Friday, November 30, 2007
The State Government Hall of Fame
There are heroes among us.
Heroes who may be well known within their respective states and communities, but whose labors have gone unrecognized elsewhere.
Heroes whose efforts have kept state and local government records and meetings open and accessible to their fellow citizens.
It is time to recognize these heroes in the same way we recognize the heroes of the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The Open Government Hall of Fame honors those whose lifetime commitment to citizen access, open government and freedom of information has left a legacy at the state and local level.
The Open Government Hall of Fame is open to anyone who has made a substantial, sustained and lasting contribution to open government or freedom of information within one particular state. Even if the nominee has been active in national efforts or national organizations, the judges will only consider accomplishments at the state level.
Nominees may come from government, the media, the non-profit sector, the legal profession, or any other area of endeavor that involves citizen access to government records, meetings and procedures.
Nominees may be living or dead, active or retired.
Nominations should include the following:
• Cover letter identifying the nominee and the person or group making the nomination.
• Adequate support material to demonstrate the worthiness of the nominee.
Please send all nomination materials to:
Charles Davis, Executive Director
University of Missouri
133 Neff Hall
Columbia, MO 65211
Nominations must be received by February 1, 2008.
All nominees will be evaluated by a screening committee of SPJ and NFOIC leaders, who will select the winners.
For questions, please contact Charles Davis at 573/882-5736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Debra Gersh Hernandez
Sunshine Week Coordinator
Sunshine Week 2008 Hits the Campaign Trail:
Candidates from President to Mayor to be Quizzed on Access Issues
Actors, Scientists, Researchers Join Growing Call for Open Government
Washington, D.C. — The Sunshine Week alliance has begun a yearlong Sunshine Campaign project to bring the discussion of open government issues to election campaigns from president to local city council. While the initiative expands the scope of Sunshine Week to cover the entire election season, specific events and coverage are still planned for Sunshine Week, March 16-22, 2008.
Sunshine Week is a non-partisan open government initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, with online and broadcast media, public officials, celebrities, civic groups, non-profits, libraries, schools, religious leaders and others. It is primarily funded by a challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The Sunshine Campaign is designed to spur campaign conversation — and commitment — to open government during the presidential race and continuing on through to city council contests. Journalists, and anyone else with the opportunity, are encouraged to ask every candidate for public office to explain his or her positions on open government and Freedom of Information issues.
The replies, sent in to Sunshine Week by participants and observers, will be used to develop a database of presidential statements, positions, votes and views across a variety of open government issues as a running reference. Independent research on previous statements, votes and other available relevant FOI data also will be in the database.
During one of its initial Sunshine Campaign activities, Sunshine Week teamed with The Creative Coalition to discuss open government issues at the recent Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Las Vegas.
Among those attending a dinner co-sponsored by The Creative Coalition and Sunshine Week were Coalition co-president and actor Joe Pantoliano and actors/members Tim Daly, Kerry Washington, James Denton, Matthew Modine and Richard Schiff. Other guests included Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Eric Alterman, author and columnist for The Nation; and writer, producer and pundit Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.
Sunshine Week and The Creative Coalition are exploring opportunities to partner for other activities promoting government transparency during the 2008 presidential campaign.
"Open government is the very essence of our democracy. We’re proud to partner with Sunshine Week to ensure that every citizen has access to information and the ability to express their First Amendment right to free speech," said Robin Bronk, executive director of The Creative Coalition.
Sunshine Week also has sent a questionnaire on a variety of open government issues has been sent to the campaign offices of the 16 leading Democratic and Republican candidates. They have been asked to respond by mid-December. Answers will be posted on the Sunshine Week Web site as they are received.
Promotional materials featuring Sunshine Campaign "spokesmammals" Ronnie and Donnie (representing a Republican elephant and Democratic donkey) will be available to participants. Sunshine Campaign items will include print and Web ads, T-shirts and other clothing, buttons, campaign yard signs and stickers.
Resources such as suggested questions and links to additional material to help get people involved in the project are on the Sunshine Week Web site, www.sunshineweek.org.
Significant support for the Sunshine Campaign's online database of candidates' positions on open government is being provided by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. In 2007, the Archive's Mexico Project oversaw the launch of México Abierto, a media initiative modeled on Sunshine Week. Now, the candidate database is being built with the help of the project’s transparency coordinator, Emilene Martínez-Morales, and it will serve as a model for a similar issues database in Mexico.
"The Sunshine Campaign Website is an important tool that will keep the public informed about where candidates stand on openness before they take office, allowing voters to make an informed choice," said Martínez-Morales. "It is an effort that can serve as a model to monitor all kinds of campaigns, from presidential to local city council, not only in the United States but in other countries as well."
Sunshine Week also is working with Project Vote Smart, which has included questions specific to open government on its Political Courage Test, a non-partisan survey sent to every candidate regarding his or her position on a variety of issues.
Only three of the leading presidential candidates — Chris Dodd, John Edwards and Mike Gravel — have responded to the survey, despite repeated efforts by news organizations, prominent members of the Project Vote Smart board and others to compel a reply.
"This test demonstrated the obvious relationship between exploding campaign financing, candidates' ability to control their messages and the public's loss of access to information," said Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimball. Project Vote Smart has seen participation in its survey of federal candidates drop from 72 percent in 1968 to 48 percent in 2006.
Project Vote Smart also is helping to ensure openness in government by providing detailed accounts of legislation passed by Congress and all 50 state legislatures, as well as an in-depth database of public statements made by candidates and elected officials from across the nation. The information can be found online at www.votesmart.org
"In a time where elected officials are determined to stonewall the public, hopefully it will provide comfort to the citizens of the country to know that there are people who are committed to ensuring that there is openness and honesty in government," Kimball said.
Other Sunshine Campaign efforts underway include:
-- Channel One Network will distribute 250,000 teacher guide-posters for its "1Voice" First Amendment project that includes an article about celebrating Sunshine Week 2008. The poster explains Sunshine Week and points to why open government matters to teachers and students. To further highlight the importance of open government to teens, Channel One News will produce and air a "1Voice" segment centered on this critical topic, scheduled to air in conjunction with Sunshine Week.
-- The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government is conducting research on journalists' difficulties in obtaining public information from the federal government. Topline results, and possibly the complete report, will be released during Sunshine Week 2008. CJOG Coordinator Pete Weitzel also serves as a member of Sunshine Week's executive committee
College Media Advisers recently invited Sunshine Week to speak about the Sunshine Campaign during a breakout session at its annual convention in Washington, and will continue to communicate Campaign updates to its members. CMA Executive Director Ron Spielberger is serving as college coordinator for Sunshine Week 2008.
-- The First Amendment Center will host its 10th annual National Freedom of Information Day at the Freedom Forum’s Newseum in Washington on the Friday leading up to Sunshine Week. Speakers will include J. William Leonard, former director of the Information Security Oversight Office.
-- The League of Women Voters will again co-sponsor an access discussion organized by OpenTheGovernment.org that will be webcast from The National Press Club during Sunshine Week, and it is encouraging local Leagues to join with libraries and others to watch the program and engage in local conversations on the issues. In addition, local Leagues are encouraged not only to hold other Sunshine Week events, but also to include open government-related questions in state and local debates and in their voter guides.
The Executive Committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers passed a resolution urging its members to ask candidates about open government issues in meetings with candidates. NCEW which does not makeinstitutional endorsements, said that, "At the least, raising the issue during the limited time of an endorsement interview will demonstrate to candidates that we consider open government to be a priority." NCEW's Open Government Committee will act as a clearinghouse for information about the Sunshine Campaign between members and the Sunshine Week team.
-- The National Freedom of Information Coalition is working with its members to coordinate activities of state FOI coalitions across the country, including identifying state-specific open government issues to help with development of localized questions. In addition, an NFOIC-sponsored research assistant is helping with populating the Sunshine Campaign online database. NFOIC Executive Director Charles Davis is coordinating state FOI and First Amendment groups.
-- The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association has committed to including Sunshine Campaign updates in its monthly electronic and quarterly print communications to members, as well as to exploring the possibility of including a special Sunshine Campaign interactive panel at the NLGJA National Convention in Washington next year.
-- OpenTheGovernment.org, a national coalition of organizations concerned with openness and secrecy, is working on a third nationally broadcast panel discussion on access issues.
-- OpenTheGoverment’s event is expected to be a free webcast during Sunshine Week and will be available for satellite download by prior arrangement.
-- The Radio-Television News Directors Association has alerted its members to the goal of the Sunshine Campaign and urged their participation. RTNDA also will act as a receiving site for broadcast materials to be included in the online database and likely will undertake additional activities, such as creation of television and radio public service ads.
-- The board of the Society of American Archivists has expressed its support for Sunshine Week and will explore ways in which its members can become more involved.
-- The Society of Professional Journalists will mobilize its Sunshine Chairs in every state to keep thousands of journalists informed and coordinate FOI activities across the country, including identifying state-specific open government issues to help with development of localized questions.
-- The Union of Concerned Scientists is working with Sunshine Week to highlight areas where secrecy has negatively impacted federal government scientific integrity such as global warming and food and drug safety. During the Sunshine Campaign UCS will continue to monitor new executive orders and agency policies that further restrict transparency in federal science and science-based decision-making, with a focus on identifying steps Congress and the next president should take to restore openness. In addition, Sunshine Week is a participant in the UCS-chaired Integrity in Science Working Group.
-- American University Washington College of Law Professor Daniel J. Metcalfe, who heads a new center there called the Collaboration on Government Secrecy, will hold a day-long program on March 17. It will include sessions on freedom of information, international transparency and pseudo-secrecy issues, as well as a luncheon speech by U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, former Chief Judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
This is just a sampling of the groups, news organizations, libraries, schools, government officials and others that are planning to mark Sunshine Week. Several organizations have indicated support for the Sunshine Campaign and are working on as-yet undefined projects. They include the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and a coalition of 10 media groups called the Sunshine in Government Initiative.
For more information, visit www.sunshineweek.org.
About Knight Foundation: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation promotes excellence in journalism worldwide and invests in the vitality of U.S. communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. For more information about Knight Foundation, go to http://www.knightfdn.org
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The audit, carried out in San Diego by local journalists, found that local law enforcement agencies had reasonable or good customer-service levels, but that most of them still do not provide citizens with basic information about crimes.
The California Public Records Act requires that such information, including traffic accident reports, crime logs and an agency’s financial records be made available to the public. In theory, any citizen should be able to walk into their local police station and pick up a report on a crime that has been committed in their neighborhood.
But when auditors in San Diego tried to do just that they came up empty-handed time and time again, according to the audit. The auditors visited the major police stations for 12 law enforcement agencies in the county and asked for a police report on a recent burglary or other property crime in the area. The auditors took notes on everything from how they were treated by police staff to how long it took to get their results.
The 48-1 vote in favor of Senate Bill 1 sets up a potential conflict with a new House version of open-records legislation that, advocates say, is stronger in some respects.
Like the House bill, which was approved by a committee today, the Senate measure would flip a key aspect of current law on its head by declaring that government records are presumed public unless they fall under 28 specific exemptions.
But the Senate bill does not extend the same presumption of openness to the legislature itself, advocates said.
"Neither of them are A-list bills at this point. They're still flawed," said Barry L. Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. But, he said, "I keep hoping - always an optimist - that we'll get a bill that other states look at as the model."
The Senate bill's sponsor, Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), disputed criticism that it does not go far enough. He said it was as strong as open-records laws in many other states.
"Reform may very well have been the word uttered most often in this building over the past year," Pileggi said during floor debate. "There is no other reform that comes close to matching the impact of a strong open-records law."
As New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani billed obscure city agencies for tens of thousands of dollars in security expenses amassed during the time when he was beginning an extramarital relationship with future wife Judith Nathan in the Hamptons, according to previously undisclosed government records.
The documents, obtained by Politico under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, show that the mayoral costs had nothing to do with the functions of the little-known city offices that defrayed his tabs, including agencies responsible for regulating loft apartments, aiding the disabled and providing lawyers for indigent defendants.
At the time, the mayor’s office refused to explain the accounting to city auditors, citing “security.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation in January 2006 filed a class-action suit against AT&T Inc., accusing the company of illegally making communications on its networks available to the National Security Agency without warrants.
Congress is now considering changing the law to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that would protect them from such court challenges.
"Any attempt for immunity is aimed at getting these very important cases swept back under the rug," EFF spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said Wednesday.
The EFF wants to know about "discussions, briefings or other exchanges" telecommunications companies have had recently with the Officer of the Director of National Intelligence, according to the court order, issued Tuesday.
"We're excited to see what's in them," Jeschke said of the Freedom of Information Act release. "It shows how relevant the FOIA is and how important it is for the government to respond quickly particularly during a time when the country is debating an important issue. This judge recognized that it's important for people to know everything they can."
The court set a Dec. 10 deadline for release of the documents.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Sponsors of open records legislation are back to emphasizing substance over form.
Gone is a provision to exempt most public officials’ e-mail from public scrutiny, an issue that made for a controversial House vote on open records last month.
Instead, a new open records bill in the House provides that state and local officials judge the content of a record, not whether it’s in electronic form or on paper, to determine whether a document can be handed over to a citizen upon request.
The Senate open records bill up for a possible floor vote this week also makes content the litmus test for public disclosure.
The new House bill parallels the Senate bill sponsored by Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, in many respects. The main thrust of both bills is to declare that government records are considered open unless stated otherwise and to put the burden of proof on a government or agency as to why a record should not be made public.
The expectation is each chamber will pass it own bill version, said House Deputy Speaker Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, on Monday. Then a conference committee will be formed to produce a joint bill that can be voted down in each chamber.
The House bill represents an effort to regain support from groups like Pennsylvania Common Cause and the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. They criticized a measure that emerged from hours of House floor debate last month as a step backwards.
The Evesham, New Jersey, school district and the American Civil Liberties Union are fighting in court over records relating to a controversial video that shows gay families.
The ACLU's New Jersey chapter said Monday the district has refused to provide e-mail sent to and from school board members about the health-class film, "That's a Family!"
The documentary sparked an outcry from both critics and supporters after it was shown to a third-grade class in December. Board members pulled it from the district's curriculum in August.
The ACLU said the e-mail must be made available under the group's Aug. 30 request for all public records concerning the video dispute. The group said the district contends the e-mail messages are not public records because board members use private e-mail accounts.
Judge Linda Feinberg declined to dismiss the case, as requested by the administration. But ultimately she ruled in Governor Corzine’s favor, agreeing that the report by London-based Steer Davies Gleave could remain private because it falls under the category of “inter-agency or intra-agency advisory, consultative, or deliberative material,” which are exempt from the state’s Open Public Records Act.Feinberg’s written ruling stated her decision was based, in part, on the fact that “the Governor has not decided whether to propose proceeding with a monetization program or, if such a program is deemed desirable, how to structure the program.” Feinberg also wrote that “disclosure of the withheld materials could lead to confusion of the public.”
Monday, November 26, 2007
A judge has ruled in favor of The Virginian-Pilot in a civil action against the city for its failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
Circuit Judge V. Thomas Forehand Jr., in a written opinion, directed the city to turn over to the newspaper records of property damage and other liability claims against the city.
The judge also ruled that the city's attempt to charge the newspaper $178.53 for supplying the records "was not proper."
The newspaper filed the action in September after making several FOIA requests to the city for records regarding general liability claims and automobile claims paid by the city.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
A man who suspected his wife of having an affair should be able to see messages exchanged through state government e-mail accounts by his wife and her co-worker, a judge ruled yesterday.
Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip J. Shepherd ordered the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to give Stephen Malmer e-mails written between his wife, Bobbie Malmer, and former state employee David Moss from Nov. 1, 2005, to June 1, 2006.
Stephen Malmer of Frankfort requested the e-mails in June 2006, saying they were public records covered by the Open Records Act.
Malmer said last night he wanted the e-mails because he suspected his wife was having an affair. Although his wife has since confessed to the affair, Stephen Malmer said, he still has questions and wants to see the case through for closure.
"It's been such a nightmare," Stephen Malmer said. "I was horrified by the amount of opposition I ran up against."
Malmer said his wife has been supportive in his fight for the e-mails. He said she no longer has access to the e-mails and can't provide them herself.
The Cabinet's general counsel said the e-mails were exempt from public disclosure for reasons including a personal privacy exception to the statute, and it denied the request.
The Office of the Attorney General later found the Cabinet violated the Open Records Act, and Shepherd agreed.
"In this case, the communications are by definition non-work-related, but that does not mean there is no public interest in the disclosure of such e-mails," Shepherd wrote in his ruling. "The fact that state employees are using state resources to exchange non-work-related messages during working hours is a matter of legitimate inquiry for the public."
"Individuals and private entities cannot reasonably expect the Commonwealth to keep secrets from its citizens regarding the disbursement of public funds, past, present or future," wrote Justice James J. Fitzgerald 3d in the high court's 4-2 decision.
Paterno's Penn State salary has been a closely guarded secret for years. Estimates have put his compensation at above $1 million.
The ruling came in a case that began in 2002 when a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News asked the State Employees Retirement System (SERS) for the salaries of Paterno and three other Penn State officials. The agency granted the request, but the university went to court.
Yesterday's decision is expected to pave the way for the disclosure of not just Paterno's salary, but the salary of any Penn State employee enrolled in the retirement system. Enrolling in the system makes each a "state employee" under state law, the ruling said.
Monday, November 19, 2007
When an athlete at the University of Idaho failed a drug test nearly three years ago and became one of the few collegians caught cheating with performance-enhancing drugs, something remarkable happened:
He was not publicly identified or ruled ineligible. He was not banned from competition. He was not even suspended.
Instead, he faced only continued periodic testing over the next year, according to school records, and was required to enroll in a university counseling program. The school "encouraged" him to notify his parents.
The complete breakdown by school is available here.
The announcement by Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, followed a sequence of events Monday afternoon in which his party thought the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee had approved a bill to be used as a vehicle for the amendment, only to realize they were a vote short, then failed in an effort to vote on it again.
DeWeese said the same language will be considered Tuesday in the form of an amendment to a previously considered records bill. Because of the problems with the committee votes on Monday, it will require a two-thirds majority vote to suspend the House rules before any action can be taken.More here.
While government secrecy rises at the federal level, a new study indicates that the states are becoming more transparent.
But the study, conducted by Washington-based Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First, found that states are taking advantage of the internet to inform the public.
“The internet makes possible an unprecedented level of government transparency and public participation,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First. “But many states have been slow to adopt vigorous online disclosure, especially with respect to economic development subsidies.”
Check out your state here.
Some 27 states and the District of Columbia still provide no systematic online subsidy disclosure, according to the study.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Read all about it here. And here, for the governor's rection, questioning the ability of the AG to launch such an investigation at all. This soap opera is far from over...
And Missouri is not alone. Texas is also in the midst of an e-mail spat involving the governor.
Here is the Bill of Rights for FOI:
STATE OF FLORIDA
OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR
EXECUTIVE ORDER NUMBER 07-242
WHEREAS, an open and accessible government is the key to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in their government and its ability to effectively serve its citizens; and
WHEREAS, the state of Florida has a long history of providing public access to the records and meetings of public entities; and
WHEREAS, Florida must continually strive to be a national leader in open government reform; and
WHEREAS, on June 19, 2007, by Executive Order 07-107, I created the Commission on Open Government to review, evaluate, and issue recommendations regarding Florida’s public records and public meetings laws; and
WHEREAS, the Commission on Open Government met on August 22-23, 2007 and received public testimony requesting the need for greater ease of access to public meetings and documents, the need to increase the respect with which our government agencies interact with our citizens, and create a culture which will build the people’s trust and confidence in their government and its ability to serve the people;
WHEREAS, streamlining and clarifying applicable laws and policies will result in making government more open, accessible, and accountable to its citizens; and
NOW, THEREFORE, I, CHARLIE CRIST, as Governor of Florida, by virtue of the authority vested in me by Article IV, Section (1)(a) of the Florida Constitution, and all other applicable laws, promulgate the following Executive Order, to take immediate effect:
All agencies under the direction of the Governor shall adopt an Open Government Bill of Rights to guarantee that the right of access to public meetings and records is safeguarded and protected. This Bill of Rights shall be conspicuously posted on the agency’s website and at the agency’s headquarters. It shall include the following provisions:
A. A statement that the public is entitled to be treated with respect, courtesy, and professionalism.
B. A statement that a public records request does not have to be made in writing unless a specific statute requires otherwise. In that case, the statute imposing such a requirement shall be cited.
C. A statement that receipt of all public record requests shall be acknowledged promptly and in good faith as required by section 119.07(1)(b), Florida Statutes.
D. A statement that fees shall not exceed the amount authorized by section 119.07(4), Florida Statutes, unless another amount is expressly authorized by law. In that case, the statute imposing such a requirement shall be cited.
E. A statement that the public has the right to an itemized invoice of proposed fees or fees charged.
F. A statement recognizing that access to public records and meetings are rights secured under sections 119.07(1) and 286.011, Florida Statutes and Article 1, Section 24, Florida Constitution.
All state agencies under the direction of the Governor are directed, and all other state agencies are requested, to provide such assistance to the individuals carrying out the directions in this Executive Order as may be requested in furtherance of the objectives described.
IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have
hereunto set my hand and caused the Great
Seal of the state of Florida to be affixed, at
Tallahassee, this 15th day of November, 2007.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Sen. John Cornyn is opening the conference as I blog, and he laid it all out nicely: if we open everything, we risk everything; but if we close everything, we risk everything....and the devil lies in the balance. Sen. Cornyn, of course, is a co-sponsor of the FOI reform bill awaiting House approval. He also mentioned the Presidential Records Act bill, which he also is co-sponsoring, and he made a great point: information that belongs to the people should be presumptively public. I haven't heard that simple, yet important formulation uttered in the Beltway in a long, long time.
Now if we could just get the rest of Congres (paging Sen. Bunning) and the president to agree.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Advocates of open government in Iowa have urged a bipartisan legislative committee to provide for tougher enforcement of state open-meetings and open-records laws. The committee heard the plea, and last week it endorsed what could be the most vigorous enforcement process in the 40-year history of the two statutes and the most important change in open government for the people of Iowa - ever.
There is much legislative ground to be plowed before this comes to be, however, and many details remain to be seen in the actual bill draft. But the committee deserves credit for a bold proposal designed to make state and local government more accessible to the people of Iowa.
The danger is that, in exchange for tougher enforcement, the Legislature will be pressured to water down the existing meetings and records statutes. The argument for weakened laws goes like this: Citizens don't go on frivolous fishing expeditions in government files now because, if they are denied, they are discouraged from pressing ahead because of the cost of hiring a lawyer and going to court. That barrier would be removed by a tough enforcement process that costs citizens nothing.
According to that line of thinking, Iowans must choose between a weak law that's well enforced or a strong one that is not. That is a trade-off Iowans should not have to make.
While the legislative committee has not taken a solid position on that question, it has tentatively accepted one draft amendment that would substantially limit public access to government records in Iowa by exempting preliminary drafts of public records. This land mine should be avoided.
The General Assembly last session created the joint House-Senate interim committee to consider amending state laws on government records and meetings of public bodies. The problem cited most often is that county prosecutors and the Iowa attorney general rarely, if ever, enforce the law.
Thus, the committee on Friday approved a preliminary draft of proposed legislation that would create a new state board with the power to enforce the law by investigating and ruling on citizen complaints. The board could levy civil fines against state or local agencies or officials, and it would be authorized to offer - or require - training for public officials on the obligations of the law and to recommend changes in open-government law, if needed.
This opportunity to enlist the aid of the state in open-meetings or open-records disputes would cost nothing to the citizen complainant - unlike the current process, where someone alleging a violation of the law must hire a lawyer at his or her own expense. Most complaints likely would be resolved by staff, or through mediation. The board, sitting much like a court, would rule on contested cases. The board would have the authority to enforce its decisions, which either party could appeal to state district court.
The outlines of this "Iowa Public Information Board" is the work of University of Iowa law professor Arthur Bonfield in what he describes as an "amalgam" of so-called public-access counselors in other states. Most public-access agencies in other states, however, are limited to issuing advisory opinions. Bonfield's proposal is modeled more closely after Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission, which has what's considered the toughest enforcement powers in the nation.
Gov. Matt Blunt appears to be thumbing his nose at Missouri’s Sunshine Law. The public deserves to know if the law defining certain e-mails as public records has been broken.
Attorney General Jay Nixon should appoint an outside investigator to determine if state records purposely have been destroyed or hidden. The investigator should be politically independent and respected.
The Sunshine Law protects the public’s right to know what government officials are doing.
Meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of governmental entities are to be open to the public, unless the law specifies otherwise.
In 2001, Blunt as secretary of state signed a policy that said state agencies must retain “all general communication” for three years.
In 2004, the General Assembly defined electronic communications as public records.
Yet Blunt recently defended his office’s routine destruction of e-mail communications, saying that “nobody saves e-mails for three years.”
Blunt isn’t the only public official who has trouble with the concept of retaining electronic documents. A federal judge this week ordered the White House not to destroy backup computer tapes of its e-mail correspondence. The order results from the disappearance of White House staff e-mails.
In Missouri, the e-mail retention flap started over e-mail correspondence between Ed Martin, Blunt’s chief of staff, and right-to-life groups. When a newspaper columnist asked for other correspondence, Blunt’s staff claimed those e-mails weren’t kept.
The controversy escalated because Blunt aides smeared a former attorney of the governor’s, Scott Eckersley, who had been fired shortly after he advised the staff to save e-mails pertaining to public business.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Here’s the basic idea behind the plan: Have the Office of Hearing Examiners take over responsibility for settling disputes. Anyone who has been turned down in an attempt to see a record in the state can appeal to the OHE, which would determine if the initial denial was right or wrong.
The OHE decision, too, could be appealed in the state court system.
It’s a proposal that has merit, considering the many shades of gray that exist in this state when it comes to open records.
At present, decisions to grant access to records rests at the level of the request. For instance, if a person walks into the local school and asks to see a certain record, the decision likely rests with the business manager or superintendent. Beyond that, some feel there aren’t many places to appeal that decision without the help of a lawyer.
Under the proposal being worked on by the task force, the person who was denied will have options. Even to the media — which is experienced in such situations — this will be an asset. If the proposal becomes law, future disagreements about public record access may have an amicable solution.
But questions remain....More here.
Monday, November 12, 2007
BARRE, MA - The Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter, Inc. (NOFA/Mass) called upon Senators Kerry and Kennedy this week to reject a provision in the 2008 farm bill, which recently passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee, that would criminalize disclosure of information from the USDA's new proposed program, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).
NAIS is a program proposed by and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which if fully implemented would require all farmers and livestock owners to individually identify their livestock animals and report each time any one of them is moved from one property to another. USDA says it is implementing the program to contain animal disease outbreaks and reassure foreign meat buyers.
Although there remains no law that specifically authorizes the USDA to implement NAIS, the secrecy provision in the current Senate farm bill would be the first time that the USDA's new program would be explicitly acknowledged in federal statute. The provision, moreover, would impose harsh criminal or civil penalties on members of the public and the press who might publish or in any way disclose information from the NAIS, even if the information had been legally obtained.
"This provision in the Senate's version part the Farm Bill sets a bad precedent," said Jack Kittredge, social action coordinator for NOFA/Mass and owner of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre. "What it would do is legitimize what the USDA already has been doing by collecting and storing farm data while adding more secrecy. Instead, the Senate should question whether NAIS is a good program to begin with."
The USDA has begun creating a national database containing data on farm premises as the first step toward implementing NAIS. In some states, identification of individual animals has begun, although USDA plans have been slowed by fierce opposition to the program throughout the country.
Since 2006, hundreds of Massachusetts farmers and livestock owners around the state have attended public meetings to express their concerns that NAIS would place unnecessary burdens on their farm operations. As a result, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture stopped its practice of uploading livestock premises data to the USDA. Moreover, fourteen state representatives and three senators have co-sponsored bills to end the state's participation in the national program.
Since NAIS was first proposed, many agribusiness spokespersons have expressed concerns over how the program might compromise confidentiality of data about their production operations. Ben Grosscup of NOFA/Mass commented, "The best way to protect farmer's data is not to shut out the public. The best answer in this case happens to be the simplest: just don't collect the information in the first place."
"The same agribusiness firms that first wanted NAIS in order to calm the safety concerns of foreign buyers are now trying to undo the one part of NAIS that they don't like" said Grosscup. "Since NAIS creates a huge database to track all animal agriculture activities, these companies want special secrecy assurances in the law to stop watch dog groups and the public at large from revealing what they're doing inside their factory farms. But more secrecy will just conceal the diseases these operations produce. The Senate bill's secrecy provision satisfies those companies that are willing to submit to government surveillance of their production sites, because they aren't required to change their unsustainable enterprises. This top-down approach to disease control most hurts the very producers whose sustainable methods make them upstanding guardians of the public health."
Kittredge added that there are simpler and more effective ways to deal with the disease threats that NAIS is supposed to address. "These threats are a product of bad management. Raising animals in dense indoor conditions, out of the cleansing presence of sun and air and soil, provides a breeding ground for pathogens. Feeding grain to grass-eaters and animal parts to herbivores may create fast growth and cheap meat, but it is unnatural and results in sickness and disease. We need to support healthy animal production on pasture, outdoors on small farms. If we want to eat meat, we need to raise animals in a clean and sustainable fashion."
NOFA/Mass promotes farming and gardening with ecosystem-friendly practices to foster health, local agriculture, open space, and food security in Massachusetts. The group has also sponsored numerous public informational forums on NAIS, genetic engineering, and local and organic food throughout the state as well major annual Winter and Summer conferences. Information on the group's activities is available at: www.nofamass.org.-----------------------------------------------------------
NOFA/Mass recently signed on to a coalition letter that has been signed onto by 28 groups from around the country that are advocating for great accountability and openness in government: http://www.openthegovernment.org/otg/farm_bill_letter.pdf
For further news about the NAIS secrecy provision in the Farm Bill:
Concerns About Disclosure in Farm Bill
By MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer
For the latest info on efforts in Massachusetts to stop NAIS see:
Thursday, November 08, 2007
Why deal with the government middlemen?
There is lots of “good stuff ” on the database already: Hurricane Katrina; global warming; Neil Bush; Jack Abramoff; secret service records.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
An entity that receives 90 percent of its funding from the public, is housed in a public building and conducts business that affects the community should be subject to the open meetings and public records law, an assistant attorney general told the Wisconsin Supreme Court today.
In a case involving the Beaver Dam Area Development Corp. and its secret negotiations to woo a Wal-Mart distribution center, Assistant Attorney General Monica Burket Brist disputed the quasi-governmental corporation's claim that it was a private entity and didn't have to tell the public when it meets or why.
"If all the negotiating is paid by the taxpayers, then public oversight ought to be given some weight, " she said.
Burket Brist added that the law would still allow these semi-public corporations to engage in confidential negotiations with firms, but that they are not exempt from the state's open records laws.
Michael Cieslewicz, attorney for the Beaver Dam Area Development Corp., or BDADC, said firms interested in relocating to a community would be less candid in discussing business plans with a development corporation if they knew documents they submitted could be part of an open records request once the discussions concluded.
"Not all negotiations result in an agreement, and if those discussions fall through then the records could be disclosed to their competition," Cieslewicz said.
Cieslewicz said that decisions on whether a quasi-governmental agency is subject to open meetings law should be made on a case-by-case basis. Two key factors in that decision should be whether the corporation has the power to bind the city to do anything and who has day-to-day control over the corporation's functions. The BDADC's voting directors are private citizens and don't have the power to bind the city, Cieslewicz said.More here.
A bill read in the state Assembly Tuesday that could significantly alter the Wisconsin Public Records Law was stalled because of severe opposition from media groups.
The bill, AB522, was scheduled for a vote in the Assembly Judiciary and Ethics Committee, but because of resistance from media groups at the public hearing over the bill’s vague wording, the bill is being revised, according to committee member Rep. Robert Turner, D-Racine.
“At this point this bill is not on a fast track,” said Eric Hanson, a spokesperson for committee member state Rep. Tony Staskunas, D-West Allis.
The existing law authorizes Wisconsin residents to inspect or obtain records maintained by the government.
Andrew Nowlan, spokesperson for state Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, the bill’s author, said the bill does not affect what documents are available to the public.
According to Nowlan, an information technology department handling record keeping for different police departments should not decide whether or not to release the record. He said this is an example of the open records law needing more precise protocols.
Nowlan said only the police departments that conducted the investigation, courts and other “proper custodians” should be able to release the information.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
More than 500 lives a year can be saved annually in the United States and Canada through the widespread placement of defibrillators, finds a new study that emerged out of real-life, emergency situations.
Portable defibrillators can quickly treat a sudden heart attack by analyzing a person's heart rhythm and delivering an electrical shock if needed to get the heart pumping again.
"Good Samaritans, when given access to automated defibrillators in potentially fatal emergencies, save lives," Dr. Myron Weisfeldt, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who worked on the study, said in a statement.
The study, conducted in 11 cities in the United States and Canada was presented at the American Heart Association meeting in Orlando, Fla. It involved an analysis of patient records from more than 10,600 incidents of cardiac arrest that were attended to by EMS (emergency medical services) workers.
Bystanders administered CPR in nearly 30 per cent of the cases and offered CPR as well as an automated defibrillator in 2.4 per cent of the cases.
Though only 259 patients had an automated external defibrillator applied by a bystander, their survival was very good. Of patients who had a bystander perform only CPR on them, just 9 per cent survived long enough to be treated and later discharged from hospital. When bystanders provided CPR and used a defibrillator to deliver a shock, survival increased to 36 per cent -- approximately four times that of CPR alone.
Milwaukee attorney Michael Watton had asked police for all records concerning Sidney Kente Gray. Watton wants the records to bolster a federal lawsuit that alleges city and county officials wrongly released Gray from treatment a day before he killed a man.
Police Chief Nanette Hegerty withheld reports detailing why officers took Gray to a mental health facility in the month before the slaying. She said she didn't want to violate Gray's privacy.
But the First District Court of Appeals ruled Gray's mental state already was public knowledge.
"Watton is damaged by MPD's failure to disclose public information in the same manner that any member of the public, or of the media, is damaged when the policy of open records is improperly thwarted," the appeals court said in its ruling.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
The court, without comment, voted 7-0 on Oct. 24 to dismiss a lawsuit filed by The Cincinnati Enquirer.
The state contended that the identities were protected by state and federal privacy laws.
The lawsuit followed a newspaper analysis in which the Enquirer reported finding nearly 36,000 drivers with five or more drunken-driving convictions in Ohio.
But state officials refused to provide access to the names in a database of records dating to 1973. Ohio Department of Public Safety Director Henry Guzman filed a motion to dismiss the newspaper's lawsuit, and the court agreed.
Jack Greiner, a Cincinnati attorney representing the Enquirer, called it disappointing that the Supreme Court dismissed the case without oral arguments or full legal briefs.
The Enquirer reported Oct. 24 that "the case raised a novel question concerning the interplay between federal law and the Ohio Open Records Act." The newspaper quoted Greiner as saying, “It is hard to imagine that Congress intended for the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act to shield the identity of repeat DUI offenders. But that is the effect of today’s ruling.”
Assistant Attorney General William J. Cole, representing Guzman, said that the Enquirer could request driver information from each of Ohio’s 88 counties individually, the newspaper reported. The Enquirer has said such a project would take too long to be feasible.