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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

South Carolina Latest State to Exempt Concealed Weapons Permits

In a fine example of the powerful tendency for bad exemptions to sweep across the nation, USA Today updates the issue:

South Carolina last week became the latest in a growing number of states to make the names of people who have a license to carry a concealed weapon a state secret.

Five other states might not be far behind in a battle that pits a public policy of open government against the right of people to keep their gun ownership records private.

Bills that would make concealed gun permit records confidential have been introduced in eight other states this year — Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — according to Janna Goodwin of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

No WONDER They Tried To Keep the Lid On...

Want a GREAT example of why access to records matters? Check out this beauty from Utah...

Pressed for details about bonuses given to Sandy employees in 2004, City Administrator Byron Jorgenson refused.
Bonuses, he and other city officials argued, were a valuable tool for rewarding workers, but best kept secret to avoid creating bad feelings among those who received the extra cash and those who didn't.
But an analysis of Sandy's pay records - finally made public last month under court order - reveals a decades-old system that disproportionately benefits the city's highest-paid employees, including the mayor, administrators, department heads and their top aides.
And Jogenson is the biggest winner of all. In the past five years, he has pocketed $50,500 in bonus pay.

More here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Pentagon: Reporters, Stay Away from Funeral

Dana Milbank brings us the latest installment of the Pentagon's efforts to ensure we know as little as possible of the costs of war:

Lt. Col. Billy Hall, one of the most senior officers to be killed in the Iraq war, was laid to rest yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Pentagon doesn't want you to know that.

The family of 38-year-old Hall, who leaves behind two young daughters and two stepsons, gave their permission for the media to cover his Arlington burial -- a decision many grieving families make so that the nation will learn about their loved ones' sacrifice. But the military had other ideas, and they arranged the Marine's burial yesterday so that no sound, and few images, would make it into the public domain.

That's a shame, because Hall's story is a moving reminder that the war in Iraq, forgotten by much of the nation, remains real and present for some. Among those unlikely to forget the war: 6-year-old Gladys and 3-year-old Tatianna. The rest of the nation, if it remembers Hall at all, will remember him as the 4,011th American service member to die in Iraq, give or take, and the 419th to be buried at Arlington. Gladys and Tatianna will remember him as Dad.

More here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Sort of Solidarity We Need in Access Battles...

The Chicago Tribune petitioned a Cook County judge Tuesday to lift the veil of secrecy shrouding the R. Kelly case.

The emergency motion requests that Judge Vincent Gaughan make all Kelly-related court records public, release transcripts of several secret hearings and lift the gag order on the attorneys involved in the upcoming trial. Gaughan has been holding discussions with lawyers behind closed doors for months, usually in the privacy of his chambers.

The Tribune and Sun-Times filed the motion together in a rare show of unity between competitors. The newspapers hope to have their arguments heard before another closed-door hearing Friday.

"The right [to access court records] is essential to the public's right to monitor the functioning of our courts, thereby insuring quality, honesty and respect for our legal system," the motion states. "Particularly during pre-trial criminal proceedings, the absence of a jury, long recognized as an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased or eccentric judge, makes the importance of public access . . . even more significant."

More here.

Interesting piece on text messages ond FOI

When Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick began having an affair with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, he probably never expected their explicit text messages to be published in the Detroit Free Press. The Free Press published some of those messages in January 2008, unfolding a scandal that has dominated Detroit headlines. Calls for Kilpatrick’s resignation have accompanied 12 official charges against him and Beatty of perjury, obstruction of justice, misconduct and conspiracy, filed by Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy on March 24.

The Kilpatrick story has brought to light a freedom-of-information issue courts have not had to address in the past. While government officials communicate electronically more frequently and through more media than ever before, e-mails, text messages, chat rooms, instant messages and video conferences all remain virtually unmentioned in FOI laws.

Text messages have exploded in popularity in recent years. The wireless industry’s trade association, CTIA, estimates more than 48 billion text messages are sent each month. Text messages have also become a flashpoint for discussion of FOI laws because they can be sent from either personal or state-owned cellular phones or beepers and may be personal or business-related in nature. The line between personal and public business can easily be blurred for government officials.

“Many states specifically provide that e-mails are public records. If e-mail on a work computer is a public record, then there is a good argument that a text message sent from a work phone also should be considered a public record,” said David Hudson, First Amendment scholar at the First Amendment Center. “I think it is a difficult issue because it is relatively new and many people regard text messages as private communications.”

More here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Troubling Update on Mexico...

In today's Los Angeles Times:

This is not your parents' Mexico. Dogs are fatter, cars are bigger and the typical Mexican knows a little more about the workings of her government.

This is nothing to scoff at. For most of the 20th century, Mexico was ruled by a single, secretive political party. Human rights abuses went undocumented, and journalism was practically a state-sponsored profession. Now, after a generation of electoral reform and economic liberalization, Mexicans have finally gotten a taste of sunshine courtesy of the landmark 2002 Federal Transparency and Access to Public Government Information Law. But just as the country starts to enjoy a culture of transparency, vested interests are looking to defang the right to know.

That would be a shame. Mexico has grown into the world's 12th-largest economy and is on the cusp of consolidating its democratic gains. Crowning the achievements are its recent strides toward openness and transparency. Citizens can use a sophisticated website to probe government files and ask pointed questions, such as how much politicians are paid. If an information request is denied, they may appeal to an administrative court within the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information -- the operationally independent executive body charged with administering the law.

More here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

New FCC Complaint Database Online

Ever wonder who's complaining about all those raunchy TV shows?

This site asks for the complaints by FOIA and then lets you search them...fun!

Information Control Isn't Always A Matter of Law...

The New York Times takes a masterful look at the information control strategies of the Pentagon. This story is the fruit of a successful FOIA lawsuit against the Department of Defense. Pay particular attention to some of the bone-chilling quotes...

“It was them saying, ‘We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you,’ ” Robert S. Bevelacqua, a retired Green Beret and former Fox News analyst, said.

And I really enjoyed this anecdote:

Though many analysts are paid network consultants, making $500 to $1,000 per appearance, in Pentagon meetings they sometimes spoke as if they were operating behind enemy lines, interviews and transcripts show. Some offered the Pentagon tips on how to outmaneuver the networks, or as one analyst put it to Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, “the Chris Matthewses and the Wolf Blitzers of the world.” Some warned of planned stories or sent the Pentagon copies of their correspondence with network news executives. Many — although certainly not all — faithfully echoed talking points intended to counter critics.

“Good work,” Thomas G. McInerney, a retired Air Force general, consultant and Fox News analyst, wrote to the Pentagon after receiving fresh talking points in late 2006. “We will use it.”

And fresh from an Iraq "fact-finding" tour, the brass was relentlessly upbeat:

Back in Washington, Pentagon officials kept a nervous eye on how the trip translated on the airwaves. Uncomfortable facts had bubbled up during the trip. One briefer, for example, mentioned that the Army was resorting to packing inadequately armored Humvees with sandbags and Kevlar blankets. Descriptions of the Iraqi security forces were withering. “They can’t shoot, but then again, they don’t,” one officer told them, according to one participant’s notes.

“I saw immediately in 2003 that things were going south,” General Vallely, one of the Fox analysts on the trip, recalled in an interview with The Times.

The Pentagon, though, need not have worried.

“You can’t believe the progress,” General Vallely told Alan Colmes of Fox News upon his return. He predicted the insurgency would be “down to a few numbers” within months.

“We could not be more excited, more pleased,” Mr. Cowan told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News. There was barely a word about armor shortages or corrupt Iraqi security forces. And on the key strategic question of the moment — whether to send more troops — the analysts were unanimous.

“I am so much against adding more troops,” General Shepperd said on CNN.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Times-Picayune Sues NOLA Police

The Times-Picayune filed a lawsuit Friday against the New Orleans Police Department, alleging that the department has failed to provide a long list of public records requested by the newspaper and routinely delays the release of initial incident reports intended to promptly inform the public about crime in the city.

The suit, filed in Civil District Court, outlines six written requests for records made between Dec. 18 and March 4 by two reporters and an editor at the paper in accordance with the Louisiana Public Records Act. The case has been allotted to Civil District Judge Kern Reese, and a hearing is set for May 23.

Among the items sought by the newspaper:

-- Records showing the number of crimes committed in each police district.

-- Reports produced weekly by each district showing where various major crimes were committed.

-- A homicide log.

-- Statistics on arrests.

More here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

SGI: Some Thoughts for the Fed Ombuds Office

The Sunshine in Government Initiative is today releasing recommendations for developing the independent Office of Government Information Services with in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Created by Congress last year, the Office serves as an independent mediator and analyst into problems the federal government has fulfilling requests for public records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). SGI is recommending that in tight budget times, a small scale OGIS should begin immediately and be built out as resources and experience permit.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI) is a coalition of ten media groups promoting openness and accountability in government. Members of the SGI coalition include: American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, National Association of Broadcasters, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists.

SGI intends these recommendations to help the National Archives jump start the Office when Congress appropriates resources to pay for the Office.

"If done right, this office will help individual requesters, like free lance journalists, researchers and historians to gain reasonably quick access to accessible documents. Some requests for information are voluminous and can be handled in phases. Some would lend themselves to quick fulfillment with a little expert help and mediation. The goal is to get information out without undue fuss, and avoid having to go to court to push agencies along," added Tonda Rush, director of public policy of the National Newspaper Association, which represents community newspapers and pushed especially hard for the independent ombudsman.

"This office could really break through some logjams," said SGI Coordinator Rick Blum, "but it is important to set it up so it is not immediately overwhelmed with mediation requests from frustrated requesters. That is why we recommend OGIS at first focus on requesters whose purposes are to disseminate information to the public. It will gain experience and also help to fulfill FOIA’s real mandate: to make records public."

The recommendations focus on ways the Archives can effectively provide fair, authoritative mediation services as a way of giving the public an alternative to costly litigation to resolve FOIA disputes. SGI recommends that NARA create criteria for selecting cases to mediate that both reach many requesters and avoid overwhelming the mediation system. Many agencies are plagued with delays in processing requests and backlogs of many years for even simple requests.

See the report here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Seen a Confidentiality Agreement? Send it in!

Concerned by incidents in which hospitals have attempted to restrict newsgathering, the Association of Health Care Journalists strongly urges reporters to resist signing confidentiality agreements with hospitals.

Confidentiality agreements typically aim to bar journalists from disclosing information they discover in the course of reporting at a facility, unless they obtain the hospital's approval.

Reporters should be extremely reluctant to sign a confidentiality agreement with any source. Confidentiality agreements pose a danger of restricting coverage and eroding trust between journalists and the public.

Reporters should:

  • Reject agreements that would preclude them from reporting legitimate news stories, including stories they discover inadvertently in the course of reporting on a different topic.
  • Reject agreements that give hospitals the right to review a story before it is published or broadcast.
  • Refrain from signing a confidentiality agreement if the story is not significant enough to offset a potential erosion of public trust or if there is another way to get the story.
  • Refrain from signing an agreement that has not been examined by a news organization's editorial leadership and legal staff.
  • Refrain from signing an agreement limiting their ability to cover the quality of care or the business operations of hospitals.
  • Remember that HIPAA does not bar a reporter from obtaining an individual's health information directly from that individual, family members or other people who are not health-care providers or health plans.
  • Realize it is the hospital's responsibility under HIPAA, not the reporter's, to have the patient sign an authorization form if the hospital is releasing that patient's information.

AHCJ plans to expose attempts by hospitals to have reporters sign inappropriate agreements by collecting and posting these agreements at www.healthjournalism.org.

Iowa House Guts FOI Reform Bill

A key piece of legislation aimed at protecting open government faces an uncertain future during the last days of the Legislature, after a House committee gutted many of its provisions for being too controversial.

The Senate passed a bill on Monday that would make several changes to Iowa’s “sunshine” laws and create a five-member state commission to resolve disputes over meetings and records between citizens and public officials.

Late Tuesday, the House’s state government committee also approved the new
commission — but gutted almost all other changes to the sunshine statutes that were aimed at stopping the worst abuses.

More here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Federal Records A Mess, CREW Study Says

Based on months of research and the results of an on-line survey, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has released a report today, Record Chaos: The Deplorable State of Electronic Record Keeping in the Federal Government, concluding that the federal government is severely mismanaging its electronic records. The report and its findings and recommendations are available at www.citizensforethics.org.

Despite the ready availability of off-the-shelf products that would allow federal agencies to manage their records electronically, agencies continue to cling to outdated, inefficient and ineffective paper record keeping systems. The federal government has fallen woefully behind its private sector counterparts and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has failed to affirmatively assist agencies in developing and implementing records management policies as the Federal Records Act requires.
Record Chaos is based on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to a variety of agencies for their record keeping guidance, follow-up FOIA requests to test agencies’ ability to locate and produce email, and an on-line survey CREW, with the assistance of OpenTheGovernment.org, submitted to 400 agency records managers.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, said today, "The law requires the government to preserve federal records, which ultimately belong not to any single administration, but to the American people. These records, which often document serious policy matters, are being lost to future generations who might learn from them." Sloan continued, "In addition, those like CREW, who seek records from the government under the Freedom of Information Act or other statutes clearly are being deprived of those records, not necessarily due to malice, but rather incompetence."

Today, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will release proposed legislation amending federal record keeping laws to require agencies and the president to address this government-wide problem. Unfortunately, the proposal is anemic and fails to make the substantial changes necessary to bring the federal government into the 21st century. CREW has prepared a comprehensive analysis of the legislation.
Record Chaos: The Deplorable State of Electronic Record Keeping in the Federal Government and CREW's analysis of the proposed legislation are available at www.citizensforethics.org.

Iowa Senate Passes FOI Bill, Municipalities Predict Demise of Democracy...

First, the good:

Iowans are in critical need of a new advocate to enforce the state's "sunshine" laws, some state lawmakers say.

A major overhaul of the open- meetings and open-records laws passed the Iowa Senate Monday night on a 43-6 vote.

The controversial bill, Senate File 2411, would create a five-member board that would push for public access to government documents and meetings and help Iowans fight violations in court if necessary.

Ah, but then comes the dread fear of transparency, and the horrors it ushers in:

But lobbyists for cities, counties, schools and hospitals have piled on lawmakers with reasons they don't like pieces of the bill, and it now faces an uncertain future in the Iowa House.

"I know there are concerns," said Rep. Vicki Lensing, a Democrat from Iowa City.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said "the odds are even or better" that the House will pass an enforcement mechanism that improves transparency in state government.Many of the opponents want the names of finalists for public jobs to remain confidential.

"As long as you have this kind of substantial ambiguity, you're going to have public officials out there working in a great deal of fear," said Larry Pope, a lobbyist for the Iowa League of Cities.

The fear! The chaos!

Nice FOI-Driven Work by the Post on Smithsonian

Nice use of FOI in this story...

The Smithsonian released records yesterday indicating that the head of the Smithsonian Latino Center resigned in February after an internal investigation found her in violation of 14 ethical and conflict-of-interest policies, the Washington Post reports. The report was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Post.

The report attests that Pilar O'Leary frequently abused her expense account with "extravagant" travel expenses, tried to direct a contract to a friend, accepted gifts from outside companies hoping to do business with the Smithsonian, and solicited free tickets to shows and award ceremonies. In an email to the Post, O'Leary denied her offenses.

More here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Missouri Governor Subpoenas Press in E-mail Case...

An Associated Press reporter and a former reporter for the Kansas City Star were subpoenaed late last week by attorneys defending Gov. Matt Blunt against a lawsuit filed by a former staff lawyer.

Scott Eckersley sued Blunt and four past or current staff members in January, claiming he was fired and defamed in the fall in retaliation for suggesting Blunt’s administration was destroying e-mails in violation of Missouri’s open-records law.

A state judge is considering whether the defamation part of the suit should be moved from Jackson County where it was filed to the Capitol’s home in Cole County.

AP state Capitol correspondent David A. Lieb on April 11 was ordered to appear tomorrow morning at a Jefferson City law firm to be deposed about a media packet sent in October by Blunt’s administration.

The AP plans to contest the subpoena.

The media packets, which defended the Eckersley firing, were also sent to The Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Springfield News-Leader. Eckersley filed his lawsuit in Jackson County because the Star is published there.

Four Days of E-Mail: $14,000

Gov. Haley Barbour's office wants $14,170 to provide The Clarion-Ledger newspaper's public records request for four days of e-mails from the governor's staff.

The newspaper said in a story in Monday's edition that it was exploring its options.

The governor's office estimate included $7,500 for outside attorneys to review the e-mails for privacy and privilege issues. Other costs include staff time.

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said Monday that the number of e-mails involved in the request would be about 8,000.

In a March 27 letter to the newspaper, the governor's office said it archives all its e-mails but has no ability to retrieve them without assistance from technology experts.

More here.

Now This Is More Like It...

While some states slavishly kowtow to private interests, striking secret deals, California looks the other way:

A bill approved in the state Senate would ban private companies who contract with the government from using confidentiality agreements to keep their dealings secret.

The bill by Democratic Senator Leland Yee responds to a California Public Records Act request filed last year by the San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper was seeking information from the University of California.

Yee says the UC's San Francisco campus would not release an independent financial review or name the firm that was paid $165,000 to conduct the audit. University officials say the private firm controlled the audit's release.

The Senate voted 33-1 on Monday to require the records' release regardless of such contract clauses. The bill applies to both local and state governments.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, a Republican from Tustin, was the lone dissenting vote.

The bill now goes to the state Assembly.

More here.

Love the Solidarity Here!

The News & Observer and nine other North Carolina news organizations sued Gov. Mike Easley today over his administration’s methodical deletion of official government e-mails, which they say violates the state’s Public Records Law.

The news media coalition accuses Easley’s administration of “the systematic deletion, destruction or concealment of e-mail messages sent from or received by the Governor’s Office” in violation of the law, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Wake County Superior Court.

The practice was “promulgated and implemented willfully and for the purpose of evading the Public Records Law and depriving the people of North Carolina of access to information and records,” the suit alleges.

The lawsuit also accuses the state Department of Cultural Resources, which oversees government records, of establishing an illegal policy permitting state government workers to delete e-mail messages that they decide are of “short-term value” or “when they no longer have reference value to the sender or receiver.”

More here.

Clemency secrecy: an accident waiting to happen?

Mix pardons and obsessive secrecy, and my argument is that a train wreck is waiting to happen...and whatever happened to the expectation of privacy diminishing a bit when people are...in jail?

A board appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich has done an about-face and refuses to release details surrounding the people whose criminal pasts he's pardoned.

The Prisoner Review Board told the Chicago Sun-Times it would be an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" to let the newspaper view the contents of the files of 69 people Blagojevich has pardoned since 2003.

That's a reversal from 2003, when the board publicly disclosed most information in executive clemency files. The board also allowed public access to clemency files when former Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates in 2003.

Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff declined to discuss the matter, saying it was a Prisoner Review Board decision. Blagojevich appoints the board's members...

The closed-file policy is "really troubling," said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

"That could just be rife with corruption," Davis said. "It's a favor-creating machine."

More here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

New GAO Report on Federal FOIA Processing

A new report from the GAO shows that the federal FOIA backlog may be lessening a bit, but still has a long, long way to go....

Report can be found here.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sunshine Week Gallery Up...

Wow...what a great collection of Sunshine Week materials from all over....

Thanks to Debra Gersh Hernandez for her tireless efforts on behalf of sunshine....


Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Cool New Audit....

More than two-thirds of health care reporters taking part in a First Amendment survey have had stories held or left unpublished because the Food and Drug Administration did not respond to FOIA requests in a timely manner.

Only a third of reporters said they received a response within the required 20 days called for in the federal Freedom of Information Act. Many waited months or years – or never received requested data, according to the survey and analysis conducted for the Association of Health Care Journalists by graduate students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Nearly half of the reporters completing the survey said they were "very dissatisfied" with the FDA's processing of FOI requests, although only 15 percent ever filed complaints. Many said they were satisfied with the information they received, with a quarter of them saying the information resulted in major stories.

AHCJ is an independent, nonprofit organization of more than 1,000 health journalists dedicated to advancing public understanding of health care issues. Its mission is to improve the quality, accuracy and visibility of health care reporting, writing and editing. The survey is part of AHCJ's ongoing effort to track the responsiveness of federal health agencies to data requests from journalists.

Medill's graduate students, who conducted the research, were part of the journalism school's Washington, D.C., reporting program.

A student team traveled to FDA headquarters in Rockville, Md., to request documents from the reading room. Documents requested included a list of all FOIA requests made by journalists over the past 10 years. Surveys and interviews were conducted with these journalists, as well as members of AHCJ. The survey received 169 responses, including 44 from reporters who had filed FOIA requests in the past five years.

More here.

Secret University Presidential Searches: A Bit More Context

The Fayetteville, North Carolina Observer weighs in on secret university searches, conducting a nice national tally of who does what...

North Carolina is the only state in the nation that selects the top leaders of all its public universities in secret.

In 49 other states, the names of the finalists for university president or chancellor positions are made public, a Fayetteville Observer study shows. Six states release the names of all applicants.

A few states have no single governing policy, according to the survey of 118 university systems or individual schools. Some universities in those states close the process, but at least one school or university system in every state, except North Carolina, selects leaders in public.

The story continues to report that Amanda Martin, a lawyer for the North Carolina Press Association, said she would endorse moving to a system in which the names of job finalists are made public. That’s what roughly 85 percent of public universities do across the country, according to the Observer survey.

In North Carolina, each university has a search process to choose three candidates for its chancellor position. Those candidates are submitted to university system President Erskine Bowles, who recommends one to the UNC board of governors. Only then — when it’s time to vote on the one candidate recommended by Bowles — is the secrecy lifted. And only the name of the person recommended is released.

I especially enjoy THIS section, in which the newspaper tests one of the major assumptions of the closed search crowd: that it scares off would-be applicants...

A check of news reports shows that several educators — including the recently installed N.C. Central University chancellor, Dr. Charlie Nelms, and two current finalists for Fayetteville State University’s chancellor position — have been candidates in public searches without losing their jobs.

Nelms, prior to being hired at NCCU in 2007, competed and became a finalist for presidential or chancellor posts at four other universities in a four-year period, including Fayetteville State in 2003, Florida A&M in 2004 and Tennessee State in 2005.

During each search, Nelms was identified as a candidate. Meanwhile, he kept his job as vice president at Indiana University.

Two finalists in the current search for FSU’s chancellor — Dr. James A. Anderson, a professor at Albany University, and Dr. Albert L. Walker, president of Bluefield State College — have been finalists in other presidential searches during the last three years, the Observer has learned.

Anderson was a 2007 finalist for the presidency of California State University-Dominguez Hills. Walker was a 2005 finalist for the presidency of Langston University in Oklahoma and was eliminated in an early round of a 2006 Florida A&M University presidential search.

Both Anderson and Walker are still at their schools.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What We're Up Against...

The outgoing president of the University of North Dakota -- who I am quite sure is a swell guy and I mean him no disrespect at all -- represents the state-of-the-art in thinking about university presidential searches: the more secrecy the better the process....

I'll give you a few of the highlights and then you can go read the whole editorial here, but:

That said, I believe our open records and meetings laws served to curtail the number of candidates. These laws in no small way were responsible for the fact that only one candidate was presented to the State Board of Higher Education and were thus responsible for some of the negative “stuff” that went on at the conclusion of the search.

Now, this is an interesting point, and one that could tested by an academic, but to simply assume that one candidate came forward because of openness? I can't say it did not any more than this chap can say it did. It's what we academics call a "testable hypothesis," but it sure isn't fact. Trusim, perhaps....

First of all, any would-be candidate who happened to be a sitting president would have been loathe to submit his or her name and endure the inevitable criticism “back home” with what should and could have been a 1 in 100 chance of ultimately being selected. Most presidents would find these odds not worth it. The result was no sitting presidents in the pool and relatively few provosts.

Ah, the Gold Standard: the other kids won't play because of the openness. This, of course, is belied by the fact that there are dozens of presidential searches, year after year, held in complete openness, and guess what? People apply for them. They fight for them. Why? They pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year...

Given the downsides, is there really a significant public interest in knowing all of the candidates early in a search when there may be 80 to 100 candidates? I don’t think so. North Dakota is one of a small number of states in which university officials are required to disclose all names and documents as soon as applications are filed. Likewise, North Dakota is among a small minority of states that do not permit at least some closed search committee meetings early in the search process.

Why yes, there are several great reasons. Cronyism, nepotism, the old-boy network...the fact is, the more open these searches are, the less the likelihood of such large decisions being made exclusively by small groups of extremely powerful people.

If a group of good people are selected to serve on a search committee and they have to operate in plain sight of one another, this is enough to make sure the search will be conducted in accordance with fairness and the law.

In other words, trust us. Nah....history is replete with examples where that burned the public.

It's Rather Annoying This Took A State Supreme Court...

...to tell officials in Colorad that a criminal indictment is a public record, but there you go:

The Colorado Supreme Court struck a resounding blow for open records on Monday when it ordered a judge to release details of an indictment of an Aurora man suspected in the disappearance of his 6-year-old daughter.

It's a shame, however, that something that should have been an ordinary matter of public record had to go all the way to the state Supreme Court. Indictments routinely have been available for public inspection in Colorado as a matter of law and tradition.

Arapahoe District Attorney Carol Chambers was wrong to try to keep the details of the document sealed, and we're glad the Supreme Court made a logical decision in the case.

We're speaking, of course, of the Aarone Thompson case, and a ruling by Arapahoe County District Judge Mark Hannen to keep most of the details of the allegations against her father under seal. Prosecutors argued the indictment was filled with information too shocking for the public to see, and worried about the ability to hold a fair trial for Aaron Thompson, father of the missing girl.

The authors of the indictment created the problem when they filled it with what the Supreme Court called "exhaustive narratives" of the case, far exceeding the "essential facts" that must be included in a grand jury indictment.

But the Court made it clear that the decision to load the indictment with "excessive" detail didn't give the court the right to keep it secret.

The matter got to the state Supreme Court only because of the efforts by The Denver Post and The Associated Press, which took legal action to force the question to a higher authority.

More here.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Oh Yeah? Prove it!

In Texas, a city has devised an ingenious strategy: let's change the open meetings laws so citizens have to prove that the city violated the law, by holding meetings that the citizens couldn't attend! Wow, that'll work....to ensure that the city can meet secretly and never get sued again.

The city of Farmers Branch, the target of three lawsuits alleging violations of the state open meetings law, is trying to get the law changed.

The suits accuse the City Council of improperly deliberating in private about ordinances designed to prohibit the renting of apartments and houses to illegal immigrants.

City officials, who have denied the allegation, say the burden is unfairly on governmental bodies to prove they didn't violate the law, rather than on the plaintiffs to prove they did.

The council voted last week to send a letter urging state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, to push through revisions during the next legislative session, which begins in January.

"If someone alleges you violated the open meetings act, they can bring a lawsuit with not one shred of evidence there was actually an open meetings violation and force cities to pay to defend themselves," Mayor Pro Tem Tim O'Hare said.

Oh, and of course, the city has salaried lawyers to throw at the citizens who are bankrolling their own lawsuits...More here.

Friday, April 04, 2008

This is a tough, tough FOI issue...

I fear the legislative blowback from stuff like this...granted, there IS an issue about the location of the town center, but...

The donors of the $10 million gift to Mount Pleasant are a brother and sister who say they have no development ties, according to records.

Emil Ebe, 86, and Lorraine Ebe, 84, gave the donation to be used for the construction of public buildings in a new village complex. The contract was accepted by the village on March 10 and announced the same day at a board meeting. They signed the contract Feb. 29.

The Ebes requested anonymity for their donation. They revealed their names to The Journal Times in a letter after the newspaper filed a request March 17 to view the contract under the Wisconsin Public Records Law.

"We have made this donation to the Village of Mt. Pleasant with no expectation of anything in return from the Village of Mt. Pleasant. We are not now nor have we in the past been developers in the Village of Mt.Pleasant," they wrote in the March 18 letter. "It was our intent to provide the Village of Mt. Pleasant with a new Village Hall and other Village buildings.

The Ebes are not listed as owning any property in the county other than their residence, according to the Racine County Treasurer’s office. They have lived in Mount Pleasant since 1949.

More here.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Concealed-Carry Secrecy Dies in Tennessee...

Not sure I can follow the political theater here, but the bottom line is that Tennessee remains one of the only states where citizens can still scrutinize concealed-carry permits...

A proposal to make secret the names and addresses of Tennesseans who have handgun carry permits died in a whirlwind of political intrigue Wednesday, aided by state House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh.

First, freshman House member Henry Fincher engineered a vote on the bill while two of its opponents — two of his more senior colleagues — were out of the room.

More here.

Bad Idea Watch: Secret State Grants in Iowa?

The secrecy surrounding economic development is a theme today. In Iowa, some fear that transparency will keep some companies from applying for state grants. I say let 'em sit it out, then. If they can't come clean with the public, they certainly don't need taxpayer money.

Lawmakers are considering a proposal to allow companies that apply for state economic grants to keep larger portions of their information secret.

Some opponents fear the move would allow projects such as a nuclear power plant to gain state grant money before the public learns of the plan.

Supporters say the state needs to keep more business information confidential to prevent competitors from scooping potentially revolutionary ideas as their own...

Iowa in the past year launched the $100 million Power Fund program, which will allocate millions of dollars to programs aimed at boosting renewable fuel research and production. Some companies have expressed hesitation to apply for such grants because of Iowa's records policies, said Mike Tramontina, director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

House File 2558 allows Tramontina's department to establish policies to allow some information in grant applications to remain secret if requested by the applicant. Such information could include marketing strategies, business expansion plans, concepts that are not yet patented and plans to target certain customers. The idea has passed the House, as well as the Senate Economic Growth Committee. It is now eligible for debate by the full Senate.

More here.

Bad Idea Watch: Secret Negotiations Between Industry and Govt in Louisiana?

Keep your eye on this popular new exemption, which seems to be about the worst idea in the history of policy making, especially in Louisiana, no stranger to the smoke-filled room...

A Senate committee advanced legislation Wednesday that would allow state government to continue to negotiate behind closed doors with businesses.

Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret said the state stands to lose the opportunity to land thousands of new jobs if negotiations cannot be conducted in secret.

On large projects, businesses often require “an absolute commitment of confidentiality” because they are contemplating locations in multiple states, he said. Louisiana officials also do not want other states to know what incentives they are offering, he said.

“We’re in a competition that’s growing more and more challenging every day,” Moret told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs.

The panel approved the legislation without objection.

More here.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Exempt Contractors From FOI? A Baaaad Idea in CT...

A bill that would exempt state and municipal contractors from Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act faces an uncertain future amid criticism that it would overturn recent attempts to promote governmental openness and transparency.

Rep. Christopher L. Caruso, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the ethics-minded Government Administration & Elections Committee, was sure Tuesday that when the legislation reaches his committee, as anticipated, he would work to kill it.

"It's not going to make it out of committee," Caruso said in an interview.

The bill recently passed the Insurance & Real Estate Committee, where lawmakers including Sen. Joseph J. Crisco Jr., D-Woodbridge, co-chairman of the panel, supported the bill in a 13-4 vote.

Crisco and other proponents of the legislation, including Rep. John Harkins, R-Stratford, another committee member, said the intent of the bill was to protect businesses from revealing some proprietary information, while allowing the public access to data through the Freedom of Information Commission.

Crisco called the bill a "work in progress" and said he is amenable to compromises.

More here.

MIssissippi Gov Signs Incident Reports Bill

Without commenting this week, Barbour signed legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to provide a narrative description of an alleged crime, including the name of the person charged; time, date and location of the crime; any property or vehicle involved; and investigating officers' names. Other, more detailed information, including names of informants or witnesses and investigative techniques, are exempt from disclosure.

House Judiciary A Chairman Ed Blackmon Jr., D-Canton, tried for several years to pass similar legislation but always faced a law enforcement community reluctant to make the reports public by law.

"I think it's clarifying legislation in letting law enforcement people know what it is they are obligated to release and what they don't have to release," Blackmon said of House Bill 474.

This year, Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, introduced the bill in a slate of sunshine reform legislation backed by the Mississippi Press Association and the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith called the law "a good compromise," a sentiment echoed by Center for Freedom of Information Director Jeanni Atkins.

"What we ended up with is something that we can live with and something that law enforcement can live with," she said.

More here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Very cool...

The Sunlight Foundation continues to push the envelope in thinking up new ways to harness the Internet for the public good. Their latest tool: Public Markup.

After preparing and drafting a comprehensive piece of legislation, Sunlight decided that public input and scrutiny would refine the bill and improve its chances of garnering lawmakers' support. Rather than immediately looking for legislators who might sponsor the bill, Sunlight, therefore, created PublicMarkup.org as a place to post the bill, and to allow you to comment on and suggest edits to the substance of the legislation.

This project is not intended to be the ultimate technical solution to the challenge of drafting legislation online, but an experiment in online collaboration. By collecting legislation, summaries, resources and commentary in a single linkable location, PublicMarkup.org provides a simple, blog-like framework for soliciting feedback on this legislation.

In addition to drawing on bills that have already been introduced, several provisions of the Transparency in Government Act of 2008 are the result of the collaborative work of the Open House Project.