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.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mississippi Coalition to Push Back...

A great update on Mississippi, where an NFOIC coalition is working with FOI advocates to renew efforts to reform the state's FOI laws:

Newspaper executives and open-government advocates across the state are planning a campaign to roll back what they believe is increased secrecy in Mississippi government.

In a meeting in Jackson recently, some of the state's leading voices for government transparency discussed plans to push the Mississippi Legislature to reform the state's decades-old open-meetings and open-records acts. Among the group's goals are increased access to records involving police investigations, political contributions and quasi-governmental agencies such as university foundations.

Over the years, legislators have peppered the state code with exemptions to the open records law, reducing access to the machinery of state government for everyone from reporters to regular citizens, said Stan Tiner, vice president and executive editor of The Sun-Herald in Biloxi.

"We have killed freedom with exemptions in this state," he said.

Organizers envisioned a public awareness campaign to inform residents in the state on how exemptions in the state law allows government business to be conducted in secret.

Participants in the strategy session said it is important to emphasize that open records is more than a newspaper issue and that it affects how state and local government serves residents...

Representatives from papers around the state participated in the meeting, as well as The Associated Press and the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Mississippi.

The push for open government reform is expected to coincide with the beginning of the next term of the Mississippi Legislature in January.

More here.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Helpful HIPAA Opinion By Wisconsin AG

Fire departments in Wisconsin cannot use the federal HIPAA law as a reason to withhold basic public information about ambulance calls, such as names and addresses of those who required medical help, the attorney general said in an opinion issued Thursday. The opinion by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen will have an effect around the state, where some fire departments routinely refuse to release information about those treated by emergency personnel.

Such was the case earlier this year in Waukesha, where the Fire Department cited HIPAA privacy provisions in refusing a Journal Sentinel request to release information resulting from its call to treat a suspected drunken mail carrier who crashed his government vehicle into a sign.

In blacking out virtually every word of its report on the incident, the department relied on advice from Waukesha City Attorney Curt Meitz's office about the use of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, a directive that his office later rescinded.

The initial refusal to release the information under the Wisconsin Public Records Law prompted a letter from Journal Sentinel Managing Editor George Stanley to the attorney general, requesting a legal opinion.

Van Hollen said he wrote the opinion because HIPAA was being misinterpreted statewide with regularity.

"Although the particular incident giving rise to your inquiry has now been resolved, I have concluded that your question merits a full answer because it continues to recur with regularity," Van Hollen said. "Consequently, record custodians and the public alike are in need of guidance."

Fire departments in West Bend and Cedarburg this year cited HIPAA to initially deny access to ambulance records. But both departments later released the information after being told of the state law pertaining to ambulance records.

More here.

FOI At Work: School Bus Drivers in Cincy

Nearly one in four Cincinnati Public Schools bus drivers has been arrested since 1991 - at least 50 of them on violent charges, Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann has found.

Of the 458 drivers, who are not named in the data given to The Enquirer, 111 have been arrested on 242 charges, records from the clerk's office show. The charges include six drunken driving charges, 12 drug charges and 25 domestic violence charges. In many cases, the charges were dismissed or amended to lesser crimes, the records show.

No driver has been arrested on felony or sex charges, Hartmann said.

Records show:

One driver was arrested in 2003 on a charge of domestic violence after allegedly punching a person in the head. The driver was convicted of a lesser disorderly conduct charge, fined and put on probation.

Another driver was convicted of DUI in 2003 - which by state law should make him ineligible to drive a school bus. The driver was sentenced to six days in jail, three of them in a driver's intervention program. The driver also was fined $250 and ordered to spend a year on probation and to get alcohol treatment.

Last year, a driver was convicted of resisting arrest.

Cincinnati Public Schools is the first district to take Hartmann up on his offer to check driver's names against Hamilton County criminal records.

"The DUIs are significant and the drug charges, too," Hartmann said. "We want to know if somebody driving a school bus has a drug problem."

Besides a DUI or OVI conviction in the last six years, some of the many disqualifying charges include drug abuse, domestic violence, trafficking in drugs and child endangering.

More here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

FOI At Work: School District In Denial

The Tacoma News-Tribune tells a critical story, thanks to records showing that school apparatchiks knew more than they said they knew:

Tacoma Schools officials could have fired teacher Jennifer Leigh Rice last fall when they learned about her history of socializing with students, two attorneys say.

And officials knew of issues in Rice’s past earlier than they’ve previously acknowledged, personnel records appear to show.

Rice, 31, is in Pierce County jail, charged with the August kidnap and rape of a 10-year-old boy who was in her fourth-grade class at McKinley Elementary School during the 2006-07 school year. Prosecutors charge that sexual abuse began as early as December and continued into the summer.

She also faces charges of raping a second boy, who was not one of her students, during July and August.

Rice told police she had sexual intercourse with the 10-year-old several times, including once in his bedroom on Aug. 2, according to court documents. She pleaded not guilty to all 13 counts, which include rape, kidnapping and child molestation.

The case raises questions about when Tacoma Schools officials learned of concerns raised when Rice taught at Spanaway Lake High School during the 1998-99 school year, and once they knew, whether they could and should have let her go.

District spokeswoman Leanna Albrecht responded to a list of questions from The News Tribune by directing a reporter to human resources policies posted on the district’s Web site.

“Many of your other questions deal with issues that would be addressed in what we anticipate to be litigation; therefore, we are not in a position to respond to those based upon the advice of counsel,” she wrote in a statement e-mailed to the newspaper. Among the questions she did not answer was whether any legal claims have been filed against the district in the case.

After Rice’s arrest last month, Albrecht told The News Tribune that the decision to hire Rice was made before district officials had a clear view of her past.

Her comments seem to suggest there wasn’t much the district could have done.

But records show that then-Tacoma human resources director Bonnie McGuire knew within days of Rice’s Oct. 9 hire that Rice once worked for the Bethel School District, where she was investigated for inappropriate and unprofessional relationships with students.

McGuire was an assistant principal at Spanaway Lake High School when Rice came under investigation in the fall of 1998 and the winter of 1999. Allegations included that Rice drove students around, made verbal advances to a male student and attended a student party that included drinking and marijuana use.

McGuire admonished Rice then that “it was not OK for a teacher to be hanging out with students on a social basis,” records of the investigation show.

“I told her that it is not appropriate for a teacher to have students in her car, and that she could not continue this practice,” McGuire wrote in a statement for the investigatory record.

McGuire was not the only administrator to talk to Rice about her behavior, and Rice was placed on administrative leave for three weeks during the investigation. She was brought back as a substitute teacher to complete the year. She resigned that June.

New Jersey Report: We Need FOI Reform

From Newsday:

New Jersey needs to do more to make government records available to the public, a report released on Wednesday found.

The report by the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government says state open public records laws need to be strengthened and the state needs to become more committed to releasing information and providing more money and staffing to a state council that decides open records disputes.

"People throughout this state feel the system is broken," said NJFOG President Beth Mason. "They are either unable to access critical public records or the costs are so expensive as to make them inaccessible."

NJFOG includes organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

Mitchell Pearlman, a Connecticut lawyer and former executive director of Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission who was commissioned to write the report, said New Jersey historically has lagged behind other states when it comes to releasing government records.

"The governor must make clear to his agency heads that they are expected to ensure that a culture of maximum openness and transparency is maintained within their respective agencies and that each agency held is held accountable for effective implementation," Pearlman said.

The NJFOG report is here. It's a good read...nice work, NFOIC Board Member Pearlman!

Ohio Ushers In Some Improvements...

A house bill amending the Ohio Public Records Act is to take effect Saturday with some nice fixes to that state's public records law.

For example, the bill requires the state attorney general to develop and provide to all public offices a model public records policy in order to provide guidance to public offices in developing their own policies for handling public records requests. The public offices are required to adopt their own public records policy; use of the model policy is voluntary.

Also, the attorney general is required to develop, provide and certify training programs and seminars for elected officials to enhance the officials’ knowledge of the duty to provide access to public records.

House Bill 9 also clarifies a few things. For example, as of Saturday, the public records act will note that:

-- A request is not required to be in writing.

-- No public office can require disclosure of the identity of the person requesting the records.

One setback: concealed-carry records.

According to the new law, a journalist may submit to a sheriff a signed, written request to view the name, county of residence and date of birth of each person to whom the sheriff has issued, renewed, suspended or revoked a license or temporary license to carry a concealed handgun.

What does that accomplish, beyond intimidating the requester who has a lawful right to that information?

The full text of House Bill 9 or the bill analysis is available from the Ohio Legislative Services Commission Web site.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

While Some Governments Debate Online Records...

Others, like the forward-looking folks in Raleigh, North Carolina, who embrace the future by doing things like providing GIS-driven maps online, that citizens can use to take a look at crime in their communities. This is technology enabling democracy.

This is EXTREMELY cool....

This is a great new idea: create a state-based site to aggregate public records online.

The Salt Lake Tribune's Utah’s Right To Know has collected statewide and local databases at a dedicated Web site. Some of the data comes from other sites, but the newspaper is also collecting government salaries in one database. This is a GREAT idea! It's presented in a fun, user-friendly format that has this non-Utahan up late plunking around....

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

FOI At Work...

The Seattle Post-Intelligener tells a riveting tale thanks to mountains of FOI-driven records, finding that police officers arrested for drunken driving fare better than the average citizen...

See "Undue Influence" here. It's a wonderful example of FOI at work.

Those Pesky Norfolk Pols...

A nice column quoting yours truly...

Uh-oh. Looks like Norfolk City Council's undemocratic instincts are on display.


Maybe it's time to remind these elected officials that city councils are not exclusive clubs with secret signs and handshakes.

Council members aren't supposed to hide from the people. Or shield the citizens from unpleasant news.

Yet that's exactly what Norfolk's honchos did last week when they reviewed a report - prepared at taxpayer s' expense, of course - on the financial antics of a now-defunct nonprofit development corporation. These shenanigans could eventually cost taxpayers a whopping $245,000.

And a bit later on....

That's unlikely to happen today, however, because the politicians have decamped to Smithfield for a retreat.

Determined citizens would have to travel more than 50 miles round trip to attend. Technically, the retreat is open to the public.

This urge to flee is "used all too frequently" by public bodies, says Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the Missouri School of Journalism. He called out-of-town meetings "thinly veiled" attempts by elected officials to meet out of the public eye.

"They've got nice meetings rooms in Norfolk," Davis noted. "I've been there."

Jennifer Perkins, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, wasn't surprised that Norfolk City Council was assembling outside city limits.

"We have this come up fairly often," she sighed. "They forget, as a public entity, they not only need to obey the letter of the law but also... the spirit of the law.

"They should be close to home during convenient hours."

Now there's a thought.

Read the whole thing here.

A Woeful Access Policy at the Coast Guard...

This is an interesting piece from the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center on the Coast Guard's access policies...reminds me a of similar position that the National Parks Service took, briefly, a couple of years ago out West. That one bit the dust, if memory serves, because families of victims trying to put together the puzzle of what happened to their loved ones kept running into secrecy...

The U.S. Coast Guard has announced it will withhold the names of people saved in rescue cases unless they are part of an “open and active” search-and-rescue operation.

Once a rescue case is closed, queries for names must be made through a Freedom of Information Act request. The new nationwide policy was revealed in a memo released Aug. 24 by Rear Adm. David Pekoske, assistant commandant for operations. The policy went into effect immediately.

The directive acknowledges that “the release of information to the public concerning individuals being sought or having been rescued by the Coast Guard often supports the [search-and-rescue] mission.”

The Coast Guard says the new rule protects the privacy of those rescued.

“We wanted to balance the privacy right of individuals with the public’s need to know when search-and-rescue cases are active,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela Hirsch. “When a boat is missing, we put out the names of people who are missing. There are many cases where people are reported missing, and they turn up or are not missing. Obviously, there is a need for names to be released in these cases. But once a case is resolved, it is no longer open, and names are then not releasable without an FOI request.”

Loren Cochran, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the Coast Guard’s new policy was troubling.

“Any time you have a government agency that refuses to turn over information that the public is legally entitled to, it causes real concern,” Cochran said. “In this case, it looks like the Coast Guard has developed a practice in which they are controlling when to disclose the names of those rescued. That selective disclosure makes the public wonder, ‘Why?’ Is it because the Coast Guard only wants to disclose positive information?”

More here. The directive is here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Wonderful Tale of FOI Woe...

An interesting tale of FOI nightmares...

This is the saga of the struggle to get police records and the kind of bureaucratic resistance you can find there. I'm still trying to decipher the records I did get in order to get some sense of the accuracy of Zach Friend's comments about the City Hall Sleep Out in early August.
On August 19th, the Sentinel came out with its Sunday smear job justifying the unconstitutional police sleepcrime ticketing of Homies for the Homeless at City Hall. SCPD PR propagandist Zach Friend returned one call then declined any further information.

On August 20th, I filed a Public Records Act requesting the "detailed incident summaries" of August 12-18 to determine just how many tickets and citations were issued for the alleged vandalism, bathroom littering, drug use, public sex, etc. etc. alleged by Friend in the Sentinel story.

Indymedia covered the story somewhat differently.

For some criticism of the Sentinel coverage see "Sleep Ban Fighters Regroup after Saturday Morning Police Raid."

The preliminary answer Trisha provided was that NO TICKETS were issued at City Hall during that week for anything other than sleeping, 2 on Monday August 13, 4 on Saturday August 18.

I wanted to go further to find out what the nature of the complaints were and who made them. To uncover this, I requested the detailed incident recall traffic (between the 911 dispatch and the cops responding) for that period of time.

I just wanted to view it, not buy copies. Records supervisor Trisha Husome refused.

I requested electronic copies. Records supervisor Trish Husome insisted they were not available.

I requested to know how much it would cost. Husome said there was no way of knowing. I'd have to deposit $35 and then pay overage, depending on what was printed up.

I then asked her to print out half the request, so that I could get a sense of how many pages were coming out and what I was getting. She insisted that a new Public Records Act request be made.

I did this under protest.

This time, somehow, she told me it would be $1. But she insisted I make another trip down to the police station to make the $1 deposit, and refused to take it out of the $35 deposit.

She also noted that they'd printed out the first half of the August 20th request for the Cithy Hall homeless "crime wave" and it was $6.75. I again requested she subtract $1 from the $28.25 cash of mine they still had. She refused, saying it was a "different request."

On the two occasions I visited the SCPD, she wasn't there nor was anyone there to cover for her department.

When I went in to pick up the records she'd printed out (Aug 12-14, the $t6.75 bundle) and attempted to put down $1, the SCPD workers at the desk refused to take the money and retreated to a backroom because I was making an audio recording to document what was going on. I waited 10-15 minutes with Andrew, a witness, and then left.

I've filed a complaint with Husome's superior about her behavior as well as my concern about the behavior of the clerks at the SCPD window (going on strike when I pulled out a tape recorder). No response.

But then, perhaps that's understandable. Husome's supervisor is none other than Deputy Chief Kevin Vogel, the cost-conscious police official who saved the department money by investigating himself and giving himself a clean bill of health in the political infiltration and spying case of 1 1/2 years ago. [See "Investigation Reveals More SCPD Spying"

I was aware that the courts were calling sheriffs, delaying the presentation of records, requiring a special viewing room, etc in order to slow down our access to Sleeping Ban court cases [See "Public Records, even just one? Only if you agree to pay!" at http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2007/06/30/18431926.php] But courts are exempted from the Public Records Act (though they are required to follow the California Rules of Court, and the SCPD is not.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

An FOI Exemption for Big Pork?

Passing along this troubling item from the Society of Environmental Journalists:


Since 2005 the US Department of Agriculture has been compiling a database called the National Premises Information Repository, containing what the agency characterizes as bare-bones "phone book" information on commercial livestock farms: name, address, telephone number, and type of animals raised.

Some agency officials and federal lawmakers would like to make this routine information exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. There are two examples of such FOIA exemptions in legislation introduced in the 110th Congress:

  • HR 2301, Sections 4 and 6, sponsored by Rep. Steve King,(R-IA).
  • HR 1018, Section 2, sponsored by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO).
These bills' proposed extension of secrecy to routine farm contact information would hamper the future creation of such valuable research tools as the map of concentrated animal feeding operations released earlier this year by Food & Water Watch.

In addition, both H.R. 2301 and H.R. 1018 could adversely impact state open-government laws because the bills purport to pre-empt any state laws that would permit disclosure of the farm names and addresses. Thus, while neither of these bills is presently under active consideration, they bear watching due to their potential to damage the public availability of information.

(This article was written by Christine Heinrichs, with Mary Zanoni. Both are SEJ members.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Missouri AG to Guv: E-mails are public records

LinkQuite a lively flap in the Show-Me State, where the governor rather cavalierly declared that he deletes his e-mail. The whole thing blew up after a column from my buddy Tony Messenger at the Springfield News-Leader questioned use of government e-mail use in a state Republican Party offensive over Planned Parenthood's lawsuit against the state.

The Missouri attorney general's office sent a message to media outlets Monday emphasizing that e-mails on the state system are public records and often should be preserved.

The office was reacting to reports that Gov. Matt Blunt's staff routinely purges e-mails and does not consider them public records.

James Klahr, the attorney general's lead lawyer on Missouri's open-records "Sunshine Law," sent the message to dismiss the "unnecessary debate" over the issue.

The message does not mention Blunt but declares, "There should be no debate — e-mail communications are public records."

And how about this amazing line?

Topics that are not typically hot-button election talk — the Sunshine Law and the protection of records — may emerge as key issues in the governor's race.

Klahr's message to newspapers and TV and radio stations says "we will be redoubling our education efforts to ensure members of the public and government officials" understand how the Sunshine Law applies to e-mails.

A spokesman for Nixon said the office will send media outlets copies of the law, which details the public's access to government documents and meetings.

State law gives the attorney general, local prosecutors and the public the power to sue over Sunshine Law violations. "Enforcement of violations of the record retention law depend on the nature and content of the e-mails or documents and the circumstances surrounding their destruction," said the spokesman, John Fougere.

Blunt's office on Monday declined to comment.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Terrorism or Radioactive Drinking Water? What's the greater risk?

Here is a startling lead:

The risk of a terrorist attack was wrongly used by the Scottish Executive as an excuse to keep information about radioactive contamination of drinking water secret.

The story continues:

The Scottish information commissioner, Kevin Dunion, has found the Executive guilty of breaching freedom of information legislation by failing to provide documents from a file entitled "Release of radionuclides in drinking water systems."

TheSundayHeraldoriginally requested the documents in December 2005, and appealed to Dunion after they werewithheldbytheExecutive.The verdict of his investigation, received on Friday,isadamningindictmentof the official secrecy that persists in the Scottish civil service.

This, dear readers, is why access is soooooooooo important.

California legislation on Ahnold's desk...

From the Visalia Times-Delta:

State agencies would have to post information on their Web homepages about requesting public records if the governor signs a bill sent to him by the legislature.

Assembly Bill 1393 also would require agencies to include a form to use in requesting public records.

The bill was stripped of enforcement provisions that would have allowed anyone whose record request was turned down by a local government to request an attorney general review.

Cities and counties also could have faced fines for deliberate violations of public records' rules under the original bill.

Finally, the bill creates a task force to consider what records should be routinely posted on state Web sites and how the existing law is working.

Schwarzenegger, who previously vetoed a different version of this bill, has until Oct. 12 to act on this bill.

S.Dakota Court: Yes, The Guv Can Have a Secret Pheasant Hunt

Think we need a little FOI reform? Here's a court declaring that unless a record is commanded by law, it's not public. Oh, the chicanery this will usher in...

The state's largest newspaper has failed in its legal quest to gain access to the list of people invited to the annual governor's pheasant hunt in 2005.

The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday against The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, which had argued that the list is a public record that must be released. People are entitled to know what government officials are doing, the newspaper said.

The high court said no state law requires release of the information, upholding an earlier ruling by a circuit judge who said the list is not a record that is required by state law to be kept.

Generally, records that must be kept by law are public documents unless otherwise specified.

Circuit Judge Max Gors ruled against the newspaper in April 2006.

The invitation list for the hunt, which state officials use to attract businesses to locate in South Dakota, should be made public because it is an official work product of the state economic development office, an Argus Leader lawyer had also argued.

Setting that claim aside, too, the high court said state law gives discretion to the economic development secretary to withhold most of the information the agency receives.

"The right to public inspection is conditional," wrote Circuit Judge John Bastian, in the high court ruling.

Bastian and four other circuit judges were appointed as acting justices to consider the case after all five Supreme Court justices disqualified themselves.

State officials have argued that release of the list of those invited to the exclusive pheasant hunt could jeopardize future business prospects. They also feared that identifying invitees could cause them to become targets for unwanted solicitations.

More here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

FOIA At Work: The Coretta Scott King Files

KHOU's Davis Raziq & Mark Greenblatt (a Mizzou J-School alum!) have a great story looking at the FOIA files of Coretta Scott King:

She had an unforgettable face: serene, beautiful and yet with a trace of sadness that few would say she did not earn. Indeed, Coretta Scott King’s life was filled with trouble and adversity caused by those opposed to her cause.

And among those opponents? J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

Now, after more than a year’s work, KHOU-TV in Houston and its investigative unit, 11 News Defenders, have obtained a world-exclusive first look at the FBI’s file on Coretta Scott King.

Comprised of nearly 500 pages, with some of those documents partially or totally censored, the intelligence file paints a disturbing picture.

For example: The FBI very closely spied and did surveillance on Scott King for years, keeping close track of her public appearances, speeches and especially anytime she traveled.

More here.

FOI At Work...

Here is a great series looking at school suspension data, thanks to FOI, in three Florida counties. Love the database you can search!

From the Northwest Florida Daily News...

Come into my office.

Roughly every eight minutes, an Emerald Coast principal says that to a student facing suspension.

Schools in Walton, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties have suspended or expelled students nearly 8,000 times this year, out of a total student population of about 60,000.

The Daily News gathered suspension data from all three school districts for the past two school years through February of this year.

An analysis of the information revealed some significant disparities.

Black students are suspended at twice the rate of white students.

Boys of any race are suspended about three times as often as girls.

And some schools suspend students frequently, while others suspend rarely - sometimes never.

FOI At Work...

From the AP, e-mails showing NASA hard at work avoiding astronaut meltdowns:

NASA e-mails released Wednesday indicate the space agency was looking for ways to prevent astronaut meltdowns just three months before one-time shuttle flier Lisa Nowak was arrested in a scandalous love triangle.

The e-mails from late last year show that space program employees interviewed the former colleagues and the "common-law wife" of ex-astronaut Charles Brady Jr. after he committed suicide in July 2006. It seemed to be an effort to find behavioral clues that could be a tip-off in future cases.

Brady, who had flown in space once 10 years earlier, was a Navy captain and flight surgeon who left NASA in 2002.

The e-mails, which included no medical details and were heavily blacked out, were obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

In one dated Nov. 8, 2006, a NASA or contractor employee whose name is blacked out wrote about being instructed to look into Brady's death "in order to take from it any lessons learned in the hope that such an event might be prevented from ever occurring again."

The e-mail writer went on to suggest an hourlong meeting with officials to discuss the matter. "There is no rush, of course," the e-mail stated. "This can wait until early JAN if needed as I know you are very busy with STS 116."

"STS-116" was the shuttle mission that flew in December 2006. Its pilot was William Oefelein, who was part of the love triangle that brought down fellow astronaut Lisa Nowak in February.

A FOIA Database...

You’ve heard a lot about new legislation recently approved by Congress that promises to improve the much-beleaguered Freedom of Information Act.

Now comes the Sunshine In Government Initiative to show you why the 41-year-old law is so important.

The coalition of media groups concerned about the growing level of government secrecy has created a new searchable database of news stories that used FOIA.

So far there are 233 stories posted on the group’s Web site. If you know about a story that used FOIA submit the story at this address: FOIAstories@sunshineingovernment.org.

Monday, September 10, 2007

An Update from Pennsylvania...

Both the House and Senate are studying new legislation designed to strengthen the state Open Records Law.

A major obstacle standing between proposed reform and passage is the reformers themselves. They all appear to agree on the need for more access to public records, but they don't all agree on how it should be accomplished...

More here.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Indiana FOI Czar: No ID Needed

Indiana's public access counselor has determined the South Bend Police Department violated the state's Access to Public Records law in denying Roseland resident Dorothy Snyder access to information she requested.

On July 10, Snyder telephoned the police records department to ask for a case number of a police report from September 2006.

Snyder said the clerk asked her name and then asked with whom Snyder was affiliated. The clerk indicated she could not provide information unless she knew how Snyder was "connected."An officer then told Snyder he would not provide the information unless she came to the police department, according to Snyder's complaint.

After Snyder filed the complaint with the state public access counselor, the police department responded, saying information is not available over the telephone and must be obtained in person during the records department's business hours.

Public access counselor Heather Willis Neal said in her opinion that a police department may require a records request to be in writing and may refuse to provide information over the phone.

More here.

A Wonderful Tribute to Our Very Own Frosty!

Here is a wonderful editorial about NFOIC Board Member Frosty Landon:

Virginians can see what their government is up to thanks in no small part to one man: Forrest "Frosty" Landon.

A modern Prometheus, he brought light to the people and taught them how to turn it on the gods, without all the messy vulture business that followed. He taught the gods, too, that sunshine is something to embrace as the foundation of good government.

Now, as he begins his second retirement, his hard work has garnered much-deserved recognition. The National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists recently named him one of the "Heroes of the 50 States" in The Open Government Hall of Fame.

Frosty has been a Roanoke institution for decades, first with WDBJ and then at The Roanoke Times where he rose to executive editor before retiring.

Retirement did not sit well with him, though. In 1996, at Frosty's instigation, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government formed, and he became the executive director. He led a crusade against government secrecy on behalf of all Virginians for a decade, stepping down from the post this summer to begin a second retirement.

His tireless insistence that government performs best under public scrutiny motivated many improvements. Virginia created its Freedom of Information Advisory Council at his urging...

And here is my favorite part:

For a decade and more, Frosty has been Virginia's conscience on questions of open government. He defended the public's need and right to monitor government.

Without his work, our democracy would be all the weaker, and most people wouldn't even realize it because the truth would be hidden away in secret meetings and shrouded in unreleased documents.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

New FOI Report on Mediation Out...

The National Freedom of Information Coalition is happy to announce the latest edition of our FOI Reports, “Mediation Without Litigation” by Harry Hammitt, editor and publisher of “Access Reports” and a member of the board of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

We’re all aware of the obstacles one can face when trying to obtain information from government agencies. Even 40 years after passage of the FOIA, there exists “a frustration with the inability of many individuals and small organizations to press their case in the face of agency denials or delays.” In a system where courts are the final arbiter, the cost in terms of money and time required to litigate (when necessary) can be so daunting that requesters often are discouraged from making the effort.

In response, access advocates “are turning to state models for examples of how access to information disputes can be resolved short of litigation.” In this report, Mr. Hammitt “survey[s] the approaches taken by those states with both specific and informal dispute resolution as a way of better understanding what currently exists and what models might be adopted at both the federal level and for those states that currently do not have a mediation system of their own.”

The report can be found online at our web site.

FOI At Work...A GREAT example!

Five years ago (five years!!!), Los Angeles Times reporter Ted Rohrlich got a tip that problem police officers were being moved from department to department around the state. He requested information to determine whether and why cops might be hired by one police agency after being fired from another agency. Rohrlich was told the records were secret, but the California Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

Here is a great look at the case in OC Weekly:

Is the public entitled to know who has been granted police powers in California?

Or are cops entitled to, as they claim, near-national-security-level secrecy about such basic information as their names and what department employs them?

These were the type of questions the California Supreme Court recently debated thanks to a fight between the Los Angeles Times and police departments and their lobbying groups.

Using the state’s public-records act, the Times asked California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) to release the names, employing departments, and hiring and termination dates of police officers statewide. The agency refused to comply, claiming that any information in a cop’s personnel file is “confidential.”

(Comprised of former cops, POST is a state agency charged with establishing standards of physical, mental and moral fitness for cops. In exchange for taxpayer funds, 626 police departments are required to obey the agency’s minimum standards and allow records inspections. Though it’s not always apparent, these safeguards were instituted to prevent departments from hiring organized-crime associates, felons or political cronies.)

The Times sued POST, and a Superior Court judge in Sacramento County, where the agency sits, said the records are public information. Police went ballistic, claiming public knowledge of their names “jeopardizes” their safety. The California attorney general, California State Sheriff’s Association, California Police Chiefs Association, California Peace Officers Association, the Legal Defense Fund for Peace Officers Research Association of California and POST took the issue to a state court of appeal and won a reversal in April 2005. A three-judge panel said it was “a matter of common sense” that the public was not entitled to know the identities of police officers. They relied on a statute that says peace-officer personnel records may not be disclosed except under certain circumstances. This court believed that an officer's name constitutes his or her protected "employment history."

But the Times didn’t quit. Using the First Amendment law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine [full disclosure: they've represented OC Weekly] and support from The Orange County Register, the paper appealed to California’s highest court. On Aug. 27, 2007, a majority of the justices told police what they didn’t want to hear. Among other points: “Although a comparatively low-ranking government official, a patrolman’s office, if abused, has great potential for social harm and thus invites independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person who holds the position.” They ruled that there is nothing in the law that allows police to block public access to information sought by the Times. The police view “would result in absurd consequences,” they wrote in a 30-page decision signed by Chief Justice Ronald George, a Republican.

This is a signal victory for openness, and a strong, strong opinion that rings again and again with great lines about the value of people, well, knowing stuff.

More here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

An FOI Request in Ohio Raises Issues of Anonymity...

This is a most interesting situation, in which a request for an anonymous ethics database gives rise to concerns about the privacy of individuals on said hotline...but aren't they anonymous?

Ohio University officials have said they felt they had to stop taking anonymous tips on suspected ethics violations after OU's student newspaper obtained records of the tips through a public-documents request.

The student who was editor of the OU Post at the time called that decision "very strange," and suggested it shows a disappointing lack of faith in the paper's judgment.

"It's kind of sad that because of a public-records request, they quit using the (system), which seemed to be doing a pretty good job," said Sean Gaffney.

As editor of the Summer Post, Gaffney oversaw a request to OU for records from the university's EthicsPoint tip line. The program accepts anonymous tips about alleged employee wrongdoing at OU, both over the phone and online.

On Thursday, OU announced it had stopped accepting reports, both on its EthicsPoint site and over the phone, because of "concerns over individual privacy."

OU President Roderick McDavis made the decision Aug. 24 at the recommendation of Internal Auditor Kathryn Chambers Gilmore, one day after the university turned over records from the system to the Post.

Gilmore argued Friday that it defeats the purpose of an anonymous tip line if records of the tips - including allegations that turn out to be baseless - can become public through a records request. However, she said, after meeting with the Ohio Attorney General's office, OU attorneys realized that the Post had state public-records law firmly on its side.

"We were told that we had to provide all of the records," Gilmore said, with the only exceptions being material protected by federal laws covering student records and medical records.

The Post's records request was "very broad," according to Gilmore. "It asked pretty much for all records."

There was precedent available in an earlier request by the Columbus Dispatch for records from Ohio State University's similar tip system. That paper ran a story Aug. 7, reporting that since OSU started its tip line in 2006, it had helped the university uncover 19 cases of wrongdoing, while generating 107 tips that turned out to be unsubstantiated.

OU's system began in February 2006. Its best-publicized result came in July when OU announced the resignation of an associate athletics director found to have misused a university purchasing card. That case came to light through an anonymous tip.

More here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

New Secrecy Report Card Out...

By just about every measure, government secrecy is growing at a quicker pace than ever before, according to a new annual survey from the advocacy coalition OpenTheGovernment.org.

While the creation of new secrets (termed "original classification decisions") actually declined in the past year, total classification activity grew significantly, as did the use of controls on unclassified information, and the costs of maintaining the apparatus of national
security classification.

"The current administration has increasingly refused to be held accountable to the public, including through the oversight responsibilities of Congress," said Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org -- the NFOIC is a steering committee member of the group.

The report is available here.

Great CAR/FOI Event in Indy!

ACCESS BOOT CAMP: Join us November 8 in Indy
Best Access Program for the Year: Only $35/Seating limited

Access Boot Camp: Tips & Training from the Trenches

Thursday, Nov. 8, One Indiana Square, Fifth Floor Conference Center, Downtown Indianapolis (corner of Ohio and Pennsylvania streets)

Join us for a one-day access event in downtown Indianapolis featuring keynote speaker Ken Paulson, editor of USA TODAY.

Confirmed speakers include:

Ken Paulson, USA TODAY editor
Christie Tatum, National Society of Professional Journalists, immediate past president
Brant Houston, former Investigative Reporters & Editors executive director
Heather Willis Neal, Indiana Public Access Counselor
Lauren Toppen, Indianapolis Public Access Counselor
Joel Campbell, National SPJ's Freedom of Information Chairman
Anne O'Connor, first Indiana Public Access Counselor
Kevin Finch, News Director for WISH-TV, CBS affiliate

For more information, check out the ICOG or ISBA Web sites for upcoming registration and programming updates. Seating is limited. You can reserve your space today by emailing Paje Felts at pfelts@inbar.org or Kyle Niederpruem at kyle@kylecommunications.com. The seminar fee is $35. Lawyers will be charged a separate fee as the seminar is pending CLE approval.

Iowa kicks off FOI reform...

Efforts kick into high gear this week to strengthen Iowa's open-meetings and open-records laws and to force governments to abandon practices that skirt the requirements.

On the table for scrutiny is every piece of Iowa law that is intended to maintain transparent government as a way to protect taxpayers from abuse and scandal.

"Frankly, there's been a number of abuses in a number of venues and that begs for change," said state Sen. Michael Connolly, a Dubuque Democrat.

Connolly is co-chairman of a legislative committee that will hold its first hearing Thursday to review open-meetings and open-records laws.

The group will examine problems in the law and listen to groups such as the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Iowa Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman's Office.

"One problem we need to figure out how to address is ensuring that public employees receive sufficient training in what the law is so they don't make mistakes because of ignorance," said Kathleen Richardson, who heads the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. "A lot of the problems also involve the fact that there is widespread lack of will in officials to enforce the law."

More here.

Monday, September 03, 2007

An Update on New Jersey Judicial Access..

State court officials, judges and lawyers are working on a series of projects and studies to find ways to keep the courts current in the digital age while safeguarding personal information that could be abused.

A 20-person Supreme Court committee formed last year is considering what court records will be available to the public, how to provide electronic access and at what cost, and how to prevent blemishes removed from people's records -- dismissed charges, expunged convictions, expired court orders -- from haunting them forever in cyberspace.

For the past 18 months, Justice Barry Albin has overseen the committee's meetings which have been held in secret. A report is expected to be submitted to the high court later this fall and made public.

Meanwhile, the state judiciary is moving ahead with a number of projects to make the courts more e-friendly for litigants, law enforcement officers and attorneys...

More here.