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.

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

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.