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.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A&M revisits ruling after outcry

from Chron.com:
Texas A&M University officials will take a second look at a controversial decision widely seen as an attempt to prevent student journalists at Tarleton State University from investigating their own school's public records.

Andrew Strong, A&M's general counsel, said Wednesday he wasn't aware of all of the facts when he crafted a letter that extended existing rules, which ban employees from abusing the Public Information Act, to include journalism students working on optional class assignments. Tarleton is part of the A&M University System.

[...]

The A&M rule, in effect since the mid-1990s, prohibits system employees from making public information requests of their employer. The rule was drafted after an employee used the law to make frivolous information requests, leaving A&M with the tab for the required research and compliance.

The regulation went unused until the fall semester.

Several Tarleton journalism students were part of The Light of Day project, a statewide initiative sponsored by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas to teach them how to use open records requests to develop investigative articles.

The goal of the project, said FOI Foundation executive director Keith Elkins, was to gather public information, share it and report on it.
Read the rest here.

2010 Gov 2.0 Year in Review

from O'Reilly Radar:
While the progress of the White House Open Government Directive at federal agencies is important, as is action in Congress, there's a long road yet ahead in the United States and abroad. As John Wonderlich pointed out in his own look at 2010:
Obama’s Open Government Directive is at a crossroads (like other similar policies), and the changing majority in the House brings new opportunities for change (a 72 Hour Rule!), just as the outgoing majority brought their own new opportunities for transparency.
We're still very much in open government's beta period. Some efforts, like the State Department's Text Haiti program for the Red Cross or the "do-it-ourselves" platforms from groups like CrisisCommons, made a difference. Other efforts, partially represented by many open government plans in the throes of implementation, won't mature for months to come.
Read the rest here.

Setting government data free with ScraperWiki

from programmable web:
Civic minded hackers from all over the world recently organized themselves for action as a part of the International Open Government Hackathon. The team from Portland, Oregon decided to make use of a platform called ScraperWiki that can grab data from government websites and turn into more consumable formats via the ScraperWiki API....

The ScraperWiki work highlights a problem for governments that want to make data available to the public. Some data is currently available in obscure formats or is locked in HTML pages that cannot easily be consumed by web applications.

“ScraperWiki is a great way to demonstrate to governments that programmers will put in work to clean up messy data, in whatever format it is released. the more imporant issue is authorizing the release of the datasets, not worrying about what format they are released in,” said event organizer Max Ogden.
Read the rest here.

"Don't spy on us, FBI" say Minnesota activists

from Twin Cities Daily Planet:
By Bill Sorem, The Uptake -- It was a declassified FBI document that Lucia Wilkes Smith held up before a crowd of Minneapolis peace activists. It was declassified in name only because nearly every word on the dozen or so pages had been blacked out for national security reasons.

"The first letter I got from the FBI said 'we don't have anything on you', said Wilkes Smith a well-spoken gray-haired woman. She had made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of the FBI. The American Civil Liberties Union and others had urged her to file the request because the FBI had been spying on anti-war groups in Minnesota prior to and during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

"And then another letter came that said 'well we got a few pages, but they're classified'. And then eventually they declassified this and sent it to me." She held up the dozen or so pages with nearly every word blacked out.
Read the rest here.

National Archives debuts online search

from The Hill:
The National Archives and Records Administration is letting the public preview a new search tool that digs through the government's huge archive of public records.

Users visiting a prototype of the new site can search for everything from a child's letter to the president to the iconic image of WWII's Rosie the Riveter among more than 10.9 million permanent electronic records.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Obscenity letters sent after city stymied on sign

from the Times-News MagicValley.com:
(Twin Falls) -- Correspondence between city officials that was obtained by the Times-News shows there was no public record of complaints about adult stores Karnation and Enchantress, despite Twin Falls Police saying complaints spurred investigations into the sale of obscene materials.

The letters threatened action “up to and including arrest” if the stores did not comply with state law regarding the sale of obscene material, but didn’t specify which of the stores’ wares were obscene.

Instead, a cache of e-mails from city officials reveal a focus on the “Adult XXX” sign formerly on the front of Allen Nagel’s Smokin’ Head Smoke Shop and a variety of efforts to have it removed.

[...]

“This is not just going to be us against Allen Nagel, but could turn out to be us against the Porn industry,” [Officer Luke] Allen wrote on Nov. 19, adding that he wanted to see how other Idaho cities handle adult stores. “I think we need to not go in half cocked on this one or we may get bit in the ass.”
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

White House science memo seen as a step forward

from OMB Watch
The White House took another step toward securing the independence of federal scientists and ensuring the integrity of scientific information used in government decision making. President Obama's top science advisor, John Holdren, issued a memo to executive branch agencies outlining the administration's position on key scientific integrity issues and instructing agencies to implement reforms.

"The memo is a sign of relief for federal scientists who are unsure of their rights and whose work is too susceptible to manipulation," said Gary D. Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch.

The memo touts the importance of science in policy development and the need to maintain accuracy and integrity in government science. It plainly addresses the potentially corrosive role politics can play: "[P]olitical officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings," the memo says.

The memo, issued by Holdren in his position as Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), requires agencies to report to OSTP within 120 days on the actions they have taken in support of the memo's goals. The memo specifically identifies three issues in need of agency attention: federal scientists' right to communicate their work to the media and the public; scientific and technical advice developed and presented by federal advisory committees; and professional development of federal scientists and engineers.

"Articulating a vision for scientific integrity is essential, but the devil will be in the details, some of which are lacking in this memo," Bass said. "Agencies need to act aggressively, and transparently, to advance a robust scientific integrity agenda."
Read the rest here.

N.M. launches prototype of open government website

from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
New Mexico went live Dec. 16 with a prototype of its planned online open government resource called the Sunshine Portal. The website, which is scheduled to go fully live on July 1, 2011, opens to journalists and citizens information that otherwise might take weeks or months to gain access to through information requests.

The site contains information related to the state's revenue, expenditures, investments, budget and employee salaries. The information contained on the site is provided by 11 state offices including the governor's office, the Department of Finance and Administration, the Department of Tax and Revenue and the State Personnel Office.

The information on the Sunshine Portal is organized into a spreadsheet and the site appears easy to navigate. Because it's a prototype, the site warns that the information currently available isn't necessarily accurate or up-to-date. New Mexico is soliciting comments on the site's functionality and will continue to do so as it is edited during the next seven months.

Sarah Welsh, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said she was "really impressed" with the site when she saw it. "The bill [that mandated the site's creation] was a framework and they really did a good job of making it user-friendly."
Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Whence the information age?

from The New York Review of Books:
By the way, how do we know people have been talking about the Information Age for fifty years? The OED tells us. The first recorded usage is attributed to “R. S. Leghorn in H. B. Maynard Top Managem. Handbk. xlvii. 1024,” 1960. He turns out to have been Richard Leghorn, founder of Itek Corporation, which made aerospace spy cameras, and later Chief of Intelligence and Reconnaissance Systems Development at the Pentagon. In a single sentence Leghorn invented the phrase and predicted it would not catch on:
Present and anticipated spectacular informational achievements will usher in public recognition of the “information age,” probably under a more symbolic title.
No better title has come along. Along with information age, the OED now recognizes information storage, information transfer, information processing, information retrieval, information architecture, information superhighway, plus (the bad news) information explosion, gap, warfare, overload, and fatigue.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Journalists guiltless after latest WikiLeaks releases, MU experts say

from the Missouri School of Journalism:
Columbia, Mo. (Dec. 2, 2010) -- With its major release of classified U.S. government information, the WikiLeaks organization has forced its way into international news again. Now that the secret diplomatic data have hit newspapers, broadcast media and Internet wires, University of Missouri free speech experts say that the journalists who have disseminated the information have not crossed legal or ethical boundaries.

Christina Wells, the Enoch H. Crowder Professor of Law at the MU School of Law, and a free speech law expert, says that while the government would probably have a legal case against the source of the information leaks, legal precedent for disseminating the information is on the side of journalists.

"The bar that the Pentagon Papers case set for press injunction is so high that it would be extremely difficult for the government to meet it," Wells said. "There also is very little basis for criminally prosecuting publishers of such information. Journalism publishing has evolved so much with the Internet that it would be impossible to stop the spread of information, even if the government legally could."

Charles Davis, an associate professor of journalism studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and freedom of information expert, believes that while previous WikiLeaks disclosures were handled poorly, the organization made a positive effort to work through the proper professional channels in this instance.
Read the rest here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A&M limits faculty's open-records assignments

from statesman.com:
Faculty members and open-records advocates are criticizing a Texas A&M University System policy that bars professors from directing students to submit public information requests to A&M campuses and agencies.

Journalism teachers sometimes instruct students to file such requests under the Texas Public Information Act to gain experience using an important tool for reporters.

[....]

"It looks like something that would be in The Onion," Wanda Garner Cash, a clinical professor of journalism at the University of Texas, said , referring to the publication that employs satire and fiction for its take on the news.

[...]

Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said, "I don't know whether we should give the university's attorney kudos for his insanely inventive nuance, or a swift kick in the rear for pushing the administration into an indefensible stance from which they must surely back down."
Read the rest here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

EFF compares documents from similar FOIA requests

from the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
EFF recently received documents in response to one of our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that demonstrate a disturbing trend: the FBI's arbitrary application of FOIA exemptions to hide, or in some instances, reveal, its unlawful activities.

Through a careful comparison of thousands of pages of documents we received from this FOIA request with the same documents we received from an earlier FOIA request, we found that redactions in many of these duplicated documents were strikingly different. In several cases, the FBI redacted more information in later-produced documents than it did in earlier-produced documents. In other cases, the FBI redacted differing amounts of information when it produced two copies of the same report in response to the same FOIA request.

Sometimes the agency blocked out whole paragraphs, while at other times it blocked out only the key words that explain the details of its acts. What is interesting is that the FBI claimed the same FOIA exemptions in each version; it just applied them differently.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Loopholes already being sought for earmark ban

from the Sunlight Foundation Blog:
Some House Republicans are already looking for a way around the ban on earmarks imposed on the next Congress. These members are rapidly trying to come up with a new definition for earmarks, or directed spending, to skirt the ban.

Politico reports, “[S]ome Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban, allowing transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water projects. While transportation earmarks are probably the most notorious — think “Bridge to Nowhere” — there is talk about tweaking the very definition of “earmark.”

[....]

If Congress is at all serious about reforming earmarks they need to do something about the transparency of earmarks. This is especially true if they aren’t as serious as they say they are about a ban.
Read the rest here.

Court allows broadcast in Calif. same-sex marriage appeal

from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) allowed the live broadcast Monday of more than two hours of oral arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, a case challenging the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriages.

The hearing before the three-judge panel is the latest legal step in the case brought by two same-sex couples to challenge California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution enacted by voters in 2008.

In August, a federal court in San Francisco ruled that Proposition 8 violated the federal constitution. That ruling, by Judge Vaughn Walker, came after a trial that, by order of the U.S. Supreme Court, could not be broadcast to the public.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rebuffed Walker’s plan to broadcast the trial, ruling that the broadcasting would conflict with court policy and procedural rules. The Supreme Court also noted the possible chilling effect on witnesses.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision to broadcast Monday's hearing did not raise the same issues.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Whither transparency in the next Congress?

from OMB Watch:
When the 112th Congress convenes in January, attention will be focused on the newly Republican-controlled House. On transparency issues, House Republican leaders have sounded positive tones. However, it remains to be seen whether bipartisan consensus on meaningful transparency can be achieved or whether transparency will be wielded as a partisan weapon.

Undoubtedly, divided party control of Congress will mean a more adversarial relationship between Congress and the White House and between the House and the Senate. What remains unclear, however, is whether Republicans will support the administration's many positive efforts to improve transparency while criticizing the instances where it has fallen short or dragged its feet. The House could also fall prey to the political theater that often occurs when parties in divided government compete for the public spotlight.
Read the rest here.

Coding the middleware for government data

from O'Reilly radar:
Cities, states and agencies are publishing more government data online, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Much government data is still in paper form, locked away in file cabinets, or in closed formats on obscure servers. ... The Department of Labor is just now starting to put that data online. That's why reporting on the progress of open government data initiatives is a key pillar of Gov 2.0. For those who have been working toward more transparent government, that issue is central to their work.

[...]

Under the Open Government Directive, a PDF qualifies as an open format. BrightScope uses government data, but it's not "open" in the sense that technologists use the term, nor did BrightScope's business result from the open government initiative. Put in the context of Tim Berners-Lee's definition for open linked data or the principles at OpenGovData.org, PDFs on CD might not merit even one star, although BrightScope has been able to move forward with their business in the meantime.
Read the rest here.

CREW: DOJ is a roadblock to open government

from CREW:
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing concern over the Department of Justice's (DOJ) failure to abide by President Obama's commitment to government transparency and accountability.

Despite policy directives from President Barack Obama and Attorney General Holder mandating a presumption of openness in administering the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), DOJ continues to operate - as it did during the Bush administration -- under a presumption of secrecy, deliberately withholding information about what DOJ is up to and why.
Read more here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Unplug WikiLeaks? Enact a federal shield law instead

from The Huffington Post:
The Obama administration has made no secret of its desire to unplug WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website infamous for data dumps of classified records. Of the few options available to the government, the best is one that probably hasn't been considered in this context: enacting a federal shield law.

How would a shield law -- a version of which has passed the House and awaits a vote by the full Senate -- put WikiLeaks out of business? The answer is that it would remove the need that WikiLeaks fills. If that were to happen, WikiLeaks would receive few, if any, sensitive documents leaked by sources inside US government agencies.

The purpose of a shield law is to enable journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources -- which, under current law, they can't do. Although journalists, in dealings with a source, can promise confidentiality up to a point -- the point being when a federal judge orders a journalist to identify her source or go to jail -- the risk of disclosure deters sources in many cases.
Read more here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

(Massachusetts) State tells man he may be jailed for releasing data

from boston.com:
Governor Deval Patrick’s administration told a local website operator he could face jail time for publishing information that the state provided under an open-records request.

It is unclear whether officials would or could follow through with the threat to Michael Morisy, cofounder of MuckRock (muckrock.com), a website devoted to open records. But the unusual letter, also published on the website, has forced him to consult with an attorney.

The data, which Morisy had not removed from his website by last night, show how much money in food stamps has been spent at businesses around the state over the past five years under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The state said the information was released erroneously and in violation of federal law.
Read the rest here.

CIA faces second probe over videotape destruction

from msnbc.com:
The legal inquiries into the CIA’s destruction of videotapes showing the brutal interrogation of terror suspects may not be over after all.

A day after the Justice Department announced that a special counsel had concluded his investigation into the matter without bringing criminal charges, officials of the National Archives and Records Administration signaled Wednesday that they plan to reopen their own long delayed probe into whether the agency’s actions constituted an improper destruction of federal records.

“We’re not going to let this drop,” Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives told NBC.
Read the rest here.

Friday, November 05, 2010

'[We] Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny the Existence or Nonexistence of Records Responsive to Your Request': Reforming the Glomar Response Under FOIA

from New York University Law Review:
Under normal Freedom of Information Act procedures, an individual submits a request for records to a government agency and receives one of three responses: The agency may identify responsive records and release them, determine that there are no responsive records and inform the requestor of this fact, or identify responsive records but determine that they are exempt from disclosure under one of FOIA’s nine statutory exemptions. Since the 1970s, however, a fourth type of response has arisen: Agencies sometimes refuse to confirm or deny whether responsive records do or do not exist on the grounds that acknowledging their very existence itself would reveal secret information.

This withholding mechanism, known as the Glomar response, creates special problems for FOIA requestors and receives remarkable deference from federal courts. This Note assesses the justifications for such deference, which are often rooted in separation of powers concerns. Arguing that the level of deference afforded is excessive, this Note posits that both separation of powers and institutional conflict of interest considerations support greater judicial scrutiny of agency invocations of the Glomar response. This Note concludes by offering proposals for judicial, legislative, and administrative reform of the Glomar response.
Read the entire Note from the NYU Law Review here (PDF / 136 KB).

Open government advocates welcome new limits on information markings

from NFOIC.org and OpenTheGovernment.org:
(Washington, DC, November 4, 2010 )—Organizations working on government openness and accountability welcome the release of the Executive Order on Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) (PDF/16 KB). The Order rescinds the Bush Administration CUI memorandum, which was intended to create "a tiered system of designations and establish a framework for designating, marking, safeguarding, and disseminating designated information." Instead, the Order simply standardizes and limits the use of control markings on unclassified information.

Patrice McDermott, Director of the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition, said "The Bush policy and earlier drafts could have created a fourth level of classification. Instead, this Order is a victory for openness, for both our community and the Administration. We applaud the Administration for the time, effort, and thoughtful consideration of input from inside and outside government it took to make this the outcome."
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Cavanagh named NEFAC executive director

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Rosanna Cavanagh, who holds law and business degrees from Cornell University, has been named executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), a regional organization devoted to furthering freedom of information and government transparency.

Her appointment was announced today by Thomas Heslin, executive editor of the Providence (R.I.) Journal and president of NEFAC, a non-profit whose leadership includes journalists, educators and First Amendment lawyers from the six New England states. NEFAC works in partnership with the First Amendment Center at Northeastern University in Boston.

"We are excited to move NEFAC forward as an organization and the timing could not be better for us to take this step," Heslin said.

"As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, 'In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.' "

Cavanagh brings to the NEFAC position experience at the corporate law firm of Ropes & Gray in Boston, and past experience as board member, treasurer and co-chair of the fundraising committee for Everybody Wins Metro Boston.

NEFAC is a member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC).

Visit NEFAC for more of the story.

Springfield (Mo.) school board says finance committee not official

from the Springfield News-Leader:
Following questions about why the Springfield school board finance committee wasn't complying with the Sunshine Law, the board now contends it wasn't an official standing committee.

The board argues that even though the committee has met regularly -- often at least monthly -- for at least eight years and various board members have served on it, it was merely an advisory group.

"That's a technicality," said Jean Maneke, a lawyer with the Missouri Press Association. "It doesn't make any sense if they're not part of the board."
Read more here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System will go to court to try to keep pension benefit records secret

from Oregonlive.com:
Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System is going to court to try to overturn a decision by the state's top lawyer and keep the names and pension benefits of its best-paid retirees a secret.

The case spotlights a potential showdown between Attorney General John Kroger, who is pushing for more government transparency, and state agencies, which observers say had greater discretion to withhold information under Kroger's predecessor, Hardy Myers.

Earlier this month, Kroger released a report identifying shortfalls in Oregon's public records laws and agencies' compliance with them. Tony Green, a spokesman for Kroger, said the Department of Justice is preparing legislation "that will significantly overhaul the public records law to encourage greater transparency and greater public access to their government."
Read more here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

NFOIC, partners, urge Congress not to limit access to critical NTSB info

from NFOIC and OpenTheGovernment.org:
Dear Chairmen and Ranking Members,

On behalf of the undersigned organizations concerned with government openness and accountability, we are writing to urge you to not include in the final version of the National Transportation Safety Board Reauthorization (NTSB) Act of 2010 (HR 4714, S 2768) two provisions in Section 3(d) of the Senate- passed version of the bill, S. 2768, that unduly limit the public’s ability to access critical information.

The Senate-passed bill would needlessly expand categories of information that may be withheld under exemption b(3) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for records related to ongoing Board investigations. There is no reason to offer the NTSB greater protection beyond the existing FOIA exemptions that provide protection for ongoing investigations, and represent a proper balancing of interests. Indeed, given the critical safety issues the NTSB investigates, the public’s interest should be paramount. We understand that NTSB has expressed concerns that fulfilling public requests for information takes time and resources. Expanding categories of information withhold-able under our oldest public disclosure law is not, however, an appropriate way to handle resource issues, and is not in the spirit of the law. House-passed version of the bill, HR 4714, contains no such expansion.
Read more here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Delaware Public Service Commission proposes new rules for info requests

from delawareonline:
Anyone seeking documents from the Delaware Public Service Commission should prepare to ask for them the old-fashioned way -- and pay for them.

David L. Bonar, the PSC ombudsman, said the changes are needed because people have dashed off information requests through e-mail, resulting in a large use of staff time. The proposal would require people to put in some thought and consideration, rather than "in a moment of anger, sending us requests for volumes of information," Bonar said.
Read more here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oregon attorney general suggests government transparency reforms

from the Portland Business Journal:
Oregon Attorney General John Kroger on Thursday released a Government Transparency Report that highlights problems with the state's public records and public meetings laws and offers remedies.

The 16-page report is based on hundreds of comments collected in six public meetings across Oregon.

Read more from the Business Journal here, and view the full report available from the NFOIC site.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Washington state high court rules metadata are public records

from The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
The Washington Supreme Court upheld Thursday an appellate court’s ruling that metadata -- information related to the history, tracking or management of an electronic document -- is a public record subject to disclosure under the state Public Records Act.
The ruling involved a 2006 case in which Shoreline, Wash., resident Beth O’Neill sued under the Public Records Act to obtain metadata detailing the senders and recipients of a string of e-mails sent to Shoreline Deputy Mayor Maggie Fimia that accused the city council of being “dysfunctional.”

[...]

In writing for the majority, Justice Susan Owens stated: "Metadata may contain information that relates to the conduct of government and is important for the public to know. It could conceivably include information about whether a document was altered, what time a document was created, or who sent a document to whom."
Read more here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Public information indictments thrown out

from Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas:
A state district judge threw out the indictment against Texas State Jail Standards Commission Executive Director Adan Munoz, saying wording in the criminal charge for allegedly releasing confidential information was “too vague.” It is unclear what action, if any, local prosecutors might take in moving forward for a possible new indictment or public apology. Munoz had been accused of improperly releasing information to two Corpus Christi reporters in response to a Texas Public Information Act request.
Read more here.

NFOIC awards Knight FOI Fund litigation grant in New York public records suit

from NFOIC.org:
COLUMBIA, Mo. (September 28, 2010)—A news website publisher in upstate New York and a citizen open government activist have been awarded a litigation grant from the Knight FOI Fund to press a legal action against a volunteer fire company.

According to a complaint filed in the Warren County (NY) Supreme Court, the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company continues to insist it is not subject to New York state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and Open Meetings Law (OML), despite repeated requests for records and meeting access by the plaintiffs in the case, and an advisory opinion issued in June by the state’s Freedom of Information Committee.

The $2,000 litigation grant was announced by the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), which administers the Fund that was created by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The grant was the first awarded for a New York case since the Fund was established in January.
Read more here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

SEC secrecy repeal sent to Obama

from Project On Government Oversight:
The House voted Sept. 23 to repeal Section 929I of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which had provided the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with sweeping new powers to hide its records from public scrutiny. The House’s passage of S. 3717 comes just one day after the Senate voted unanimously to strike the troubling secrecy measure, and is the first legislative correction to the new financial regulatory overhaul law.

[...]

Section 929I would have given the SEC the blanket authority to block the release of records in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and to withhold records in response to subpoenas filed by third-party civil litigants, even if such records were needed to expose corruption or incompetence at the agency. S. 3717 repeals these overly broad and unnecessary secrecy measures, and clarifies that an existing FOIA exemption, Exemption 8, will protect against the release of confidential information contained in the records of any entity that falls under the SEC’s regulatory authority.
Read more here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

NFOIC, partners, urge House to pass Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act

from NFOIC.org:
On behalf of the undersigned organizations concerned with government accountability and transparency, we are writing in support of H.R. 6026, the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act. H.R. 6026 was introduced by a member of the Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee, Representative Driehaus (D-OH), and is cosponsored by the Chair of the Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee, Representative Clay (D-MO) and the Committee Chair, Representative Towns (D-NY).

H.R. 6026 requires that any report required by statute to be issued to Congress and releasable under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) be posted on a website managed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The reports would be available no later than 30 days after their transmission to Congress, and would be searchable by a number of categories.
Read more here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bell (Ca.) arrests illustrate importance of open records

opinion, from Hawaii Reporter:
When Bell city officials started raking in obscene salary amounts, it’s a safe bet that they never considered the California Public Records Act. ... Eight Bell officials were arrested Sept. 21 for the misappropriation of $5.5 million. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley called the Bell scandal “corruption on steroids.”

[...]

The California Public Records Act, which mirrors the federal Freedom of Information Act, requires public officials to disclose salaries, benefits and expenditures to the public. Political candidates must make similar disclosures. By law, records must be released within 10 working days barring extenuating circumstances.
Read more here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cameron County (Tx.) District Attorney’s Office declines to pursue San Benito FOI issue

from The Brownsville Herald:
The Cameron County District Attorney’s Office has refused to prosecute a case filed by the Valley Morning Star accusing San Benito officials of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, officials said last week.

The Star filed the complaint in April accusing city commissioners of failing to disclose the nature of a discussion they held in a closed meeting on April 12.

The newspaper also accused the city of illegally posting the meeting’s agenda, which failed to state the nature of the discussion commissioners planned to hold in executive session.

“The District Attorney’s Office received this case and reviewed it,” Assistant District Attorney Charles Mattingly said in an e-mail. “After evaluation, it was determined that the case was without merit. Therefore, the DA’s Office declined to prosecute.”

[...]

The decision riled Joel White, an Austin attorney with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation.

“I saw it as a blatant violation of the Open Meetings Act,” White said in an interview. “I’m not surprised that the DA chose not to prosecute. DAs like to work on violent crimes and they don’t like to prosecute elected officials.”
Read more here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

NFOIC Knight FOI Fund supports victorious transparency case involving California pension fund investments

from NFOIC
COLUMBIA, Mo. – A California judge, as a result of litigation backed by the Knight FOI Fund, has ordered the state’s pension fund to release records about a $100 million real estate investment loss.

Judge Charlotte W. Woolard of the San Franicsco Superior Court, in a six-page writ signed on Tuesday, September 14, ordered the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) to release records regarding its investment in Page Mill Properties, a controversial East Palo Alto low-income housing development. (You can read the ruling here (312 KB).

CalPERS, the largest public pension fund in the country, lost all of its $100 million stake in the development, but refused to disclose records regarding its investment or the business arrangement surrounding it.

The First Amendment Coalition (FAC), a California-based member organization of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), sued CalPERS in July and was awarded a $3,200 Knight Fund grant by NFOIC to help with its legal expenses in that suit.
Read the rest here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

EPIC files FOIA suit for documents regarding Google/NSA partnership

from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC):
EPIC has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the National Security Agency in the United States District Court in the District of Columbia. The agency failed to respond to EPIC's FOIA request for documents about an "Information Assurance" partnership with Google. EPIC previously appealed to the agency to comply with its legal duty to produce the documents, but he agency failed to respond. EPIC is also seeking the Presidential Directive that grants the NSA authority to conduct electronic surveillance in the United States.
Read the rest here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Columbia (Mo.) Police Review Board suggests increase in police's audio and visual recording

from the Columbia Missourian:
COLUMBIA — The Citizens Police Review Board decided Wednesday night that Columbia police officers should keep their cameras rolling.

Jennifer Bukowsky, an attorney with the Boone County Public Defender’s office, presented a proposal to the board calling for police officers to use cameras in their squad cars more often and to keep audio and video records longer.

“Taxpayers have already paid for them, and they are already installed,” Bukowsky said of the cameras. “They are with them everywhere they go.”
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

NFOIC announces Fall 2010 grant applications now being accepted

from NFOIC.org:
National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) member organizations interested in funding for projects in their states must submit applications by Friday Oct. 8 to be considered for a fall grant award.

This application deadline applies only to project and sustainability grants to support and enhance state coalition and member organization work. Applications for Knight FOI Fund grants to defray costs, fees and expenses associated with legal actions are reviewed and screened separately throughout the year, and have no set deadline.

The NFOIC guidelines are intended to give broad discretion and flexibility to state freedom of information groups in defining their needs and pursuing projects that aid their growth and further public access to government records and meetings. Projects that heighten awareness and educate the public regarding access issues are particularly encouraged.

Approval and matching support requirements, however, are at the discretion of the NFOIC Grants Committee and NFOIC Board. State groups should expect that any grant in excess of $5,000 will have a match requirement.
You can find the grant guidelines and a link to the grant application form at http://www.nfoic.org/grants.

2010 Secrecy Report Card Released

from OpenTheGovernment.org:
On Tuesday, September 7, OpenTheGovernment.org released the 2010 Secrecy Report Card 2010 Secrecy Report Card, a quantitative report on indicators of government secrecy. The report chronicles a continued decrease in most indicators of secrecy since the end of the Bush Administration and growing backlogs in the declassification system as old secrets move through the system. The report covers the first 9 months of President Obama's Administration.

According to Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, "The 2008 elections were largely seen as a referendum on the extreme secrecy of the last Administration. On his first full day in office, President Obama pledged his Administration would be the most open, transparent and accountable in history. The Secrecy Report Card helps the public monitor the progress, or lack thereof, the President makes toward that goal."
Visit OpenTheGovernment.org for more.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Judge: CSU violated state law in Palin case

from the California Chronicle:
SACRAMENTO – Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne has ruled that California State University Stanislaus violated the California Public Records Act when they refused to disclose the contract that brought Sarah Palin to the campus in June. The judge ordered CSU Stanislaus to release the speaking contract and also awarded payment of attorney fees to the prevailing party – the non-partisan, non-profit, open government organization Californians Aware (CalAware).

Despite being fully staffed by taxpayer-funded employees, the foundation and the university refused to disclose her compensation for the gala, which was not open to students but only well-heeled donors.

After Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and CalAware were denied a public records request for the Palin contract and any correspondence regarding the visit, emails by administrators were uncovered and students found pages 4 through 9 of the Palin contract in the administration´s Dumpster. ... It has since been reported that Palin received $75,000 plus expenses to speak.
Read the rest here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

NFOIC awards Knight FOI Fund litigation grant in New Mexico public records suit

from NFOIC.org:
A weekly newspaper in New Mexico has been awarded a litigation grant from the Knight FOI Fund to press a legal action against a state college for disregarding basic requirements of that state's "sunshine law."

The $11,000 grant to the Rio Grande Sun newspaper was announced by the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), which administers the Fund that was created by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The grant was the first awarded for a New Mexico case since the Fund was established.

The award was made to defray the Rio Grande Sun's legal costs in a lawsuit brought against the Board of Regents and administration of Northern New Mexico College, a four-year, state-supported institution that has campuses in Española, NM, and El Rito, NM.

According to the complaint filed in Rio Arriba County District Court, the college has for more than six months ignored and rebuffed reporter Louis Mattei's requests for records, disregarding the New Mexico Inspection of Public Record Act's disclosure requirement and even its statutory response deadlines.

"The allegations in the complaint are outrageous. This kind of blatant disregard for public disclosure laws cannot be tolerated," said Kenneth F. Bunting, executive director of the NFOIC. "The Knight FOI Fund is there to make certain that, even in tough economic times, challenges of this sort get made, and that public officials who don't understand their obligation to be forthcoming about the public's business do not get to make up their rules."
Read more here.

South Texas sheriff takes on state agency official in felony open records fight

from the AMERICAN-STATESMAN:
A Nueces County skirmish over open records could land an Austin state agency official in prison for up to 10 years.

Or it could leave several Nueces County officials looking foolish.

[...]

Adan Muñoz Jr., executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, has been charged with two felony counts of misuse of official information — a crime that typically pertains to public servants who use insider government information to benefit themselves, friends or supporters.

Muñoz's alleged crime? In February, after Nueces County Jail inmate Samuel Salazar killed himself, Muñoz released the prisoner's jail screening form, which is designed to identify potentially suicidal prisoners. ...

The release angered Nueces County Sheriff Jim Kaelin, who said the information should have been kept secret while his office and the Texas Rangers investigated the death.

Kaelin complained to Muñoz's bosses — the nine governor-appointed commissioners on the jail standards panel — but after they cleared Muñoz of wrongdoing, the sheriff pursued criminal charges.
Read more here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

National Press Club Board selects press-freedom honorees

from the National Press Club:
The National Press Club Board of Governors voted on Aug. 23 to honor a University of Missouri journalism professor and an Iranian blogger with its 2010 John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award.

The award, given each year to one domestic and one international recipient, honors people who have contributed to the cause of press freedom and open government.

This year’s U.S. winner is Charles N. Davis, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism who has done more than most to force light onto parts of national, state and local governments that many in power would like to keep hidden from the press and the public.

From 2005 until this year, Davis led the National Freedom of Information Coalition, an organization headquartered at the Missouri journalism school that funds open-government groups around the country. A former reporter, Davis has also helped the cause through scholarly research and writing on governmental information and media law. He has won the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Journalism Teacher of the Year from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The board selected as the foreign winner of the award Kouhyar Goudarzi, an Iranian blogger.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Washington State Sunshine Committee needs Governor's attention

from the Washington Policy Blog:
The state's Sunshine Committee (Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee) has survived legislative efforts the past few years to eliminate its existence. Now it appears the Committee is facing a new threat, gubernatorial neglect.

Under the law, the Governor appoints six of the Committee's thirteen members including the Chair. To have a quorum at least seven of the members must be present at a meeting. As of [August 17] four of the Governor's six appointee slots are either vacant or expired, including former Chair Tom Carr. Carr left the state earlier this year to serve as city attorney for Boulder, CO.

Since the Governor has not appointed a new Chair, the Committee voted ... to confirm two vice chairs. Retiring Rep. Lynn Kessler was confirmed as First Vice Chair with Tim Ford of the Attorney General's Office as Second Vice Chair.
Read more here.

Supreme Court cases involve funeral protests, video games, FOIA

from the First Amendment Center:
WASHINGTON — Last term, the First Amendment was front and center on the Supreme Court’s docket, producing a major decision on campaign-finance regulation and an array of other rulings on topics ranging from a Christian cross in the Mojave Desert to animal-cruelty videos.

It’s still early, but the next Supreme Court term is shaping up similarly, with First Amendment disputes comprising some of the most important and provocative cases that are already docketed. The Court has also agreed to consider a Freedom of Information Act case and a privacy case, both of which may affect information-gathering by the government.
Read more here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New book details history of Freedom of Information laws

from The Bristol Press:
If you want a unique view of how democracy should work, pick up Mitchell W. Pearlman’s new book "Piercing the Veil of Secrecy, Lessons in the Fight for Freedom of Information."

Pearlman, the retired general counsel and executive director of Connecticut’s singular Freedom of Information Commission, is a national treasure — no, international treasure. He is recognized from Hartford to Beijing to Johannesburg to Mexico City as a leading expert on the fault lines of government secrecy and ways to pry it open.

[....]

His book delves into Connecticut’s secrecy and it also takes the reader from Ancient Egypt to the American Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the Nixon White House and to a flight of some fancy into secrecy v. transparency as we explore outer space.
Read more here.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Opinion: U.S. government wrong to keep secret names of marshals in fatal Springfield shooting

from the News-Leader.com (Springfield, MO) --
....

The United States Marshals Service and the U.S. Department of Justice say they do not have to name deputy marshals who shot and killed Lance Anderson.

Which probably means I will never know. Which probably means I will not be able to tell you.

The two deputy marshals, as you might recall, used deadly force against Anderson, 23, in Springfield, during a traffic stop. The marshals, one of whom is also a Greene County deputy sheriff, fired at Anderson after he exited a pickup truck and shot himself twice. Wanted on a probation violation, he was suspected in other crimes and had allegedly shot at a Bolivar officer the night before.

Our paper's attempts to learn and report the names through calls, letters invoking the federal Freedom of Information Act and an appeal of a FOIA request that was denied have now all failed....

Why have these names been kept secret? Why is this so different from what happens when other officers use deadly force?
Read the rest here

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Consumer Watchdog asks FBI, DEA to explain use of Google Earth

from Consumer Watchdog:
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The FBI and DEA are now making extensive use of Google Earth, according to federal spending records. Consumer Watchdog is filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the agencies today to determine how the Internet giant’s digital mapping technology is being used for domestic surveillance, including whether it is used for racial profiling or other abuses of civil liberties.

“The public needs to know how law enforcement is using Google’s technologies,” said John M. Simpson, consumer advocate with the nonpartisan, nonprofit group. “We call on the FBI and the DEA to expeditiously respond to our requests for information.”

Congress should also investigate how the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities are using technologies that Google provides, Simpson added.
Read the rest here.

IPads saving cities paper costs

from USA Today:
Soon after Hampton, Va., Mayor Molly Ward bought an iPad for her personal use last spring, she started thinking of an application of her own — one that might save her town both paper and money.

Ward decided it would make both environmental and fiscal sense for the Hampton City Council to switch from paper to iPads for conducting official business.

[....]

Hampton joins a growing number of municipalities — from Williamsburg, Va., to Albertville, Ala., to Redwood City, Calif. — that are turning to iPads to conduct government business.

[....]

"In most states, some if not all electronic records are public," [Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition] says. "Around the country, there has been lots of litigation in the states about the nature of electronic records and whether or not they differ from paper records."
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

N.C. ethics reform law signed, opening state workers' records

from newsobserver.com:
With two suspensions for inappropriate contact with a student, Jessica Wishnask quietly left the New Hanover school district two years ago to go work for another. She did not have to disclose her misconduct, and her prior employer did not report the suspensions.

Her new employer, Pitt County schools, did not find out about them until months later, when Wishnask got caught having sex with the same student and was sent to prison.

North Carolina's personnel law has helped hide suspensions such as those served by Wishnask for more than three decades. But that will change Oct. 1, thanks to a series of reforms Gov. Bev Perdue signed into law Monday that make public the suspensions and demotions of state and local employees.
Read more here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Did Congress just exempt the SEC from FOIA?

from The Project on Government Oversight:
Like many others, we were outraged to learn yesterday that a provision buried in the financial reform bill may allow the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to ignore a vast array of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. But there is still widespread disagreement over the intent of this provision, and questions remain as to how it will be interpreted and applied.

In the meantime, Politico reports that House Oversight and Government Committee Ranking Member Darrell Issa (R-CA) will be introducing legislation later today to repeal Section 929I...

....

We just took another look at the bill, and found this and another troubling provision that could potentially provide the SEC with broad FOIA exemptions. Section 404 also makes any information, reports, documents, or records provided by investment advisers of private funds to the SEC and the Financial Stability Oversight Council non-public.
Read the rest here.

Wisconsin attorney general weighs in on e-mail decision

from wisconsinrapidstribune.com
A recent court decision shouldn't deter residents from requesting public documents -- or public officials from providing them -- the state attorney general said.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently ruled 5-2 that the personal e-mail messages sent by five Wisconsin Rapids school teachers while they were at work did not need to be released to a resident who requested them.

In an open memorandum sent Wednesday, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said records custodians must err on the side of open government when it comes to determining whether e-mail messages are private or public record.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Delaware government: NCCo stops charging council for records

from delawareonline:
New Castle County Executive Chris Coons' administration has abandoned a temporary policy of charging County Council members for county documents and will let council regulate itself.

Without authorization from council, the administration put the policy in place in February after Councilman Robert Weiner requested hundreds of pages of land use records and turned them over to constituents, who would normally have to pay for them. The county estimated Weiner saved the constituents at least $1,200.

....

A national open government advocate says New Castle County's copying costs are "ridiculously expensive" and that the FOIA polices attempt to create unprecedented hurdles for council members.

"How are you supposed to govern the county if you don't have access to information that you need to govern?" said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va. "Policies like that [show] they want to discourage people from coming in and bothering them."

Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition in Columbia, Mo., called the county's FOIA policy battle "a petulant feud, and an unfortunate one."
Read the rest here.

SABEW decries law allowing SEC to deny public's request for government documents under Freedom of Information Act

from MarketWatch:
PHOENIX, Jul 28, 2010 (GlobeNewswire via COMTEX) -- Rob Reuteman, president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, issued this statement today in reaction to new laws allowing the federal Securities and Exchange Commission to ignore public and press requests for government documents in its possession. Reuteman is a Denver freelance writer who was business editor for the former Rocky Mountain News:

"The Society of American Business Editors and Writers is appalled at a little-noticed provision of the new financial reform legislation that allows the Securities and Exchange Commission to ignore legitimate requests for information made by the public or the press.
Read the rest here.

Attorney, Seattle Times publisher to receive government-transparency award

from The Seattle Times:
Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen and Spokane attorney Duane Swinton will be honored in September for their contributions to transparency in government.

The nonprofit Washington Coalition for Open Government announced this week that Blethen and his newspaper will receive the James Madison Award for his leadership in fighting for open government on many fronts — including the newspaper's aggressive use of public records, its willingness to challenge government secrecy through litigation and its pioneering use of computer data analysis.
Read the rest of the article here.

Read the press release from the Washington Coalition for Open Government here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

N.C. Open Government Coalition raises final $250,000 to meet matching grant from Knight Foundation

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition, a nonpartisan organization housed at Elon University that educates people about their rights and supports their efforts to gain access to government meetings and records, announced today it has raised an endowment to support its Sunshine Center.

Local contributions of $250,000 were this week matched by a challenge grant of an equal amount awarded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami. This means that even in tough economic times, those committed to open government sent a strong message by establishing a total $500,000 endowment.

"Receipt of the generous Knight Foundation grant marks the 'end of the beginning' for the Coalition," said Hugh Stevens, president of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. "Now that our supporters have laid a firm foundation for the organization, we look forward to exploring new and expanded opportunities for promoting openness at all levels of government in North Carolina."

Read the rest here.

Opinion: FOIA process needs to move at faster pace

from THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER:
IT'S BEEN just over six months since this newspaper requested records related to the March 2009 resignations of three University of Illinois Springfield coaches.

As of roughly a month ago, our request and about 600 others were awaiting action by Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s public access counselor, Cara Smith. In our case, the public access counselor must review the exemptions UIS wants to use to deny our request before it responds.

In all of those cases, the wait has been 30 days or longer. This newspaper’s wait for this set of records has been among the longest.

Read the rest here.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Open meetings law threat or guard to free speech rights?

from the Austin American-Statesman:

Seventeen elected officials and four Texas cities, including Pflugerville, have asked a federal judge to scrap the state's Open Meetings Act, arguing that their free speech rights trump the law that requires most government business to be conducted in public.

The officials say the Texas law stifles "uninhibited, robust and wide-open" debate on public issues — the opposite effect intended by the U.S. Constitution's free-speech protection. They say they should not have to forfeit their First Amendment freedoms when taking public office.

But in a case that raises concern in other states with open-government laws, defenders of the Open Meetings Act say the case should be thrown out because the officials are seeking to protect secret speech, not free speech.

"The First Amendment protects citizens against government oppression — not government against citizen oversight," Texas Solicitor General James Ho wrote in legal briefs. "Openness in government is a First Amendment virtue, not a First Amendment violation."

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Obstructions continue to hinder media access to oil spill

from OMB Watch:

Despite statements from the Coast Guard and BP supporting media access to sites related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, journalists continue to be threatened, intimidated, and denied access as they attempt to cover what many consider to be the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States...

The Coast Guard recently restricted access to large portions of the spill area, threatening large fines and criminal charges against violators. Journalists are also reporting that local law enforcement officers have been working with – and for – BP to restrict media access.

...

Reporters and photographers are encountering BP contractors, local police, and federal officials – combined with federal policies – aimed at restricting access, thereby limiting the public's knowledge and understanding of the oil spill.

Read the rest here.

Iowans lack clear relief when open government requests are denied

from The Iowa Independent:
From rural township boards to the governor’s office, each level of government in Iowa is responsible for carrying out the state’s open records and open meetings law. And when disagreements occur or citizens run into a roadblock in their pursuit of information, there is no clear path they can take to ensure the law is being properly followed.

...

“I get a lot of calls from citizens when they can’t find someone to call. They can’t believe their local officials are refusing to follow the law and there’s nothing the citizen can do about it except sue. It’s very frustrating for them,” said Kathleen Richardson, a Drake University instructor and director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Richardson’s organization educates citizens — primarily journalists and public officials — about open records and open meetings rules.

Because uniform enforcement isn’t ensured by the state, advocates of open government say Iowans in search of information can run into incomplete explanations of denials or crippling fees for obtaining documents. But the avenues for redressing those decisions are often unclear.

Read the rest here.

On the ballot in Alaska: transparency

from Stateline.org

In Alaska, a state that has had more than its share of political scandals, it’s no surprise that an initiative aimed at cleaning up government made it onto the ballot this year. What's surprising is how many respected groups have lined up against it...

The reasons have as much to do with the ballot initiative process itself as they do anyone's feelings about corruption. Proposition 1 is a classic case of a confusingly worded measure that would have broader consequences than its label suggests.

...

To some Alaskans, the fight against Proposition 1 has morphed into a fight to guard their state's initiative process from those who would take advantage of its loopholes. Those loopholes already are beginning to close. The Legislature, responding to the fallout from other controversial initiatives, passed a law this year intended to bring more transparency to the initiative process.

Read the rest here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How to file a FOIA request

By Problem Solver Jon Yates
Charles N. Davis' house search was a bit unconventional.

Instead of flipping through classified ads or cruising “for sale” listings on the Internet, the University of Missouri journalism teacher scoured public records.

His first priority was to live near the best schools, so he asked the school district for graduation rates, test scores and data on class sizes. After narrowing his choice of neighborhoods, Davis visited the police department and asked for crime statistics.

But he wasn't done yet. Armed with school data and crime numbers, he started thinking about his monthly budget, and he obtained property tax rates.

When he was done with his public records search, Davis walked through the winning neighborhoods looking for “for sale” signs. He quickly found the house of his dreams.

....

While that might seem a tad extreme, public records can be a consumer's best friend. Among the vast reserve of local, state and federal records are reports and statistics that can help you in a house search, do battle with a health insurance company or fight a parking ticket.

Read the rest here

Former publisher wins lifetime award

from the News-Times
Danbury, CT -- The public's right to have an open and accountable government has been the foundation and ethic for Forrest Palmer in his four decades as a newspaper professional and his most recent two decades as an citizen advocate.

For this work, the 86-year-old former editor, general manager and publisher of The News-Times has received the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

...

Mitchell Pearlman, an officer of both the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, has known Palmer since his days at The News-Times.

"Forrest made sure the journalists were trained in the FOI law and that they understood the importance of information being available to the public," Pearlman said Thursday. "He was instrumental in ensuring the institutions of government in his region were open."

Read the rest here

Co-op goes ahead with court action

from El Defensor Chieftain:

The New Mexico Foundation of Open Government has been keeping a close eye on the dispute between the Socorro Electric Cooperative and its member-owners.

Notified that the Co-op followed through with a lawsuit challenging the validity of three bylaws overwhelming passed by member-owners at the annual meeting in April, NMFOG Executive Director Sarah Welsh responded with an e-mail to El Defensor Chieftain.

“It’s unfortunate that the SEC Board of Trustees has now decided to take its own members to court, seemingly to block access to basic information about how the corporation is being run. It’s certainly an interesting use of the members’ money,” she wrote in the July 8 e-mail.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Hard times for Illinois, but not for governor's staff

from The Associated Press:
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has handed out raises... to his staff while proclaiming a message of "shared sacrifice" and planning spending cuts of $1.4 billion because the state is awash in debt.
....

The overall payroll for the governor's staff and his budget office was slightly lower in May than last July — $123,000 less, or just under 2 percent, according to state payroll records. But other records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that dozens of employees reporting to the governor's office are paid by other agencies under Quinn's control.

Read the rest here

Friday, July 02, 2010

FOIA Friday from Ann Arbor

from Ann Arbor.com:
Ann Arbor was ranked as the third most walkable city in the United States, an award presented by Prevention Magazine in 2008. Our city takes sidewalks seriously, with a sidewalk inspection program that ensures homeowners take care of the sidewalk squares in front of their homes.

Even with all of this civic effort, there are inevitably bits of the sidewalk infrastructure that are substandard. Here's an account of two of those locations - one of which has been repaired, and one of which is still in need of repair - and how the Freedom of Information Act process helps understand how work gets done inside a large, complex and ever changing civic organization.

The current FOIA request

Requesting information about the city's knowledge of the current state of repair for a portion of a sidewalk is relatively straightforward...[The author] structured the core portion of [his] request as follows:

Read more here.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

World Bank launches Access to Information Appeals Board

from The World Bank:

WASHINGTON, June 30, 2010 – The World Bank today announced the appointment of Mr. Wajahat Habibullah, Mr. Daniel J. Metcalfe and Mr. Olivier Schrameck to serve as members of the independent Access to Information Appeals Board. Their appointments, which were endorsed by the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors, will start on July 1, 2010, for two years.

In approving the World Bank Access to Information Policy, which takes effect on July 1, 2010, the Board of Executive Directors approved the establishment of an appeals process that enables parties to file an appeal if their requests for information have been denied by the World Bank....

· Mr. Habibullah is currently the Chief Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission of India, and is an established expert in the area of access to information.

· Mr. Metcalfe is currently an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Washington College of Law, American University. He has both government and legal expertise in freedom of information issues. Mr. Metcalfe served in the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy from its founding in 1981 until his retirement from government service in 2007. He is currently the Executive Director of “Collaboration on Government Secrecy,” a non-partisan academic project devoted to the study of government openness and secrecy.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Delaware FOIA: Bill to strengthen law passes through the House

from Delmarvanow.com: DOVER — To address a long-running issue with the state’s Freedom of Information Act, Attorney General Beau Biden strongly supported legislation championed by Senate President Pro Tem Anthony DeLuca, House Speaker Robert Gilligan and Sen. Karen Peterson to strengthen FOIA.

Senate Bill 283 allows the Attorney General’s office to intervene on behalf of citizens in FOIA disputes with state agencies if the agency fails to comply with the office’s advice to produce the requested records.

Under current law, citizens themselves are required to file a lawsuit in FOIA disputes with state agencies.

Read more here.

DoD updates Open Government plan

The Department of Defense has expanded a website outlining its Open Government plan as well as the plan itself, it said Tuesday.

The move is in response to feedback that the agency did not provide a detailed enough version of the plan when it was released in April, according to the agency. On its Open Government website, the DoD has added a "Link Library" to better enable people to find information about its plan to use technology to be more transparent in its activities and engage with U.S. citizens.

Read more here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Supreme Court says states may disclose petition signatories

from OMB Watch -- On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that states may publicly disclose referendum petition signatures. The case, Doe v. Reed, centers on the public's right to know who signed petitions related to Referendum 71, a 2009 attempt to overturn Washington State’s expanded domestic partner law, which gives gay and lesbian couples the same rights as married couples.

The State of Washington argued that the names of petition signatories should be disclosed upon request, as required by the state's Public Records Act. It further argued that such disclosure helps to sort out whether fraudulent signatures were included on petitions to reach the required number of signatories to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot.

The plaintiffs, who included several individual citizens and an anti-gay political action committee, argued that a constitutional right to anonymity for petition signatories always exists. They also argued that even if the Court does not recognize a broad constitutional right, it should recognize that a right exists in this particular case due to the harassment and abuse to which the petition signatories could possibly be exposed...

The Court did not find that a constitutional right to anonymity for petition signatories always exists. Rather, it held that the law permits disclosure of petition signatories. "Such disclosure does not, as a general matter, violate the First Amendment," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the Court’s majority opinion.

Read more here

No reason to ‘rethink’ new FOIA

From The State Journal-Register -- For decades, government bodies across Illinois became adept at using the Illinois Freedom of Information Act as a handy tool for withholding information from the public.

Until Dec. 31, 2009, the law originally intended to be a window into government was used more as a dead-bolted door to lock out the public. Just about any public request for documents and information could be denied or delayed infinitely based on numerous exemptions and loopholes deftly exploited by public bodies...

That changed on Jan. 1, when the state’s new Freedom of Information Act went into effect...

More than anything, the new law represents a striking change in culture regarding open government in Illinois. Where it had long been assumed that the law favors a public body’s need to keep information secret, the opposite is now true.

And guess what? A lot of public bodies don’t like it one bit.

Read more here.

Right-to-Know law gives India’s poor a lever

It has now become clear that India’s 1.2 billion citizens have been newly empowered by [a[ far-reaching law granting them the right to demand almost any information from the government. The law is backed by stiff fines for bureaucrats who withhold information, a penalty that appears to be ensuring speedy compliance.

The law has not, as some activists hoped, had a major effect on corruption.

..

Still, the law has become part of the fabric of rural India in the five years since it was passed, and has clearly begun to tilt the balance of power, long skewed toward bureaucrats and politicians.

Read more here

Colleges make millions selling access and addresses to Bank of America

Some of the nation’s largest and most elite universities stand to gain millions of dollars from selling the names and addresses of students and alumni to credit card companies while granting the companies special access to school events, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund has found.

The schools and their alumni associations are entitled to receive payments that multiply as students use their cards. Some colleges can receive bonuses when students incur debt.

The little-known agreements have enriched schools and some banks at a time when young women and men already are borrowing at record levels, raising questions about whether such collegiate and corporate alliances are in the best interests of students.

The story is one in a series of articles on student debt produced by the Investigative Fund.

Read more here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Number of news organizations covering federal agencies has fallen since 2003

In the late 1990s, AJR began to systematically track coverage of federal departments and agencies through the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. One of the goals was to determine how coverage by newspapers and wire services had changed over time.

To do that, AJR selected departments and agencies that deal with everyday issues such as food safety, taxes, airline policy, the economy, veterans' benefits and workplace rules. Four times--in 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2004--we checked to see whether they were covered by full-time beat reporters and, if so, by which news outlets. [They] defined full time as two-thirds of a reporter's time covering the department and closely related issues.

[They] did that again this year, thanks to a grant from the Open Society Institute, on the heels of a recession that brought on or accelerated layoffs, buyouts and bureau closings.

Read more here.

Jindal vetoes bill opening oil leak records

Gov. Bobby Jindal late Friday vetoed a bill that was overwhelmingly approved by the Louisiana Legislature and would have made public records related the BP Deepwater Horizons oil rig disaster.

Jindal wrote in his veto message that he thought allowing the public to see the records might undermine the state’s legal position.

State Sen. Robert Adley, who added the provision to House Bill 37 on the Senate floor, unsuccessfully attempted to open more records that Jindal currently keeps secret.

Read more here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Knight FOI Fund supports another Freedom of Information suit

Columbia, Mo. and San Rafael, Ca. (June 24, 2010) – The First Amendment Coalition (FAC), a member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), has filed suit against the Los Angeles City Council over the Council’s failure to tell the public, in advance, that it was about to consider and vote on layoffs of thousands of government workers. FAC’s suit, supported by NFOIC's Knight FOI Fund, alleges a “pattern and practice” of violations of the Brown Act and requests declaratory and injunctive relief.

At issue is a City Council special meeting on February 18 at which the Council voted to reaffirm a prior commitment to eliminate 1,000 city jobs and, on top of that, to lay off 3,000 more city employees. Such a controversial action normally would be expected to draw a large crowd of citizens to the Council meeting, many of whom would request to speak about major layoffs. But that did not happen at the February 18 meeting.

The reason? The required public notice for the meeting didn’t give a clue about impending layoffs.

Read more here.

Court of Appeals rules some concealed-handgun permit lists are public records

Oregon, June 23, 2010 -- Some lists bearing the names of holders of concealed-handgun permits must be disclosed under the state public-records law, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled.

The case arose when the Mail Tribune newspaper in Medford and others sought to obtain lists of people with those permits in 2007. But Sheriff Mike Winters declined to make public the records of an estimated 6,500 permit holders in Jackson County, prompting the lawsuit.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals upheld a 2008 circuit court ruling in favor of the newspaper.

Read more here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kagan sought secrecy in 4 of 5 open government cases

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's arguments as solicitor general in several cases on government secrecy were at odds with a promise of transparency made by her boss and top client, President Barack Obama.

In four of five cases she dealt with involving the Freedom of Information Act, Kagan argued in favor of secrecy, Justice Department documents show. In those four lawsuits, the Supreme Court took her side and let lower court rulings in the government's favor stand.

...

In the most widely publicized freedom of information case, Kagan successfully argued that the Supreme Court should overturn a New York appeals court ruling that directed the government to release photographs of foreign detainees being abused by their U.S. captors. The American Civil Liberties Union sought the photos; Obama and the Pentagon opposed their release.

Read more here.

Missouri Senate candidate calls for lawmakers to open records to public

JEFFERSON CITY, MO. -- U.S. Senate Candidate Robin Carnahan called for the records of federal lawmakers to be open to the public.

During a campaign stop Monday in Jefferson City, Carnahan called for an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act.

The federal open-records law currently applies to the white house and executive agencies, but not to the U.S. House and Senate.

Read more here.

Millions in SAFETEA-LU transit earmarks are unspent

Washington, D.C. -- Nearly $120 million in Federal Transit Administration earmarks that were introduced and approved by Congress have sat untouched in FTA accounts for years and have now lapsed, according to an FTA list.

The list of unallocated earmarks, which the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that funds for these projects should have been used by September 30, 2009 at the latest, but due to various reasons, were never spent.

...

The $119.2 million in unspent transit funds are from over 150 earmarks Congress approved in 2006 and 2007 that had been set aside under SAFETEA-LU for communities to purchase new buses, plan and build light rail and bus rapid transit projects, and fund state and local evaluations of transit projects.

Read more here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bills would chip away at N.J. public's right to know

There is an on-going battle being waged between record keepers and record seekers. The Star-Ledger and citizens often go to court to force reluctant agencies to turn over records they are required to release under the Open Public Records Act [OPRA].

Meanwhile, OPRA constantly is under attack by legislators who apparently don’t want the public to see what government is doing.

Two Assembly bills are the latest attempts to weaken OPRA. One would set per-page copying costs for OPRA records at 10 cents per letter-size page and 15 cents per legal-size page...

But here’s the kicker: An agency could charge those fees for documents delivered electronically.

Read more here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Supreme Court of Canada rules access to information not a constitutional right

The Supreme Court of Canada has taken a small step toward recognizing that citizens sometimes need access to government documents to exercise freedom of expression, but stopped short of calling it a broad constitutional right.

On a practical level, Thursday’s ruling means that, after 13 years, it is still uncertain whether the public will ever learn details of an OPP report into the botched prosecution of two men charged with murdering reputed mobster Domenic Racco.

On a broader level, the long-awaited decision leaves Canada eclipsed by countries such as South Africa, Norway and Bulgaria, which have made access to information a component of their constitutions.

“We don’t have that and our Supreme Court isn’t willing to take us there either,” said Paul Schabas, a lawyer representing the Canadian Newspaper Association and other media organizations intervening in the case.

Read the rest here.

Bill would open Fannie, Freddie to information requests

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, thinks the internal workings of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be open to public scrutiny.

Chaffetz introduced a bill Thursday that would make the two government-sponsored mortgage enterprises — now under conservatorship by the federal government — subject to public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Read the rest here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Who Owns Public Crime Data?

from the folks at techdirt:

We were recently tipped off to a case in the federal courts that raises all sorts of legal issues about some questionable interpretations of the law -- many of which we've discussed here recently. It involves a Utah company, named Public Engines, suing a competitor, named Report See. Public Engines, it appears, contracts with various police departments around the country to get crime data from them, and then they put that data online in various formats. Its main business tends to be working with law enforcement and providing them software and services around that data. But, it also presents the data publicly on the site CrimeReports.com. Apparently, law enforcement agencies pay Public Engines to provide data to the site.

....

Along comes Report See.

Read more here.

Judge orders records’ release

Green County, AR -- Greene County Circuit Judge Brent Davis ordered the Greene County Tech School District to release documents related to the suspension of several assistant football coaches after a November 2009 playoff trip to Monticello.

The Daily Press requested the documents under the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in December 2009 and the district denied the request, citing an unwarranted invasion of privacy and no compelling public interest in the documents’ release. The newspaper sued the district in February, alleging a willful violation of FOIA. The district responded by claiming the provision of the law cited in the documents’ request was unconstitutional.

After a hearing May 18, Davis requested the district to provide the documents at issue to him for an in camera review.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

NFOIC Hires Full-time Executive Director

Columbia, Mo. (June 17, 2010) – The National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), a nonpartisan coalition of open government groups and advocates, announced today that it has hired Ken Bunting as its new, full-time executive director. Bunting will oversee all daily operations of the NFOIC, including fundraising, coalition building, and managing the Knight Freedom of Information Fund, a new initiative created by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to support FOI litigation. Bunting will officially assume his new role on July 1, 2010.

As the first full-time executive director of NFOIC, Bunting will administer funds for the Knight FOI Fund and oversee pass-through grants to state freedom of information groups, work daily to strengthen the work of its member coalitions, coordinate an annual conference, publicize the efforts of the NFOIC and its affiliates, and collaborate with a board of directors to chart the future of the organization.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Freedom Of Information Act Request concerning Tulsa Zoo giraffe denied

TULSA, OK -- The USDA is conducting a criminal probe surrounding the death of a giraffe at the Tulsa Zoo, possibly involving the transport company that delivered the giraffe to Tulsa. The Tulsa Zoo giraffe suffered a broken neck, apparently during the trip.

The revelation of a criminal probe comes just after the same company delivered a giraffe to a zoo in Missouri, which immediately upon arrival was euthanized because of a broken neck.

More here.

Who gave $1.5 million to pay down the national debt?

from NPR's Planet Money -- Every year, people give the government millions of dollars in gifts to reduce the national debt.

The government reports the total value of the contributions, but it doesn't say anything about the size of each donation, or how many gifts there are.

We wanted to learn more, so we submitted a Freedom of Information Act to the Treasury Department asking for details; they responded with a spreadsheet listing the amount of every donation they've received for the past five years.

The details are pretty interesting. ... more than 1,500 people gave gifts of $100 or less (including a bunch of jokers who donated one cent). But there were some big donations as well — 17 gifts were for more than $100,000. The biggest donation was for more than $1.5 million.

More here.

FOIA surge shows public’s interest in transparency

Downers Grove, IL — Though they didn’t invoke the phrase “unfunded mandate,” Downers Grove officials are worried about how much implementing a revised law is costing.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act was enhanced last year by the General Assembly and became effective in January. Public officials now have five days to respond to FOIA requests, as opposed to seven. The first 50 pages requested must be provided for free, and the price of reproducing any additional black-and-white, standard-size paper is capped at 15 cents per page.

Downers Grove has experienced a substantial increase in FOIA requests this year. In March 2009, the village received 37 such requests. In March this year, there were 159 requests.

The village has spent more than $38,000 so far this year responding to FOIA requests. Given that we’re not even halfway through 2010, this total could become excessive.

More here.

UVa at center of battles over climate change

The ideological battle over global warming that heated up with last fall’s “Climategate” e-mail controversy has spilled over to the grounds of the University of Virginia.

At the center of the latest skirmish are two former U.Va. professors who represent opposing views on the dangers of climate change.

U.Va. has before it separate demands for information — a civil subpoena from the state attorney general and a Freedom of Information request from Greenpeace. Both resulted from the leak in November of more than a thousand e-mail messages hacked from the climate research unit of the University of East Anglia in England.

U.Va. last month filed a petition in Albemarle County Circuit Court seeking to block Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s civil investigative demands, or CIDs, for climate research by former U.Va. professor Michael Mann.

The university has sought an extension to the FOI request........

More here.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

FOI request yields identity of deputy

SUMMERVILLE, SC -- The Dorchester County Sheriff's Office released the name of a suspended deputy Thursday after a Freedom of Information request for records.

Deputy Jason Shrewsbury has been suspended, said Chief Deputy Sam Richardson. The deputy was suspended this week after he allegedly drove a patrol car to a bar where he drank while off duty. Richardson said he had talked with County Attorney John Frampton about the request from The Post and Courier, and the record of the suspension will be released after an internal affairs investigation is complete.

"We have absolutely no problem releasing that information," Richardson said.

More here.

Blagojevich arrest mug shot released

The United States Department of Justice has released the official booking photo of Rod Blagojevich, who was arrested at his Chicago home on Dec. 9, 2008 and later impeached and removed from office.

The release came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by WGN-Ch. 9.

The then-governor is seen in the jogging suit he was wearing on the morning of his arrest, when federal agents picked him up in the early hours.

More here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

NCAA appeal struck down in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court refused to hear the NCAA’s appeal that documents related to an academic fraud case are not public record.

...

However, because the document was a communication with a state agency, a judge found it was subject to Florida public records law.

More here.

Proposed changes in public records request law raises concerns

PRESCOTT - A question over what constitutes a "voluminous" request for public records caused a postponement this week in the Prescott City Council's request for a change in state law.

During their voting session on Tuesday, council members agreed to pull the resolution concerning public record requests from the list of proposed law changes it is submitting to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

...

The postponement occurred after two local residents - Tom Slaback and former City Councilman Robert Luzius - urged the city to reconsider a resolution that seeks to change state law to allow cities to "recover actual costs" when responding to requests for public records.

More here.