The latest, if not the last, episode of corruption in New Jersey's political class has politicians of all stripes scurrying for ways to demonstrate that they are not part of a problem.
They have statements on this, committees on that and postures on the other thing. But it's difficult to put much faith in reforms that start only when television lights go on.
There's a common link between black-market livers and cash sandwiches, between back-channel approvals and parking-lot deals. They all happen in the dark. A culture of corruption takes hold behind closed doors, during private meetings in back rooms.Well before the current hubbub, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) introduced legislation to update the state's Open Public Meetings Act, the Sunshine Law.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
In Wilmington, N.C., the city is making sweeping changes to its employee e-mail policies after a StarNews inquiry uncovered significant violations of state public records laws.
The StarNews found that city council members and many top-ranking city employees routinely shielded e-mails from a public server by marking “private” in subject lines. The e-mails included discussions about important and controversial city issues, such as the annexation of Monkey Junction, the downtown convention center, the police helicopter, lawsuits against the city and complaints about city services.
The story here, and the database of all 36,000 "private" city e-mails here.
And in Wisconsin, The state Senate will review its e-mail use and retention policies after a lawsuit uncovered how employees in one senator's office used personal accounts for state business, a spokeswoman said this week.
Carrie Lynch, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, said some employees use private accounts when they work from home rather than logging into the state system because it is faster and more convenient.
Lynch said the practice would likely be allowed to continue, but a new policy could advise staff members how to make sure the records are maintained for public access.
"This has never really come up before," she said. "Now that it has, we'll definitely take a look at drafting a policy that would accommodate this to ensure that everyone knows the rules from here on out."
She said the review would also consider whether legislative offices must ask the Legislative Technology Services Bureau to check its backup system for records when served with an open records request.
Both issues have been highlighted by a lawsuit brought by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin that claims Sen. Dan Kapanke failed to turn over public records about two events in response to its request. Kapanke's chief of staff, Rose Smyrski, testified last week she routinely used a Yahoo account for work at nights and on weekends.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Washington’s open records law is far from absolute. Over the years, lawmakers have granted more than 300 exceptions to its broad mandate for public disclosure.More here.
But the common theme among most of those exemptions is that they reside explicitly in state law. Government agencies and citizens may not always agree on whether an exemption should apply, but at least they are both reading from the same page.
Not so with the nebulous “privilege” invoked by the Legislature and governor. In at least three publicized instances this year – and perhaps more lesser-known ones – the legislative and executive branches have claimed an immunity that appears nowhere in statute.
As they stretch every dollar, California's public universities have understandably turned to novel ways of raising and spending money. Many have established private foundations, known as "auxiliaries," that solicit contributions from private donors and then hand that money out in the form of grants, scholarships and the like. Auxiliaries today supply the Cal State system with roughly 20% of its $6.7-billion annual operating budget.More here.
The trouble arises when those foundations use their vague legal status -- they are private entities affiliated with public universities -- to shield themselves from scrutiny. And the public has ample reason to question how some of this money is being spent. A foundation affiliated with Sonoma State University lent money to a former member of its board, then got stuck with a bill when he could not pay the money back. A foundation affiliated with Cal State Fresno built an arena on campus and awarded some donors luxury boxes; when the Fresno Bee asked for the names of the donors and what they had contributed, it was denied, and a court held that the California Public Records Act did not cover the foundation. And a former chancellor of San Francisco City College has been indicted on charges that include allegedly diverting money from a foundation account to pay for a club membership, liquor and other expenses.
Want to know how much money your child's teacher makes? How about the police officer who pulled you over last night?More here.
Now you can.
A group that bills itself as a think tank dedicated to limited government has launched a salary database, that allows anyone to look up the names and pay rates for a range of government employees.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill today overhauling the state’s freedom of information law.More here.
The legislation has been sitting on Quinn’s desk for several months since squeaking out of the last legislative session at its very end.
The Chicago Sun Times reported that the new law plugs several loop holes in the current law, including giving the state's public access counselor the power to issue binding opinions in disputes over public records. Fines of up to $5,000 for violations of the law are also now possible, the newspaper said.
There are 47 items on the agenda, and in a small meeting room in Trenton, on a Tuesday morning, the Government Records Council is slogging its way through the list of complaints from citizens who have been thwarted in their attempts to access public records.More here.
An hour into the session, it's clear: New Jersey's Open Public Records Act is flawed.
Ruling after ruling by executive director Catherine Starghill goes against agencies that have denied -- wrongfully -- public access to their records. In the GRC's final orders, municipal clerks, board secretaries and other record custodians are found to be guilty of wide-ranging and unnecessary OPRA violations.
Are some parts of the United States more prone to censorship than others? Not according to a new map of book censorship incidents that has just been posted on the official Web site of Banned Books Week, www.bannedbooksweek.org. The Google map displays more than 120 book challenges--from Maine to Florida and from Long Island, New York, to San Francisco--that have occurred since the beginning of 2007, http://www.bannedbooksweeks.org.More here.
The map is drawn from cases documented by the American Library Association and the Kids' Right to Read Project, which is sponsored by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the National Coalition Against Censorship.
The Banned Books Week Web site was launched last year to highlight the displays and events that are mounted by hundreds of bookstores and libraries during Banned Books Week, the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It includes a state by state listing to help people find displays and events in their area. This year's Banned Books Week will be celebrated from Sept. 26 through Oct. 3.
As the 2009 campaign season heads into its crucial last months, Washington voters have a new, easy-to-use tool to help them choose candidates that are committed to open, responsive and accountable government.More here.
Earlier this month, the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) submitted an open government questionnaire to candidates around the state and asked for their position on 6 key government reform issues identified by WCOG. Candidates were asked to take a "yes" or "no" stance on topics including recording of executive sessions of public agencies and requirement of open government training for government employees and elected officials.
Each candidate's individual survey has 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.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
The state paid two newspapers more than $81,500 this week after improperly refusing to release the names of state employees.More here.
The payments - which could climb higher because they don't include appeal costs - came as the Capital Times of Madison sued the state for delaying the release of public records related to judicial appointments.
An attorney representing the Capital Times said it seemed as if Gov. Jim Doyle's office was deliberately slow in providing the records, in hopes they would lose their news value. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Doyle suggested the Capital Times was trying to "pose as open records champions and cost the taxpayers some money over it."
For decades, some residents could not get court documents they were entitled to see because the judiciary had limited guidelines on which records were available for public viewing.More here.
That's expected to change next month when a new rule recently adopted by the state's highest court goes into effect.
Evidence admitted in New Jersey courts are just some of the records specifically defined as "open for public inspection" in the state's new guidelines.
Back in July, a software company named Smartronix landed an $18 million contract to build a Web site where taxpayers could easily track billions in federal stimulus money. It was just another part of the Obama administration’s ongoing effort to bring transparency to stimulus spending, we were told.More here.
But it seems the drive for transparency doesn’t cover the contract itself.
After weeks of prodding by ProPublica and other organizations, the General Services Administration released copies of the contract and related documents that are so heavily blacked out they are virtually worthless.
The City of Alachua recently installed a kiosk at City Hall for residents to get public records without having to request them from the city clerk.More here.
Alan Henderson, deputy city clerk, said the search engine at the kiosk will eventually give Alachua residents access to ordinances, resolutions and anything considered a city public record.
The engine contains thousands of documents, but the system is limited as city officials continue to reformat and add more records.
Attorney General Chris Koster says the Department of Natural Resources didn't violate the state's open records law in delaying the release of a report showing high levels of E. coli in Lake of the Ozarks.More here.
Koster's office has been investigating allegations that DNR violated the Sunshine Law, which is meant to give citizens and the media access to public documents upon request.
But since no one filed a formal Sunshine Law request for the monthly testing results, Koster's investigator concluded there's no evidence a law was broken.
See the full PDF of the AG's report here.
View the letter DPS sent the News-Leader requesting seven more business days to review its request for video footage from the governor's office here.
Also, AG Chris Koster: No Sunshine Law violation in E. coli-gate, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Delayed data on E. coli at lake was wrong, not illegal, Koster says, Kansas City Star: "A DNR e-mail obtained by The Kansas City Star shows that the agency understood it had received numerous requests for test results. According to the e-mail by a DNR employee: 'In a nutshell, I have had email inquires from four reporters since May 26 and phone calls from those four plus a couple others … for information, interviews or data.'”
Koster has more work to do on E-coli scare at Lake of the Ozarks, Kansas City Star: "Specifically, Koster didn't have all the facts he needed before concluding that the DNR did not violate the Sunshine Law regarding pollution reports about the Lake of the Ozarks. Koster told a Kansas City Star reporter on Thursday that he did not know of a DNR e-mail that detailed requests for the information about E-coli levels in the lake back in late May. He said he would look into the new information, and he should."
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Two University of Missouri graduates Jo Craven McGinty and Brian Hamman, are working on the New York Times' analysis of murder rates. The information was compiled from open records requests from the New York Police Department, and a searchable database is now available to readers.
There were more homicides in September than in any other month last year: 52. Next highest was August, with 51. Variations, of course, exist. There were 48 homicides last March, for instance.More here.
Still, the prime time for murder is clear: summertime. Indeed, it is close to a constant, one hammered home painfully from June to September across the decades. And the breakdown of deadly brutality can get even more specific. September Saturdays around 10 p.m. were the most likely moments for a murder in the city.
This is why states must look hard at outlawing the use of private e-mail by elected officials to conduct public business. This is a fairly straightforward legislative fix, no? No g-mail to discuss public business! Note that the court here is all but calling for the legislature to fix this.
A judge ruled Wednesday the Alaska governor's office can use private e-mail accounts to conduct state business, as former Gov. Sarah Palin did.More here.
Superior Court Judge Jack W. Smith said in his ruling there is no provision in Alaska state law that prohibits the use of private e-mail accounts when conducting state business.
The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Anchorage resident Andree McLeod, who contended such use of private e-mails denies citizens the right to inspect public records.
Also, Court: Palin's e-mail practices not a violation of open records law, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Missouri Capitol Police have cited a post-Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism exemption in the state's open records law in denying the News-Leader access to surveillance tape footage of the entrances of the governor's office.More here.
Under a Sunshine Law request for public records, the newspaper sought to inspect archived video footage during various dates in June from cameras aimed at two public entrances in the governor's second floor office in the state Capitol in Jefferson City.
The News-Leader is seeking access to the video as part of its ongoing investigation into what role -- if any -- Nixon's office played in the Department of Natural Resources withholding a report for four weeks in June showing dangerously high levels of E. coli in Lake of the Ozarks.
Prisons run by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America perform a government function and must follow public records laws, the Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled.More here.
The prison giant appealed the ruling issued last year by Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman, who ruled that the corporation was the functional equivalent of government and that its administrators must turn over all records requested by prison reform advocate Alex Friedmann.
Friedmann, the associate editor of the monthly publication Prison Legal News, sued for access to several types of records, including CCA's government
contracts, legal settlements and cases where CCA was sanctioned or fined.
A California bill that will relieve losing plaintiffs in Freedom of Information Act lawsuits of having to pay attorney's fees passed the state's legislature last month. It is now awaiting a signature from the governor.More here.
Under the proposed law, governments that prevail on an "anti-SLAPP" motion in FOIA cases will not be able to collect attorney's fees for claims brought against them in good faith. Fees could only be awarded in limited situations, such as when the court decides the action is frivolous and without merit. The state anti-SLAPP law allows defendants to have frivolous suits dismissed early.
Also, New Calif. law limits cost in public records fight, San Jose Mercury News.
More here.Does the governor's executive privilege exempt her from the state's Public Records Act? Looks like we'll find out.Climate change was a hot topic during the 2009 legislative session. Gov. Gregoire had requested legislation that ultimately died in the Senate. Not to be stopped, the governor issued Executive Order 09-05 to address climate change. Curious to see the backstory, EFF filed a request for documents related to the executive order's drafting and implementation. We've received many records, but the governor's office has refused to release 48 documents. The denial cites several reasons, including "executive privilege" and "deliberative process."There's a problem with this denial. There is no "executive privilege" exemption in the Public Records Act. And once the executive order was published the "deliberation" exemption no longer applies. (This isn't the first time Gov. Gregoire has claimed the phantom "executive privilege" exemption.)
Veteran Hollywood Police Officer Dewey Pressley said he hated lying. But if bending the truth a little would keep a fellow officer out of trouble, well, he was all for it.
A dashboard police camera video that surfaced recently showed Pressley chuckling as he wrote a fake police report, calling his creativity "a little Walt Disney" so another officer wouldn't get in trouble for rear-ending a 23-year-old woman's car in February.
Pressley and four others have been suspended with pay pending an investigation after video of the accident and the officers' attempt to cover it up became public last week, the latest Internet sensation in a line of unsettling police dashcam videos.
Monday, August 03, 2009
Former staffers for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said they routinely used private e-mail accounts to discuss sensitive political and policy decisions with Sanford.More here.
The governor's office denies the practice was used to shield those communications from the public.
The state's Freedom of Information Act makes any discussion of state business on state computers a public document.
A federal judge ruled against Fox News Thursday in a key Freedom of Information Act case involving bailout-related documents held by the Federal Reserve Board.More here.
Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled that the Federal Reserve Board in Washington had properly withheld more than 6,000 pages of documents from Fox because the records fell under the FOIA exemption protecting trade secrets and confidential information.
Fox sought information about the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending program, known as the discount window.
Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Department of Defense has released 146 photographs that were taken during the photo-op involving Air Force One and the Statue of Liberty on April 27. President Obama was not on the plane when the photos were taken.More here.
The low-flying plane caused panic among New Yorkers because it was a reminder of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The controversial flight resulted in the May resignation of White House Military Office Director Louis Caldera.
The Nevada attorney general's office says personal e-mails on Gov. Jim Gibbons' state computer are not public records.More here.
In a Nevada Supreme Court brief, the AG's office says personal messages or those not concerning public business are not subject to a public records request.
The filing is in response to an appeal by Reno Newspapers Inc., which is seeking all e-mails sent by Gibbons on his state computer from January to June 2008.
Saturday, August 01, 2009
Agencies can fulfill the president's vision of open government by posting large amounts of data online quickly and making it easy to find, a group that tracks the public's satisfaction with government Web sites reported on Tuesday.More here.
By boosting the "thoroughness and accessibility of information made available online," or what is described as "online transparency," agencies can achieve the open government principles that President Obama outlined on his first full day in office, according to a report released by ForeSee Results, a market research firm that, in conjunction with the American Customer Satisfaction Index, issues quarterly reports on public opinion about federal Web sites.
While some states have created impressive websites to disseminate information about their share of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), most are failing to make effective use of online technology to educate taxpayers about the impact of economic stimulus spending. This is the finding of Show Us the Stimulus, a report released today by Good Jobs First, a non-profit research center based in Washington, DC.Read the full report here.
“Many states are failing to support President Obama’s vow that the Recovery Act will be carried out with an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability,” said Good Jobs First executive director Greg LeRoy. “By failing to use broadly available web tools, they are making it more difficult to measure the success of ARRA in mitigating the effects of the recession.”
The past eighteen months have been an exceptionally promising time for the Freedom of Information Act and for those who look to it to shine a bright light on the world. First Congress amended the Act with a package of amendments designed entirely to aid FOIA requesters, improve agency FOIA performance, and foster greater disclosure. Then a president who has declared that he wants to run “the most open administration in history” was elected to replace a president whose administration seemingly “never met a secret it didn’t like.” See, e.g., The Nature of Government Secrecy, 26 Gov’t Info. Quarterly 305, 307 (2009).More here.
But as often is said of expected improvements in such areas of administrative law, “the devil’s in the details.” And when it comes to the FOIA, those devilish details are most often found in the quality of the implementation of new provisions and policies, on a governmentwide basis, and the timeliness, comprehensiveness, and effectiveness with which that is achieved. That is where the brightness of promised sunshine can readily fade if a new presidential administration is not pragmatic and careful. In this case, the badly incomplete implementation of the FOIA amendments made by Congress in 2007 foreshadowed no less.
A state appellate court judge has ordered a temporary halt to releasing school district employees' home addresses listed on records requests made under Pennsylvania's new Right-to-Know Law.More here.
The order issued Tuesday by Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman was made in response to a petition brought late last week by the state's largest teachers' union.
Friedman was expected to schedule a hearing on the Pennsylvania State Education Association's request to permanently end the release of school employees' home addresses.
A judge issued a temporary injunction Wednesday to halt the release of statements a prominent Kentucky road builder made to investigators years ago.More here.
Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas D. Wingate cited the privacy interests of the road builder, Leonard Lawson of Lexington, in his ruling. Wingate said if the statements were made public, Lawson could face irreparable harm.
Not releasing them would preserve the status quo, Wingate said in a 16-page ruling.
A federal appellate court rightly decided this week to re-hear a case on the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act.More here.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) took the unusual and laudable step of granting a petition for en banc review, meaning the full court will now consider a case that a three-judge panel of the court previously decided.
The Texas Attorney General’s office asked the court to reconsider its previous ruling in Rangra v. Brown, which said the Open Meetings Act infringed on elected officials' free speech rights by making it a crime for a quorum of them to discuss government business outside of a public meeting.
Protect Marriage Washington submitted 138,500 signatures to get Referendum 71, which would repel a law giving gay couples marriage-like benefits, onto the November ballot.
A federal judge in Tacoma has temporarily blocked release of the names and addresses of those who signed Referendum 71, which would repeal a law giving gay couples new marriage-like benefits.More here.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle this afternoon granted a temporary restraining order requested by Protect Washington Families to stop the Secretary of State's Office from making the signers' names public.
The TRO will remain in place until a hearing set for Sept. 3.