Editor's Note

The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Exec Privilege Argument Rejected in New Jersey Gov E-Mail Case

A judge on Friday ordered Gov. Jon S. Corzine to publicly release hundreds of e-mail messages he exchanged with a state union leader he once dated.

In his ruling, Judge Paul Innes of State Superior Court said the messages were public records.

The decision is a blow to Mr. Corzine, who wanted to keep private the e-mail messages he exchanged with Carla Katz, a former companion, during state worker contract talks in 2006 and 2007.

“The relationship created a clear potential for conflict,” Judge Innes wrote. “These types of communications would be the sort of communications the Supreme Court felt the public had the right of access to understand and evaluate the reasonableness of the public body’s actions.”

Tom Wilson, the New Jersey Republican Party chairman, sued to make the e-mail messages public, contending that the personal relationship could have affected negotiations.

Mr. Corzine, a Democrat, contends that the e-mail messages are private under privileges accorded governors.

More here.

Judge Smacks Down Higher Records Fees in MO

A Cole County judge on Friday voided a fee increase for Missouri driver and motor vehicle records.

Several companies that routinely purchase the records sued the Department of Revenue earlier this month, alleging that the new fee structure violated open-records law and raised constitutional concerns.

On May 1, per-record fees rose to $7, from $1.25. The department also eliminated bulk discounts, which had allowed purchase of database files containing tens of thousands of records for fractions of a penny per record.

The lawsuit contends that the Department of Revenue violated the Sunshine Law by raising fees above the actual cost of providing the record. According to the law, fees must cover only the cost of copies and the staff time needed to provide the copy, not the creation or maintenance of the record.

Department of Revenue officials have said the fee increase is intended to finance the purchase of a new, multimillion-dollar database system. They argue, however, that driver and motor-vehicle records are not open records and thus not covered by the Sunshine Law.

Judge Richard Callahan slapped down the department’s defense in open court on Thursday, telling lawyers that he interpreted the phrase “public records” to include all government records, whether they were open to the public or not.

More here.

NC Bill Would Shift Fees...

Government agencies would be required to pay citizens' lawyer bills when they illegally deny access to public records, under a legislative proposal the sponsor says was spurred by several recent newspaper lawsuits.

The bill, introduced by Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, would ensure citizens and groups receive money to cover their legal costs when they sue for access to public records under the state's open records law.

Hoyle, a longtime proponent of open government laws, said the measure would make government agencies think twice about denying access to public records.

"I think this may cause them to pause and say, 'Wait, why did I want this, and if I happen to lose in this situation, it could cost me some money,'" Hoyle said. "I think you'll see less litigation."

Many government organizations have opposed similar proposals in the past, citing fears that they will be hit with big legal bills for unintentionally blocking access to public records.

Current state law leaves legal fee awards up to a judge's discretion. That means courts can decide to award no money or part of the victors' legal tabs if it decides the agency had "substantial justification in denying access" or there were circumstances which would make awards "unjust."

The bill would make payment of "reasonable" legal fees, as determined by a judge, mandatory, Hoyle said.

More here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

New NC Bill Adds Fees, Ombuds

People or organizations who win public records lawsuits would be awarded legal fees to cover expenses for their litigation under a bill filed in the N.C. Senate.

Current law allows a judge to award reasonable attorneys fees to plaintiffs in a public records lawsuit, but doesn't require it. The proposed new law, sponsored by state Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, would entitle successful plaintiffs to such fees.

"Give them the information," Hoyle said in encouraging local governments to be more willing to give the public access to records they collect. "I mean, it's public."

John Bussian, a lobbyist for the N.C. Press Association and an attorney for Freedom Communications, said that while judges currently can award reasonable attorney's fees, doing so is the exception to the rule.

"They make it effectively a long shot to recover legal expenses," Bussian said.

He said that most states either provide for the automatic recovery of legal fees in open government cases or provide criminal penalties for violations of such laws.

"North Carolina does neither one," Bussian said.

More here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Good 'Ol Rocky Top!

It was touch and go all spring. Would Tennessee make public records more accessible to its citizens or put up more roadblocks?

This time, the people won out.

For the first time in a quarter century, public records will be more open to the people. That should translate into greater accountability from government.

The legislation, which Gov. Phil Bredesen is expected to sign into law, creates an Office of Open Records Counsel. The ombudsman will serve as a resource if citizens run into roadblocks regarding access to public records. The office will develop a reasonable fee schedule for records requests that take longer than five hours to fulfill.

It gives records custodians no more than seven days to respond to requests or explain why they need more time. Currently, there is no deadline for responding to requests.

A committee also will be created to consider problems such as excessive fees and long delays that people might encounter from less-than-helpful public servants.

More here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Missouri E-Mail Soap Opera: Chapter...Well, Who Knows?

Under investigation for alleged Sunshine Law violations, Gov. Matt Blunt's administration is retaliating with its own use of Missouri's open-records law.

When attorney general's investigators sought records from Blunt, he responded likewise. When Blunt was sued for those records, he renewed his own Sunshine Law demands. And when a lawmaker spoke poorly of the governor, Blunt's team quickly slapped him with an open-records request.

Blunt's point is that others are playing politics with the Sunshine Law. To any critic who questions his Sunshine Law compliance, Blunt is essentially saying: Put your records where your mouth is.

But several Sunshine Law experts, who track open-records disputes around the nation, describe Blunt's actions as both troubling and unusual.

"They're responding to an investigation in the executive office of the state of Missouri by sort of using public-records laws to create their own investigative powers, and I think that's a pretty inappropriate use of public records laws," said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

More here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Louisiana FOI Bill Passes House

Legislation passed out of the state House of Representatives on Wednesday would put a time limit on how long the governor and his key staff get to keep their public records private.

House Bill 1100, as amended on the House floor, would allow the governor, his chief of staff and his executive counsel to keep their records confidential for up to three years.

State Rep. Wayne Waddell, R-Shreveport and sponsor of HB1100, said he is happy with the bill’s new language because it would require the Governor’s Office to keep its records and would open them within the governor’s term of office.

On the floor, Waddell commended Gov. Bobby Jindal on his legislative package for stronger ethics and a better image for Louisiana. Waddell said Jindal has said more than once that he wants transparency in every state agency.

“Members, we are now gold plated,” Waddell said. “It’s time that we become solid gold.”

Existing law allows for everyone in the Governor’s Office to keep the records they generate and use secret, as well as the employees of about 60 agencies that are considered part of the Governor’s Office, such as the Office of Civil Rights, the Pet Overpopulation Advisory Council and the poet laureate.

HB1100 would require everyone — except the governor, his two top advisors and their staffs — to make their records immediately available for inspection by the public.

Now THIS is a piece of FOI-driven reporting...

From a favorite former student at the Orange County Register:

What do $3.70 lattes, an Indian casino and a BMW dealership have in common?

An obscure California agency thinks they're all public benefits worth tax-free money.

The agency, the California Statewide Communities Development Authority, issued about $4.2 billion in tax free bonds in 2007, ranking behind only the states of California, Ohio and New York.

County supervisors and city council members statewide formed the agency. Last year, their political associations pocketed $4 million from it.

The Bay Area businessmen who staff it made even more. They collected $10 million.

For 20 years, they have operated out of the public view, using a public agency to help finance their special interests while siphoning off tax revenue for projects of dubious public value.

They have taken a public agency and made it a private benefit.

"This is the ultimate in invisible government," said Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby, who's been suspicious of the agency since he was a Fullerton City Councilman in the 1990s. "It's kind of the worst of both worlds," he said, "public and private."

More here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Secrecy-Laden Deal in Virginia...

A troubling article in the NYT today on a trend worth watching: secret deals for research between universities and those who fund them...

On campuses nationwide, professors and administrators have passionately debated whether their universities should accept money for research from tobacco companies. But not at Virginia Commonwealth University, a public institution in Richmond, Va.

That is largely because hardly any faculty members or students there know that there is something to debate — a contract with extremely restrictive terms that the university signed in 2006 to do research for Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company and a unit of Altria Group.

The contract bars professors from publishing the results of their studies, or even talking about them, without Philip Morris’s permission. If “a third party,” including news organizations, asks about the agreement, university officials have to decline to comment and tell the company. Nearly all patent and other intellectual property rights go to the company, not the university or its professors.

“There is restrictive language in here,” said Francis L. Macrina, Virginia Commonwealth’s vice president for research, who acknowledged that many of the provisions violated the university’s guidelines for industry-sponsored research. “In the end, it was language we thought we could agree to. It’s a balancing act.”

But the contract, a copy of which The New York Times obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information law, is highly unusual and raises questions about how far universities will go in search of scarce research dollars to enhance their standing. It also brings a new dimension to the already divisive debate on many campuses over whether it is appropriate for universities to accept tobacco money for research.

More here.

Virginia Coalition Announces Awards

Two people will be honored with awards from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, the group announced.

Leigh Purdum of Madison County will receive the group’s Laurence E. Richardson award for individual citizen contributions to open government after winning a court case against the Madison County Sheriff, according to a release from the group.

Lawrence Hammack of The Roanoke Times will receive the group’s media award for a series of stories he wrote on a former city councilman’s spending.

More here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Jersey Bill Bans Confidential Settlements

Taxpayers shouldn't have to sue to find out how much they are paying to settle lawsuits - lawsuits that are sometimes settled for big bucks because government officials botched their jobs.

But that's exactly what's been happening in the case of confidential settlements involving public agencies. The Press twice has gone to court - and won - to overturn the confidentiality provisions of settlements involving public agencies. Courts ruled in such cases that the public has a right to know what it's paying in settlements. But without a law, taxpayers were forced to hire a lawyer to pry these settlements open.

That unfairness would end, if a bill sponsored by state Sen. Nia H. Gill, D-Essex, Bergen, becomes law. Gill's bill, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, would ban confidential settlements when a public agency is involved.

More here.

North Carolina Access: A Report Card

Good to see state-based evaluations of transparency like this report from North Carolina's John Locke Foundation -- thanks to Mark Tapscott for the heads up...

Seven state agencies earn failing grades, when it comes to making budget and spending information available online. Twenty of 22 agencies studied earned no better than a D-plus grade, according to a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

The report assigns F’s to the departments of Commerce, Correction, Environment and Natural Resources, Insurance, Justice, Transportation, and the State Treasurer. The only state agencies to escape a D or F grade were the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, with a C, and the Department of Public Instruction, C-minus.

Those poor grades are not unique to state agencies. The JLF Transparency Report Card 2008 highlights transparency problems at all levels of North Carolina government, said report co-author Chad Adams, JLF Vice President for Development and director of the Center for Local Innovation. “The average grade for a state agency covered in this report is a D-minus,” he said. “No North Carolina city or school system in this report earns better than a C grade, and no county earns more than a C-minus.”

The report card is designed to spur improvement within state and local governments, Adams said. “This state, home to national banks that update their customers’ accounts instantly anywhere around the world, woefully lags in making spending transparent at every level,” he said. “North Carolina and its local governments need to do more.”

Adams and JLF Fiscal Policy Analyst Joseph Coletti evaluated the Web sites of 22 state agencies, North Carolina’s 10 largest cities, 10 largest counties, and 10 highest-spending school districts. Each earned a letter grade from A to F based on the “degree of difficulty” presented to citizens hoping to find line-item budgets, annual financial reports, and information about government contracts, grants to non-profit groups, and personnel data.

As a group, the cities earned the highest marks with an overall grade of C-minus. Counties earned an average D-plus grade; local school districts, D; and state agencies, D-minus.

The report noted some bright spots. The Department of Public Instruction, Community College system, and University of North Carolina system all earned B grades for presenting school enrollment and graduation rate information. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund earned a B for documenting its grants to nonprofits. The clean water fund, departments of Labor and Revenue, and the Office of State Budget and Management all earned B’s for presenting detailed budget information.

But 10 agencies earned more F’s than passing grades. The departments of Justice and Transportation earned F grades in every category.

More here.

Government Contracts -- A Market Approach

This is pretty cool stuff...

INPUT, the authority on government business, announced that it has opened its electronic library containing thousands of federal and state and local contract documents to the public.

“We have over three thousand government contracts and task orders acquired under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) available now with more added every day,” said Ashlea Higgs, senior manager, INPUT Network. “Government FOIA offices are overloaded and requests often take several months to complete. By making our library available, we hope to offload some of the volume of requests to FOIA offices and provide immediate access to these documents to citizens and organizations that have a need.”

By providing access to government contracts, INPUT expects to help government agencies and contractors make better decisions as it relates to government planning and acquisition. Contractors may get the benefit of understanding the work currently being performed on a contract as a means to better understand the needs of that agency.

Government contractors don’t have the luxury of waiting for the government to release an RFP to decide if they should bid,” said Higgs. “Having access to an existing contract prior to release of an RFP can help a company decide much earlier whether it has the skills and resources to pursue an upcoming contract.”

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Little Transparency Down On The Bayou, Please...

Gov. Bobby Jindal wants less sunshine for his office than the type of transparency that he touted on the campaign trail and that he used to call lawmakers into a special legislative session three months ago on the need for openness in government.

Jindal is opposing a bill that would require nearly all of his office to comply with the same public records laws as other state agencies. He cites a need to hide from the public papers and records, as part of executive privilege.

Other governors have opposed similar attempts at openness over the years. But they didn't campaign, as Jindal did, on ethics and cleaning up Louisiana's image. Jindal fails to mention that Louisiana ranks dead last on a list of the public's ability to scrutinize documents in the governor's office.

More here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Somewhere in Iowa, a Government Official Wants to Charge You...

for reviewing records requests.

Not fulfilling them, mind you, but merely for processing them.

My pal Al Cross over at The Rural Blog has the scoop:

The latest proponent of this bad idea is Democratic Gov. Chet Culver of Iowa, whose office started charging such fees after The Des Moines Register made "two unusually large and unconnected requests for public e-mails" in March, Lee Rood of the Register reported last week. "The requests also came after the governor’s office had mulled for more than a year about rare requests for large numbers of public information that take a lot of agencies’ time to compile," Rood writes, quoting Culver General Counsel James Larew as saying that charging fees to retrieve public documents is supported by case law and has prompted requesters to scale back their requests, and the new fees were intended to “discipline” requesters, not restrain them. "The charges can be levied when a request for records is estimated to take more than three hour of lawyers’ time, Larew said."

This stinker of an idea is worth watching. As Al said, bad ideas like this have a way of germinating...

USDA Seeks the Mother of All FOIA Exemptions

Talk about attacking a molehill with a nuclear weapon...without public notice or debate, a provision secretly tucked into the Farm Bill Conference Report (Sec. 1619, "Information Gathering") nullifies a recent, major federal appeals court decision under the Freedom of Information Act that ordered USDA to make public large amounts of data crucial to monitoring the economic and environmental impacts of multi-billion-dollar farm subsidy and conservation programs.

Mulch -- a great blog on all things farm-y, does such a great job on this that I am just going to take you there...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Watching Them, Watching US

An interesting access question posed by a father in Colorado:

Every day, about 6,000 children take a bus to and from school in Greeley. On most of those buses are video cameras capturing their actions. The tape gives the district a tool to determine what to do if inappropriate behavior occurs.

Parents, however, aren't allowed to review the tape, and that leaves Mike Moskalski outraged. After his son was involved in a physical altercation on a bus in April and received a 10-day suspension from the bus, he wanted to review the tape.

Moskalski said his son was defending himself and did not start the fight. The other student received the same punishment. He wanted to see the tape to make sure. But Greeley/Evans School District 6 officials told him no.

"This is not really fair," he said.

Citing a federal student privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, officials from Greeley-Evans School District 6 say they cannot release the footage from buses to the public.

District officials would not comment about any specific case.

District 6 began retrofitting buses with video cameras about seven years ago. About 80 percent of the district's buses are fitted with cameras, with a cost of about $1,200 for each vehicle.

"Bus safety is very important," said Wayne Eads, chief operations officer for District 6. "Cameras are a way to protect students, to monitor what happens."

He said to allow a parent to view any footage, the district would have to either get releases from the parents of the other children on the tape or digitally blur out their faces, both of which are not financially realistic.

"This is about protecting the child," Eads said.

But wait a minute...this is not really the sort of record protected by FERPA....and come to think of it, are there not school bus videos I have seen in any number of states made public by FOI?

Of course, if police are involved, that's another matter, like here. Or here.
Help! If you have examples, send them along!

The rest of this story here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

North Carolina Panel Urges Training...

Members of panel appointed by Gov. Mike Easley appears headed toward approval of a plan that would require training on the public records law for most state employees and improvements to government e-mail servers that would archive e-mails for a number of years.

However, a majority of the group expressed concern about creating a system that archived all government e-mails automatically and voiced support for allowing state employees the continued discretion to decide which of their e-mails should be preserved for posterity and which ones are zapped.

Though news reports of the administration’s public information officers and even Easley himself trashing public records triggered the panel’s creation, several of those the governor appointed to review the matter said Thursday state employees should be trusted to do the right thing.

More here.

More from 2008 FOI Summit

A former USA Today reporter facing fines for failing to reveal her sources for stories about the 2001 anthrax attacks said Saturday that news organizations need to go on the offensive in the fight to protect the First Amendment.

"As we all know, the news business is on a collective nervous breakdown," Toni Locy told a coalition of open-government and press groups. "It's time to stop running. It's time to turn and fight. If we don't fight for the First Amendment, who will?"

Locy, who now teaches journalism at West Virginia University, spoke at the annual convention of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

She said the country needs a shield law that would protect reporters from having to reveal their sources.

"The First Amendment needs some help," she said. "In this environment that we're in now, it needs some help."

More here.

Idaho Citizen Wins FOI Award

Curtis Massood, owner of Canyon Outdoor Media, has been named the winner of the 2008 Max Dalton Open Government Award sponsored by the Idaho Newspaper Foundation.

Massood earned the award and an accompanying cash prize of $2,000 for his successful lawsuit against Ada County in which a judge said the county's e-mail storage system made it inaccessible for the average citizen. Massood has donated the prize to The Shepherd's Home, a children's group shelter in McCall.

The Max Dalton Open Government Award has been given each year since 1999 to a citizen or group judged to be an outspoken advocate of openness in either public records or public meetings on the state or local level.

More here.

NFOIC FOI Summit '08 Is In the Books...

What a great time we had in Philly! Some coverage of Ted Gup's excellent keynote address, which we hope to have on the site soon...

Journalists need to do a better job of explaining to readers why they should be concerned about expanding ''secretocracy'' in government and how it directly affects their lives, a former investigative reporter told a coalition of open government and press groups Friday.

''It's our job to try to find ways to help them see what has happened'' and why they should care, said Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post and correspondent for Time magazine. He defined secretocracy, in part, as ''a form of government where secrecy is a principal interest of governance,'' and called it a function of power, not political party.

Gup compared the level of secrecy that exists in government to global climate change, saying that a government allowed to operate without scrutiny or accountability threatens democracy and disenfranchises citizens.

The more that Americans withdraw from being involved and informed citizens, the easier for a secretocracy to flourish, Gup said. Yet reporters don't do enough to explain how abuses of secrecy can lead to decisions not in citizens' best interests, from war and the economy to the safety of food and drugs, he said in a keynote address to the National Freedom of Information Coalition's annual conference.

More here.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Some Juvenile Records Could be Opened By Louisiana Bill...

The criminal records of some juveniles could become public record under legislation passed by a Senate committee.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Norman said parents and school officials are often at a disadvantage, not knowing the history of juvenile delinquents in their neighborhoods and schools.

Norman told a Senate committee there is little that he, as the chief law enforcement officer in Jefferson Parish, is able to talk about publicly.

More here.

A GREAT TV Series on FOIA....

WTTG-TV and reporter Tisha Thompson have done a wonderful two part video
piece about FBI files, along with an online story package. It is posted

The FBI Files

This is a fine, fine example of the things that broadcast media can do to bring FOI to life!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Public Hospital = Public Salaries

An Iowa hospital has lost its fight to keep secret the salaries of its employees.

District Judge Michael Mullins ordered the Davis County Hospital in Bloomfield to turn over payroll records that Bloomfield resident Kenneth Turner requested last year. Hospital officials declined to comment Monday.

Last June, the county-owned hospital denied Turner's request to learn the salaries of its employees. The Des Moines Register then sought access to some of the same information.

In response, the hospital sued Turner and the newspaper, seeking a court injunction that would allow the hospital to keep secret employee salaries and bonuses.

The newspaper then dropped its request for the records. Turner hired a lawyer and pursued the matter.

Under Iowa's open-records law, the wages of government employees are considered public information. A separate law dealing with county hospitals says the salaries "of all employees paid in whole or in part from a tax levy shall be a public record and open to inspection."But Iowa law also says a government agency can keep secret such information by proving to a court that disclosure is not in the public interest and would "substantially and irreparably injure any person or persons."

The hospital contended in court that disclosure of its salaries would cause embarrassment and inconvenience, discourage medical professionals from working in Bloomfield and make it harder to retain employees.

More here.

Missouri Guv Sued Over E-Mail Access

The soap opera in the Show-Me State just keeps on going...

Gov. Matt Blunt's top aides ordered state employees to break the law by destroying copies of government e-mails so they wouldn't ever become public, a lawsuit filed Monday charges.
The story says that the effort last fall failed, the suit says, because two supervisors in the state Office of Administration refused the orders.

The lawsuit was filed in Cole County Circuit Court against Blunt and Dan Ross, the state's custodian of records, by an independent investigative team set up by Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon. Ross oversees the computer system that handles and preserves e-mails for most of state government.

The suit asks a judge to order that Ross recover all the e-mails on the targeted backup tapes and turn them over to the court. The suit accuses Blunt's staff of "a pattern and practice of behavior with the clear intent to prevent the disclosure of public records."

More here.

The Litigation Exemption in Missouri Knows No Bounds...

This is a classic case of elastic exemptions...

Cape Girardeau County will not provide any material requested in two Sunshine Law requests from the Southeast Missourian because much of the material relates to possible lawsuits, Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said Monday.

As part of the denial, Swingle declined also to release the names, rates of pay or reasons for hiring outside counsel for any litigation or providing legal advice. In declining that part of the request, Swingle wrote to the Southeast Missourian that it could jeopardize the attorneys' work product, information that is protected from disclosure by law.

The names and amounts the attorneys are paid will become public after their work is concluded, he said.

But a lawyer who advises the Missouri Press Association on the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, the official title of the Sunshine Law, said the names of lawyers under contract or on retainer are public records.

"That is open, absolutely," lawyer Jean Maneke said.

The Southeast Missourian made its first request for records April 25 as an article was being prepared about a closed meeting of the Cape Girardeau County Commission that dealt with attempts to discipline County Auditor David Ludwig. In the meeting, commissioners considered suspending Ludwig and, at one point, Ludwig was asked to resign. His attorney, Albert Lowes, has said the meeting dealt with Ludwig's accessing photos of actress Pamela Anderson on the Internet...

But wait! It gets better:

In an interview Monday morning, Swingle said he was advising the county to deny the requests because it related to a personnel matter. "Everything is related to litigation," Swingle said. "There is not a personnel matter that is not related to potential litigation."

Everything in the universe that is related to personnel is related to potential litigation. Wow...pretty much spells the end for scrutiny of public employees, eh?

More here.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Iowa Reforms Die A Sad, Sad Death...

Ah, the uphill battle that is FOI reform...

A proposed rewrite of Iowa's sunshine laws was unceremoniously dumped at about 1 a.m. Saturday, one of the final acts of the Legislative session.

Supporters of the bill are still trying to figure out what happened.

"It's disappointing, to say the least, that we didn't get that through," said Sen. Mike Connolly, D-Dubuque, one of the lead sponsors.

The Senate passed the plan late Friday and sent it to the House as part of a larger budget bill. After midnight, the House then amended the bill to delete any changes to the sunshine laws. It was the last bill of the session.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, said in a statement Monday that he decided not to go forward with the measure because Republicans threatened to use stall tactics to force an all-night debate unless the item was removed. He said he hopes to see progress on the issue next year.

Connolly, who had no forewarning of the House's action, said the bill's demise is a victory for opponents of open government.

"There's pressure coming from places that we're not seeing," he said.

The main opponents were local governments, represented by groups like the Iowa League of Cities. Local government leaders had concerns that the proposed rules would lead to a flood of open-records requests and investigations of alleged violations of the law. Republicans shared many of those concerns.

A previous version of the bill passed the Senate on April 14. The 50-page bill was an attempt to improve openness in government by fixing a long list of loopholes in current law. The bill called for the creation of a new panel, the Iowa Public Information Board, to enforce the new rules.

More here.

FOI At Work: The Times on Immigration Detention Deaths

A great example of FOIA at work:

Word spread quickly inside the windowless walls of the Elizabeth Detention Center, an immigration jail in New Jersey: A detainee had fallen, injured his head and become incoherent. Guards had put him in solitary confinement, and late that night, an ambulance had taken him away more dead than alive.

But outside, for five days, no official notified the family of the detainee, Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea who had overstayed a tourist visa. When frantic relatives located him at University Hospital in Newark on Feb. 5, 2007, he was in a coma after emergency surgery for a skull fracture and multiple brain hemorrhages. He died there four months later without ever waking up, leaving family members on two continents trying to find out why.

Mr. Bah’s name is one of 66 on a government list of deaths that occurred in immigration custody from January 2004 to November 2007, when nearly a million people passed through.

The list, compiled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after Congress demanded the information, and obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, is the fullest accounting to date of deaths in immigration detention, a patchwork of federal centers, county jails and privately run prisons that has become the nation’s fastest-growing form of incarceration.

More here.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Sticker Shock Over Fees In Missouri

A database that was about $500 is now...$28 million?

The Missouri Department of Revenue plans to charge more than five times what it is currently asking the public to pay for driving records under a plan that news media outlets say violates state law.

Under the policy set to go into effect May 1, the Department of Revenue will raise the cost for each driving record to $7 from $1.25. It also will exponentially increase the fees charged to those requesting records in bulk, including news media outlets.

The records contain information on licensing and driving convictions for Missouri motorists. Residents can request the records of any licensed driver to check whether a license has been revoked or someone has been convicted of drunken driving, for example. The release of personal information is limited by state and federal law.

Department of Revenue officials have said the agency needs to increase fees to recover its costs for providing the information.

More here.

World Press Freedom Study...

The study itself is here...

A new worldwide poll finds widespread support for freedom of the press and strong opposition to government restrictions on Internet access. Although most publics surveyed believe the media in their countries should have more freedom, those polled in Russia and many Muslim countries think their leaders should be able to regulate news coverage they consider politically destabilizing.

WorldPublicOpinion.org is releasing the new 20-country poll in advance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. The survey, which includes 18,122 respondents, is one of a series conducted by WPO this year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the declaration states that everyone has the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media.”

WorldPublicOpinion.org is a collaborative project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland that involves research centers around the world. The countries studied represent about 59 percent of the world’s population and include China, the United States, Russia and India. Not all questions were asked in every country.

Majorities in all but two of the countries polled say “people should have the right to read whatever is on the Internet.” This includes seven out of ten in China, where the government has imposed restrictions on Internet access. Overall, 60 percent of those polled favor the right to full access.

Only a third of those polled around the world (32%) say the government “should have the right to prevent people from having access to some things on the Internet.” Jordan is the only country where a majority (63%) favors such restrictions, though a plurality of Iranians agree by a margin of 44 percent to 32 percent.

The broader principle of press freedom gets even wider support. Majorities in all countries polled consider it important for the “media to be free to publish news and ideas without government control.” An average of 82 percent say this is important, including 53 percent who consider it very important. Similarly majorities in all of the countries or an overall average of 79 percent say that people in their country should “have the right to read publications from all other countries including those that might be considered enemies.”

“The principle that the media should be free of government control receives robust support from all corners of the world,” said Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org. “With few exceptions, people think that the Internet should be free of government control as well.”

Majorities in ten nations polled think that the media in their country should have more freedom: Mexico (75%), Nigeria (70%), China (66%), South Korea (65%), Egypt (64%), the Palestinian Territories (62%), Azerbaijan (57%), Jordan (56%), Indonesia (53%) and Peru (51%). In no country does more than one in three favor giving the media less freedom. On average across all nations polled, 50 percent say they would like their media to have more freedom, 14 percent less freedom and 31 percent the same amount.

The biggest area of controversy is over whether the government should have the “right to prevent the media from publishing information that it thinks will be politically destabilizing.” In the majority of countries the dominant view is that it should not and on average 55 percent have this view.

However, in six-majority Muslim countries plus Russia substantial numbers think the government should have the right to restrict politically sensitive information. Majorities favor government controls in Jordan (66%), the Palestinian Territories (59%), and Indonesia (56%) while a plurality does in Iran (a plurality (45 to 31%). Views are evenly divided in Egypt, Turkey and Russia.

But this does not mean that these publics favor greater government regulation. In four of these countries, majorities think the media should have more freedom: Egypt (64%), the Palestinian Territories (62%), Jordan (56%) and Indonesia (53%). In the others, most want the media to have the same amount or more freedom, with only small minorities saying it should have less: Iran (9%), Russia (17%), Turkey (30%) and India (32%).

The countries included in this study are China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Nigeria, Russia, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Britain, Egypt, France, Iran, Jordan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine, and the Palestinian Territories. Polling was conducted between January 10 and March 20, 2008.

Secrecy Pops Up In The Strangest Places...

Like the TriCity Animal Control operation in Washington State...

The state Court of Appeals, in an opinion that could affect record-releasing policies of animal control operations across the state, has ruled Tri-City Animal Control acts as a public agency and is subject to the Public Disclosure Act.

The decision stemmed from a 2005 case in which Leonora Clarke of Kennewick requested euthanasia logs from Tri-City Animal Control.

Animal Control denied Clarke's request for the records, claiming it didn't have to comply with public records laws because it wasn't a public agency.

Clarke sued Tri-City Animal Control and the Tri-City Animal Control Authority -- an interlocal cooperative of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland that administers the animal control contract for the cities.

Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell dismissed Clarke's case, concluding Tri-City Animal Control wasn't a public agency.

Clarke appealed, and the Appeals Court reversed Mitchell's decision.

"... (W)ere we to conclude that TCAC is not a functional equivalent of a public agency, we would be setting a precedent that would allow governmental agencies to contravene the intent of the PDA and the Public Records Act by contracting with private entities to perform core government functions," Appeals Court Judge Debra Stephens wrote.

...Clarke's request was in line with concerns he had about how Tri-City Animal Control kills animals.

Animal control contractors should document the animal's identification number, the date of the euthanasia, initials of who administered the drugs and the dosage used, he said.

"The purpose of obtaining the records is to really see what's going on when these animals are being killed using public moneys," Karp said.

Seems reasonable enough to me.

Propaganda, Anyone?

Anytime anyone in government says that they are going to give you the news...you should reach for your wallet.

The Pentagon is setting up a global network of foreign-language news websites, including an Arabic site for Iraqis, and hiring local journalists to write current events stories and other content that promote U.S. interests and counter insurgent messages.

The news sites are part of a Pentagon initiative to expand "Information Operations" on the Internet. Neither the initiative nor the Iraqi site, www.Mawtani.com, has been disclosed publicly.

At first glance, Mawtani.com looks like a conventional news website. Only the "about" link at the bottom of the site takes readers to a page that discloses the Pentagon sponsorship. The site, which has operated since October, is modeled on two long-established, Pentagon-sponsored sites that offer native-language news for people in the Balkans and North Africa.

Journalism groups say the sites are deceptive and easily could be mistaken for independent news.

"This is about trying to control the message, either by bypassing the media or putting your version of the message out before others (and) … there's a heavy responsibility to let people know where you're coming from," says Amy Mitchell, deputy director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. A disclosure on a separate page "isn't something most people coming to the site are likely to see."

Pentagon officials say the sites are a legitimate and necessary way to promote U.S. policy goals and counter the messages of political and religious extremists. They also note that the United States and its allies have been outgunned in the battle to get information to audiences in Iraq and elsewhere.

"It's important to … engage these foreign audiences and inform," says Michael Vickers, the assistant secretary of Defense in charge of special operations and stabilization efforts. "Our adversaries use the Internet to great advantage, so we have the responsibility of countering (their messages) with accurate, truthful information, and these websites are a good vehicle."

The Mawtani site is named for the Iraqi national anthem and means "my homeland." It is available in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu — but not in English — and is supervised by the Pentagon's Iraq command.