here.