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.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Economic Development: None of Our Business?

A nice piece from Arkansas on an endlessly controversial practice:

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission is an agency that thrives on secrecy, so much so that big-name projects' real names aren't uttered until they're a done deal.

A Denmark windmill blade manufacturer's Little Rock plant was known around the office as "Project Zephyrus." When Hewlett-Packard Co. mulled a move to Conway for a new facility, proposals detailing the millions offered in state incentives simply referred to HP as "Project Sigma."

The secrecy, state officials say, is necessary to keep Arkansas in the hunt for major business projects. No company will come to the state if they fear that details of their internal operations will be splashed on the front pages of newspapers or lead the nightly local newscast.

Democracy and a free press, however, thrive on openness. So it's not anything new for the state's economic development arm and reporters to clash over access to information.

That rift appeared again in June as word leaked out of HP's decision to open a facility that will eventually employ 1,200 people in Conway. ArkansasBusiness.com was the first to report that HP was coming to Arkansas -- four days before the official news conference.

When the news got out, HP spokesmen and government officials from Gov. Mike Beebe on down declined on-the-record comment for the rest of the week.

Arkansas Economic Development Director Maria Haley appeared to criticize media for reporting on the development before it was announced, calling the leaks "extremely irresponsible."

More here.

FOI At Work: The Data Diva Checks Out Those Dates...

OK, full disclosure: Jaimi is a recovering student of mine, and one of my all-time faves....

In her latest column, she puts the dating pool on notice.

For many, the dating process involves varied pre-date rituals. Some women buy new clothes. Others have intense beauty regimens. Many feel the need to talk about their jitters. Not me.

I hit the computer and search like crazy, digging up all the dirt I can find. With each keystroke the secrets unfold. They’re no match for me.

My reconnaissance mission prepares me for that moment in the date, if things are going well, when he feels comfortable enough to discuss some of his baggage. “I have something to tell you,” is usually how it starts. Before he finishes the thought I’m already wondering if it’s going to be his recent divorce, that lawsuit with the city, or his (actual) age.

Read the rest of this delightful (and informative) column here.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

NY Bill Would Allow Video, Audiotaping

A bill pending in both the NY Assembly and Senate would change that to allow citizens greater access to the goings-on in government.

Recognizing changes in technology have made recording and photography equipment less disruptive than in the past, the legislation would allow citizens to record and even broadcast meetings (even on cable), so long as the activity wasn’t disruptive to the meeting. The law would allow government boards to establish rules such as where the equipment and personnel could be located in the room. But they couldn’t regulate what was being recorded.

It’s ridiculous that you can observe a proceeding in person, but not record it. This measure would expose more citizens to the goings-on of government by allowing people who can’t attend meetings to view recorded versions at a time and place that’s convenient to them. As we’ve said repeatedly, the more the citizens observe government activities by attending meetings and requesting documents, the more responsive government bodies are forced to become. This measure just furthers that end.

The bill, which is strongly supported by the New York Newspaper Publishers Association, is sponsored by two friends of open government, Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito of Rome and Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse. The Assembly has already passed its version, while the Senate version was stopped in the majority leader’s office near the end of the recently concluded legislative session.

To read the bill and accompanying memos — it’s really cut and dried — go to the state Senate Web site, www.senate.state.ny.us. and click on Bills & Laws in the lefthand menu. Then plug in either the Senate bill number, S2053, or the Assembly bill number, A1111.

More here.

ACLU To Get Profiling Data in Maryland

The NAACP can review Maryland State Police documents alleging racial profiling that the organization had been seeking, a judge ruled yesterday - a victory for the civil rights organization in a battle that has raged more than a decade.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Timothy J. Martin decided that a panel of three lawyers selected by the civil rights organization's Maryland conference will have 120 days to review the documents and select those they would like copied. The names of the officers and the complainants will be redacted from the copied documents.

"I believe the fair approach is to find a middle ground," Martin said. "I know state police fear a precedent, but I believe the NAACP is entitled to disclosure of these documents. ... I know the state police are not going to be happy with the statements I'm making."

Betty A. Stemley, an assistant attorney general representing the state police, had argued that the documents were not public record and should be considered private personnel documents.

More here.

A Florida Exemption Runneth Amuck

County Commission candidate John Nicolette owns 14 properties in Pasco worth more than $4-million.

But punch his name into the county's online property records databases, and nothing comes up.

Using a public records exemption that shields the home address of public safety officials — including Nicolette, a Tampa firefighter — Property Appraiser Mike Wells and Tax Collector Mike Olson have blocked the public's access to information about all of Nicolette's investment properties.

Rather than simply redact the home address from those forms, the records don't exist online.

Those records include information on the location and value of the investment properties, as well as the taxes paid on every piece of land Nicolette owns.

A Times reporter obtained information only after visiting the offices in person and getting a Times attorney involved.

But it's a tenet of open government — and particularly, state law — that property records in Florida are public. Neighbors can see what neighbors are paying in property taxes — and what tax breaks they receive.

More here.

FOI At Work: Texas Guv Search Was a Narrow One...

When Gov. Rick Perry chose his former political aide to head the Texas Transportation Commission, he bypassed prominent business people who some legislators say were better equipped for the job, state documents show.

Perry's selection of Deirdre Delisi led to claims of political cronyism. But Perry's office and Delisi herself say she has the policy expertise and legislative experience needed for the transportation hot seat.

Before appointing her in April, along with non-controversial pick William "Bill" Meadows, Perry received resumes and recommendation letters for at least eight potential transportation nominees, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under the Texas Public Information Act.

Only one candidate — Meadows, who was vice chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority — appeared to come directly from a regional transportation board, records show. Others up for consideration for the five-person commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, known as TxDOT, were attorneys or businessmen.

More here.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

FOI At Work: Picking Up the Trash

South Los Angeles residents aren't the only ones having a tough time getting city crews to clean up alleyways strewn with refuse and dead animals. Not even an aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could get quick action when he complained about illegal dumping earlier this year, according to a Times review of city records.

The mayoral aide alerted the Department of Public Works in early March about rubbish completely blocking an alley in a pocket of Watts prone to illegal dumping. But more than two months passed before workers cleaned the byway near East 113th Street and Graham Avenue, according to city records.

A spokesman for the mayor said his office was unaware of the delay until told by The Times earlier this week. The aide said he never followed up on his request because he assumed the department would take care of the problem.

Last week, after The Times reported that illegally dumped trash festered for a month or longer in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Villaraigosa ordered a report to determine how long it takes for crews to respond to complaints from residents. The report is expected to be completed by the end of this week.

But records show that the mayor's office, as well as residents who called the city's 311 non-emergency number, have regularly waited anywhere from two weeks to two months for alleys to be cleaned...

The city documents reviewed by The Times were obtained under a California Public Records Act request. They detail two dozen requests for service from January through the end of May in three areas where public works officials say illegal dumping has been a problem for years.

More here.

House Moves to Open Homeland Security A Bit...

Congress on Thursday will take a major step in rolling back the tide of secrecy that has swept through government since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with the House Homeland Security Committee poised to pass two bills making the Homeland Security Department more transparent.

Both bills are expected to pass the committee easily: One would crack down on too-frequent use of classification, while the other would go after "pseudo-classification" - the new labels such as "for official use only" that have popped up to keep even unclassified documents out of the hands of the public and other government agencies.

"This is more than Congress has been able to do in seven years," said Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat and the bills' chief sponsor, who said the bills are the result of an alliance of open-government advocates and those who think the government needs to share more information within its agencies for national security reasons.

Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat, is the chief sponsor of two bills aimed at cracking down on overclassification and pseudo-classification within government agencies.

"The dirtiest four-letter word in government is spelled T-U-R-F, and overclassification and pseudo-classification are ways to protect T-U-R-F," Mrs. Harman said.

The Sept. 11 commission blamed a lack of information-sharing among agencies for intelligence failures before the attack, and Republicans and Democrats both want to make sure that new turf battles won't produce a similar breakdown.

A Homeland Security official said late Wednesday that the department opposes both bills.

More here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

That was quick: police disciplinary records remain a secret in Cali

Despite lobbying efforts by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an Assembly committee Tuesday killed a bill that would have cleared the way for the Los Angeles Police Department to make officers' disciplinary hearings and records open to the public.

The bill faced stiff opposition from many of the state's powerful police unions, which argued that the measure would compromise officer safety. LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, normally a Villaraigosa ally, pointedly chose not to take a position on the bill and Tuesday expressed concerns about it.

Three Democrats on the seven-member Public Safety Committee refused to cast a vote. Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) voted for the measure, and Assemblymen Greg Aghazarian (R-Stockton), Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) and Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) opposed it.

The bill's author, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), lashed out against the members who abstained. They were Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), the committee's chairman, and Assemblymen Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) and Anthony Portantino (D-La CaƱada Flintridge).

"I was really taken aback by the [bill's] death by silence," Romero said. "The fear, you could feel it -- the fear of what will happen if you look out for the public's interests when they may differ from the interests of the law enforcement lobby."...

The legislation, SB 1019, would have allowed, but not required, the LAPD to return to its long-standing policy of releasing officer's disciplinary records and allowing the news media and other members of the public to attend disciplinary hearings. Acting on the advice of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, the department sharply curtailed its disclosure policy in 2006 in light of a state Supreme Court decision.

More here.

Texas Guv Mansion Video: Public Record or Security Secret?

The Texas Department of Public Safety, citing protection of public property from terrorism, is trying to keep secret the video surveillance tapes of the Governor's Mansion the day it burned.

The DPS wrote Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott last week asking for a ruling on whether the tapes must be released to The Associated Press. The AP requested the video the day of the fire using the Texas Public Information Act.

At least three other news organizations also asked for copies of the surveillance tapes shortly after fire severely damaged the 152-year-old mansion the morning of June 8.

DPS contends the tapes are exempt from disclosure because state homeland security laws allow information to be kept confidential if it "relates to the specifications, operating procedures, or location of a security system used to protect public or private property from an act of terrorism or related criminal activity."

Disclosure of the video would "reveal the clarity, range, angle, zoom capabilities, panning capabilities and fields of view of those cameras, as well as their ability to record in little or no light, whether the cameras have infrared or thermal imaging capability, and whether the cameras record in color or black and white," Lopez wrote.

"This information would allow a terrorist or related criminal to discern whether and exactly when a person can be detected and recognized in the areas monitored by the cameras in question," the letter stated.

Releasing the video would reveal whether cameras are real or "dummies;" whether they are constantly running or are motion activated; and for how long videotapes are preserved, the agency contends.

Additionally, DPS said it opposes releasing the video because it could interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation...

In the past, Abbott's office has ruled DPS video surveillance tapes from hallways behind the Texas House of Representatives in the Capitol should be available to the public. The DPS is fighting in court to keep House hallway video from the Texas Observer, a news magazine that made an open records request for videotape recorded in May 2005 when legislators debated private school vouchers.

In the Governor's Mansion video, someone can be seen igniting an object and throwing it onto the porch of the building, fire investigators have already revealed. Investigators say the suspect was wearing a ball cap, a dark shirt, work-type gloves and blue jeans or cargo-style pants.

Only 13 of 20 security cameras on the mansion grounds were working when the fire broke out, and a motion sensor system wasn't working properly, a state official has said.

More here.

Task Forces, Advisory Meetings, and Publicly Funded Arenas: A Rich Mix

Hartford, CT Mayor Eddie A. Perez is dancing...

The mayor:
wanted to know whether there was sentiment within the Greater Hartford business community to support a new downtown arena, so he created a "task force" to study the question.

When that group's first meeting was held behind closed doors in April, The Courant questioned the secrecy and filed a Freedom of Information complaint with the state. The group stopped meeting at city hall and retreated to the offices of the MetroHartford Alliance regional economic development organization.

There, business leaders say they can talk with candor, out of earshot of the press and public.

They met again Tuesday, turning away a Courant reporter. Perez and the city contend the task force meetings are private.

They might ought not be, Mayor...people grow suspicious quickly these days about arena deals, and when you embrace the 'ol smoke-filled room, things generally go downhill from there.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Peek at Alice's Wonderland...

Slate's Alex Heard provides an excellent analysis of the FBI's "retention" program and
reminds us all how important the historical record can be, and how much of history can be lost...

I got bad news from the FBI a few months ago. A file I'd requested under the Freedom of Information Act wasn't going to be available. Ever.

And not for one of the reasons I already knew to expect—that the material was classified, that the file concerned a living person, or that no file existed to begin with. Judging by the FBI's final response letter, there might have been a file on my subject, a long-deceased Mississippi lawyer name John R. Poole. But if there was, it got shredded.

"Records which may be responsive to your … request were destroyed on July 01, 1995," the letter said. "The FBI Records Retention Plan and Disposition Schedules have been approved by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and are monitored by knowledgeable representatives of the NARA."

A Good Fix in California

On a 69-0 vote, the California State Assembly today sent Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Los Angeles) legislation to allow greater public access to government contracts as well as audits and reviews of public agencies. Once the bill is received by the Governor, he will have twelve days to sign or veto the legislation.

Senate Bill 1696, authored by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), would prohibit a state or local agency from allowing an outside entity to control the disclosure of information that is otherwise subject to the state’s Public Records Act. In addition, the bill would specify that regardless of any contract term to the contrary, a contract for the purpose of conducting a review, audit, or report between a private entity and a state or local agency is subject to the same disclosure requirements as other public records.

The need for the measure arose from the denial of a January 2007 request by the San Francisco Chronicle to the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). UCSF refused to release an independent review of its finances or even the name of the firm that was issued a contract for $165,000 to carry out the review. UCSF claimed the auditing firm controlled the confidentiality of the contract and the audit.

More here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Missouri Judge Takes Dim View of Charges

According to an AP story:

A judge says he's inclined to rule that fees for getting driver's license records must follow Missouri's Sunshine Law.

Companies that buy driver's license and motor vehicle records in bulk sued to challenge a Revenue Department fee increase, alleging it violates the Sunshine Law. The department had charged a fraction of cent for bulk records but increased that to $7 starting May 1 to pay for a new computer system.

Cole County Judge Richard Callahan has already temporarily blocked the fee increase, citing the Sunshine Law's limit on how much the state can charge for copies of records.

Callahan held a hearing Friday on a permanent injunction. He said the Sunshine law seems to apply to the Revenue Department records, but he did not issue an immediate ruling.

FOI AT Work: Don't Ask, Don't Tell Affects More Women Than Men

The Army and Air Force discharged a disproportionate number of women in 2007 under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military, according to Pentagon statistics gathered by an advocacy group.

While women make up 14 percent of Army personnel, 46 percent of those discharged under the policy last year were women. And while 20 percent of Air Force personnel are women, 49 percent of its discharges under the policy last year were women.

By comparison for 2006, about 35 percent of the Army’s discharges and 36 percent of the Air Force’s were women, according to the statistics.

The information was gathered under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a policy advocacy organization.

More here

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rhode Island Reforms Pass

Per the AP, Rhode Island lawmakers have taken a major step toward strengthening the state's public records law:

Rhode Island lawmakers have endorsed the first major changes to the state's open records law, including hastening their release and specifying the information from arrest records police must make public.

Lawmakers approved the changes Saturday. They would take effect Sept. 1, if accepted by Gov. Don Carcieri.

The proposed law would decrease the time that public agencies have to respond to requests for public records, from 10 days to seven.

It would bar state agencies from requiring those seeking the information to provide personally identifiable details or stating the reason for their request.

The bill lists the basic information that police must release about arrests within 24 hours. It also orders that police release narratives of arrest reports within seven days.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

FOI At Work: Sports Beat

eorgia State has offered new football coach Bill Curry an annual salary of $350,000, according to documents obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Freedom of Information Act.

This is not a contract but a memorandum of understanding. Curry has three months to sign the document. When Georgia State introduced him as head coach last week, Curry had agreed to a five-year contract.

In addition to his salary, he will receive an annual $50,000 bonus that's tied to certain athletic and academic achievements that will be included in the contract. He will also receive a $500 month car allowance. He will have a pool of $450,000 with which to hire six assistant coaches, a director of football operations and an administrative assistant.

More here.

Some Good News (At Last!)

After a morning of new exemptions, some good news from Arizona:

The state Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would make public the disciplinary records of state employees.
On a voice vote, the Senate approved House Bill 2159 and amended it to say that employee phone numbers and addresses would remain private.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican, was introduced as part of a series of reforms to Child Protective Services following the deaths of two Tucson children, and the presumed death of a third local child, who were being monitored by the state agency.

More here.

The Ever-Shrinking Community...NC Seeks to Keep Secret Names of Little Leaguers

A frequent rant of mine is the ever-narrowing conceptualization of information that ought to be public, such as the fact that little Johnny drove in three runs in the game last night...while I see no reason to release dates of birth and the like, what about a name and an age?

Efforts to keep identifying information about children who participate in local recreational programs cleared a subcommittee on Wednesday.

The subcommittee, which is looking at a bill introduced by two Alamance County representatives - Democrat Alice Bordsen and Republican Cary Allred - along with Rep. Karen Ray, R-Iredell, also chose to recommend that the new proposed law clarify that coaches and recreation staff members could release that information if they chose to. However, they would not be required to do so.

The bill would exclude from the public record identifying information of a minor, such as the minor's name, address, age, date of birth, telephone number, name and address of the minor's parents and any other information on an application to participate in a recreation program.

Charles Marshall, representing the N.C. Press Association, requested that the name and age of the child continue to be public record to facilitate reporters and photographers who might be covering a youth sporting event.

Reps. Bonner Stiller, R-Brunswick, and Debbie Clary, R-Cleveland, argued for keeping such identifying information public.

"The worst thing that can happen is to put the wrong name under a 12-year-old or a 14-year-old who is the triple hitter," Clary said.

More here.

Want to Get Inspired Today?

Then check out the Student Press Law Center's excellent series of interviews with student journalists and their teachers...

Humboldt State University's investigative reporting class had hit a wall. In January they embarked on an investigation into mental health within the Humboldt County Jail by researching the life and death of James Lee Peters, a Native American man who in August committed suicide while in the jail.
After repeated phone calls and endless interview requests, the class was met only with silence.

"No one felt they could talk about it," said Marcy Burstiner, the professor who led the class. "No one was blocking them, but no one was helping them out."

Not knowing where else to turn, the class began digging through public records. They filed California Public Record Act requests with Atascadero State Hospital and petitioned the District Attorney to open Peters' files.

As the class pored over court transcripts, physiological reports and procedural policies, they began to piece Peters' life together. In doing so, they shed light on the deteriorating state of mental health services within the county jail.

Check out the interview here.

Hoosier Ombuds to Rule on Phone Records

Indiana's public access counselor is investigating whether environmental officials violated public records laws by failing to release complete records of phone calls made about the time of a public hearing on the BP Whiting oil refinery's air permit.

Public Access Counselor Heather Neal is expected to issue an official opinion on the Post-Tribune's public records complaint by June 26.

The northwest Indiana newspaper filed the complaint last month after the Indiana Department of Environmental Management said it did not have all the itemized cell phone records requested.

The newspaper had asked for records of cell phone calls made Feb. 1 through March 20 by Dan Murray, assistant commissioner of the agency's Office of Air Quality. That included March 14, the date of a public hearing on BP's air permit.

More here.

Tight Security on the Report, Anyway...

nitial findings from an internal investigation into apparent security lapses the night of the Governor's Mansion fire may be kept under wraps, thanks to a state secrecy law, insiders familiar with the inquiry acknowledged Wednesday.

The Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees the state Department of Public Safety that is in charge of Mansion security, is slated today to discuss the fire and the resulting investigations, including "possible action on deployment and implementation of security personnel or devices in the Capitol Complex," according to the meeting agenda filed with the Texas secretary of state.

Two sources familiar with the investigation said the commission probably will meet behind closed doors to discuss the mansion fire, citing exemptions in the Texas Open Meetings Act and Homeland Security laws that allow for such secrecy.

The rationale is that revealing details of mansion security might interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation of the fire and might compromise mansion security in the future. The two sources asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Commission Chairman Allan Polunsky declined to discuss specifics. Immediately after the fire, Polunsky ordered security fully reviewed at the mansion.

More here.

Here's a New One: "Editorial Privilege"

It's new to me, anyway...

When the Federal Communications Commission votes on something at a public meeting, the document they are voting on isn't necessarily for public consumption, the agency said Wednesday.

Commissioners unanimously rejected an appeal by the Associated Press for a copy of a document that was approved by a 4-1 vote at a July 31 public meeting.

The document was an order establishing rules that would govern the conduct of a planned auction of television airwaves that would later raise nearly $20 billion.

While commissioners approved the rules in a public vote, staff requested "editorial privileges." A formal document was not released until Aug. 10.

More here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

FOI Request Nets Video of Police Custody Incident

A handcuffed Kalamazoo teenager struggles with a Public Safety officer as he is led down a hallway toward a booking room when the officer shoves him into a wall, injuring his face, according to video of the incident released Tuesday.

The city of Kalamazoo released video of the May 22 incident after the Kalamazoo Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

The officer involved, Derek Nugent, has been placed on a 10-day, unpaid suspension, Acting Public Safety Chief Jim Mallery announced Monday.

The teenager, who is African-American, lost three teeth. In a complaint filed with the department, his family has alleged that Nugent, who is white, was harassing the youth because he is black.

The video (EXTREMELY profane and loud...volume control..) is here.

Think You've Waited a While for your FOI Request?

As the Reporters Committee explains, TRAC waited THIRTY YEARS....

A federal judge ruled Friday that the Internal Revenue Service has flouted three court orders dating back to 1976, requiring it to regularly provide requested information to a Syracuse

University professor. Judge Marsha Pechman, of the Western District of Washington in Seattle, ordered the IRS to produce unredacted copies of the requested audit reports within 30 days.

In addition, the IRS must comply with future requests and send the documents electronically to Syracuse School of Management Professor Susan B. Long within 30 days of her inquiries.

Long co-directs Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-research organization through the school that compiles government statistics for the public. She filed a motion in February for compliance with the three previous orders.

The FOIA saga that spanned four decades began in 1974 when Long, then a graduate student at The University of Washington, filed her original request for statistics from the IRS. She received a court order to enforce the request two years later.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Access to Police Disciplinary Hearings Subject of Cali Bill

A state senator hopes to revive a controversial bill that would increase media access to disciplinary hearings and records involving Los Angeles Police Department officers.

The legislation, according to Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), was encouraged by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and has already generated sharp criticism from the union that represents LAPD officers.

Last year, Romero sponsored similar, yet more far-reaching, legislation that sought to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling that effectively barred law enforcement agencies from releasing personnel information.

The legislation passed the Senate, but stalled in the Assembly's public safety committee. Members of the panel refused to discuss it or vote on it after leaders from several influential law enforcement unions spoke vociferously against it.

Union leaders argued that the law would endanger police officers' lives by making it easier for disgruntled members of the public to track them down -- although they could not cite cases in which officers had suffered such harm before the Supreme Court's ruling, when the public enjoyed greater access to disciplinary information.

More here.

Kudos to the Memphis Schools Chancellor

Not everyday do I dole out praise -- but this is well earned!

Chancellor Walter Evans this morning ruled that records of all applicants for the recent vacancy for superintendent of the Memphis City Schools are public records and should be provided to The Commercial Appeal.

The chancellor’s ruling came after the newspaper filed suit against the school board which provided access only to records of the five semifinalists selected by Ray and Associates, the Iowa-based company hired by the board to conduct the search.

Evans said Ray and Associates was performing a governmental function as an agent for the Memphis City Schools in receiving “all applications” for superintendent and that all applications and correspondence must be made available for public inspection.

More here.

White House Office of Administration Not Subject to FOIA...

The White House Office of Administration is not required to turn over records about a trove of possibly missing e-mails, a federal judge ruled Monday.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly found the agency does not have "substantial independent authority" so it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

The decision means the White House does not have to disclose documents relating to its troubled e-mail system. That system developed problems that may have caused millions of White House e-mails to be unaccounted for.

The watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington had sued under FOIA. The group expressed disappointment in the ruling and said it is appealing the decision.

"The Bush administration is using the legal system to prevent the American people from discovering the truth about the millions of missing White House e-mails," said Melanie Sloan, the organization's executive director.

In January, the White House said it cannot rule out that it may have lost certain e-mails. The possibly lost e-mails are from a period in which the United States decided to go to war with Iraq, White House officials leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame and the Justice Department started a criminal investigation into who leaked the information.

More here.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Secret Divorce Filings, And the Former Law Partners Who Grant Them

In early February, (Speaker of the House) Glenn and Susan Richardson walked into the Paulding County Courthouse, filed for an uncontested divorce and got their case sealed from public view.

The handling of the divorce raised questions as to whether the speaker of the state House received preferential treatment from Judge James Osborne, who was not initially assigned the case but signed the order placing it under wraps. The judge, once the speaker's law partner, is now weighing a request to unseal the divorce file. He said Thursday that he has treated the Richardsons' request like any other.

he case is being closely watched, particularly by divorce lawyers across the state. They say if the speaker succeeds in keeping the file sealed, it could lead to an avalanche of requests to close the files of other broken marriages.

"If they carve out an exception for him, I guarantee you we'll all be trying to seal divorce records," said John Lyndon, a family law attorney in Athens. "There's no doubt about it."

Lyndon has had mixed results sealing divorce records and said judges more often than not refuse to do it. When successful, he said he gives clients this caveat: "If challenged, I wouldn't expect it to hold up."

More here.

Man Bites Dog...

An elected official demands more openness...

Citing serious concerns about the “extreme secrecy” surrounding the Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA) participation in a key federal interagency committee (formally known as the South Orange County Transportation Infrastructure Improvement Project – SOCTIIP – Collaborative), Lt. Governor John Garamendi sent a strongly worded letter to Jane Luxton, general counsel at the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requesting a more open, public process.

One of the main functions of the federal committee is to coordinate federal agency evaluation of alternatives to the Toll Road proposed to go through the Donna O’Neill Conservancy and San Onofre State Beach Park. As such, this important committee is in a position to determine whether or not new information regarding alternative is objectively considered.

In this June 11, 2008, letter, Lt. Gov. Garamendi stated, “My concern is that these deliberations, so critical to your [NOAA and the Dept. of Commerce’s] final analysis, are being finalized in an environment where ONLY the project applicant examines, presents, evaluates and comments upon evidence. There is no opportunity for the public to participate in or even witness discussions and deliberations.” “TCA is not a collaborative member, but an observer. The structure of the SOCTIIP Collaborative has created an untenable situation: a project proponent with interests that are potentially adverse to the public or in contravention of law, is provided exclusive permission to communicate freely with federal regulators sheltered from public scrutiny. This set up frustrates the purpose of open government and public records law,” added Lt. Gov. Garamendi.

More here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Florida Judge: Go Get The E-Mail From Home...

In an extraordinary move, a circuit judge ordered three Venice City Council members to let a computer expert retrieve government-business e-mail from their home computers.

Judge Robert Bennett did not specify how Mayor Ed Martin and council members John Moore and John Simmonds must comply with his ruling, which came at the conclusion of an unusual one-and-a-half-hour emergency hearing involving Venice's top public officials.

But he required the three council members to provide access to their private computers to ensure preservation of records that are at the heart of a suit over alleged violations of Florida's open government laws.

Council members Sue Lang, Vicki Noren, Rick Tacy and Ernie Zavodnyik testified that they had turned over e-mail requested as part of the lawsuit and had not deleted any city government e-mail from their home computers. Bennett did not order them to provide access to their private computers.

More here.

The Supremes Weigh in on a FOIA Case..

In case you missed it, Dan Metcalfe's Collaboration on Government Secrecy brings word that the United States Supreme Court weighed in on a rather narrow federal FOIA issue this week:

The Supreme Court issued its decision in Taylor v. Sturgell, in which it reversed the lower court's decision (written by Circuit Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit) and ruled that, as a sound general rule, courts "should not proscribe or confine successive FOIA suits [i.e., for the same records] by different requesters."

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected the D.C. Circuit's "broad theory of virtual representation," concluding that while "it is theoretically possible that several persons could coordinate to mount a series of repetitive [FOIA] lawsuits," there is insufficient "risk" of "vexatious litigation" or "abusive FOIA suits" to warrant such a harsh preclusive rule for successive lawsuits brought under the FOIA. This is the thirtieth FOIA case decided at the Supreme Court level (and, putting aside the commonality of the two jurists' names, might be the first time in which the Supreme Court has reversed a decision written by a failed nominee to the Court.)

Interesting FOI Developments in AZ....Well Worth a Read

How close did I come to getting arrested by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies today? As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by that much."

The problem: I had the nerve to want to look at the same public records that sheriff's deputies were scouring at the City of Phoenix public records counter.

First, a little background.

You'll recall that Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has been putting a lot of political heat on Sheriff Joe Arpaio in recent months, ripping Arpaio for conducting "crime-supression sweeps" that are really intended to find illegal immigrants. At a luncheon in March to honor Cesar Chavez, Gordon said the Sheriff's Office was doing little more than locking up "brown people with broken tail lights." He reiterated the theme in a May 2008 Latino Perspectives Magazine article, writing that Arpaio has "created a 'Sanctuary County for Felons' with his reckless priorities–that target brown skin and cracked tail lights– instead of killers and drug dealers."

Pretty harsh words, and when the sheriff gets attacked, he bites back. In late April, the Sheriff's Office put in a public records request for every e-mail obtained or received from the mayor and a bunch of his staff members, including City Manager Frank Fairbanks. Arpaio also wants to see the mayor's meeting calendar and cell phone records. As New Times columnist Sarah Fenske wrote last month, the request appears to be a fishing expedition for any records that could harm the mayor politically.

More here.

Missouri E-Mail Saga Just Gets Better and Better...

The Kansas City Star and two other Missouri news organizations asked Wednesday to intervene in a lawsuit to obtain copies of e-mail messages to and from members of Gov. Matt Blunt’s staff.

The Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press filed a joint motion to join the lawsuit filed by independent investigators appointed by Attorney General Jay Nixon. The three-member investigative team is trying to determine whether Blunt destroyed public records that the law says must be retained.

The governor’s office had previously refused to disclose to the three news outlets many of the same documents now sought by the independent investigators.

The governor’s office last year either denied the news outlets’ requests outright or demanded thousands of dollars in fees before the requests would be considered. The motion says the denial and demands for excessive fees violate the Missouri Sunshine law, which gives the public access to government records with limited exceptions...

Blunt's office issued a statement saying he was disappointed that the two newspapers “would join forces with the campaign of Jay Nixon, the Democrat candidate for governor.”

More -- much more -- here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

No Public Interest in Iraq PTSD Cases? Really?!?

From the CREW website:

Today, CREW received a truly remarkable response from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to its FOIA request for documents relating to the VA’s abhorrent practice of under-diagnosing PTSD in veterans to save money. According to the VA, CREW is not entitled to a fee waiver -- meaning it has to pay for the costs of finding and copying responsive documents -- because there is no longer any public interest in this issue! Ignoring the wealth of news articles triggered by CREW’s and VoteVets.org’s release of an internal VA e-mail and the congressional hearing that release prompted, the VA claims that any records CREW requests “would not reveal anything new.”

We know what that means -- fee waiver or not, the VA has no intention of letting any more incriminating e-mails out of its clutches. Let’s hope there are more courageous VA employees willing to blow the whistle on what the VA is, and is not, doing for our veterans.

The VA also claimed it could not respond to the request as written because CREW failed to identify the specific VA offices and employees that would have responsive records. As CREW made clear in its response, we are committed to shining the brightest light possible on the VA’s treatment of veterans suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and we will not back down from these shameless excuses that the VA has offered.

More here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

An Interesting Persepctive From An Historian...

In today's Post:

Giving Americans back their history may not rank with ending the war in Iraq or balancing the budget, but it should be high on the to-do list of the next president. Our declassification system has broken down. Historians are waiting an average of seven years for replies from presidential libraries to their Freedom of Information Act requests. The White House cannot locate millions of e-mail records created during the months immediately before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The problem goes far beyond the Bush administration or its immediate predecessors. Tens of thousands of pages of previously declassified top-secret documents that I read and photographed two years ago at the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard, while researching a minute-by-minute narrative of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were closed to researchers in March pending an indefinite security "review." The ostensible reason for pulling the records is the 1999 Kyl-Lott amendment that requires the rescreening of millions of documents for supposedly sensitive nuclear secrets. But it is difficult to explain why the Navy waited nearly a decade before acting.

More here.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Anonymous Donors & FOI: A Tough Issue

A nice look at a contentious issue:

With only so much taxpayer funds available to pay for a lengthy wish list of capital projects, the town is increasingly relying on the generosity of a wealthy citizenry to fund everything from a proposed Byram pool to improvements at the municipal golf course.

Some gifts have come with a catch, with the donors requesting their anonymity from the town. A number of elected officials acknowledge that the practice could raise questions about transparency and donors currying favors. Most say the benefits outweigh the risk with so many projects competing for funding and limited funds to go around, however.

"I think from my point of view there's a tremendous list of things that need to get done and we live in a community where there are so many generous citizens who are committed to making Greenwich better, and they deserve our gratitude and our respect," Selectman Lin Lavery said.

Lavery, who promised during her campaign to champion a new public swimming pool in Byram Park, received $100,000 in commitments from private donors for a site survey and for the project's initial design. The donors' names have been a tightly guarded secret by Lavery, an ardent supporter of public-private partnerships from her days as president of the nonprofit Junior League of Greenwich.

"For some people, they like anonymity because it protects them from excessive requests," said Lavery, who also doesn't want to release any names until the money is actually spent on the project. "So there's no point publicizing the donor who has made a commitment but has not yet made the donation."

Some in town government are discouraging the practice of withholding the names of donors and said it could set a bad precedent.

"My personal opinion is that it's preferred to know who the donor is, so there is no conflict of interest," said Pamela Frederick, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting's Finance Committee.

Frederick said she realized that in the nonprofit world it is customary to receive anonymous donations but feels it inappropriate for the town.

More here.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Detroit Mayor Ordered to Move Forward With FOI Lawsuit

A Detroit judge has refused Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's request to delay a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Detroit newspapers until his criminal case has resolved.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert Colombo Jr. said Friday he allowed Kilpatrick to intervene to protect his rights but not to postpone proceedings. He says Kilpatrick and former Chief of Staff Christine Beatty will undergo depositions.

The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News have sought depositions as well as the release of text messages between Kilpatrick and Beatty. The Free Press published excerpts of some messages in January.

More here.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Rhode Island FOI Reform?

Rhode Island's Senate has voted to strengthen the state's freedom to information law by requiring government agencies to respond to information requests faster.

The bill passed unanimously Thursday afternoon. It now heads to the House.

If adopted, Sen. Michael Lenihan's proposal would be the first major change to the state Access to Public Records Act in a decade. It would ban government agencies from forcing people who seek government documents to divulge their identities or reasons for seeking the information.

The bill would also require the government to respond to open records requests within seven days, instead of 10. Police departments would have to release basic information about arrests within 24 hours of receiving an inquiry.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Louisiana FOI Reforms Down In Smoke...

Louisiana's popular new governor speaks with forked tongue when it comes to openness?

A Senate panel defeated legislation Wednesday that would have dramatically increased the number of governor’s office records available for public scrutiny.

The state Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 3-2 against approving the House-passed measure aimed at improving the state’s ranking as one of the worst in the nation when it comes to transparency of records in the governor’s office.

Proponents noted how much Gov. Bobby Jindal says he likes good rankings when it comes to disclosure laws and transparency.

But Jindal’s executive counsel Jimmy Faircloth told the panel that the administration favored a Senate bill that keeps more governor’s records off-limits to the public.

More here.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Bit Off Topic, But Well Worth the Read...

A different tack on the need for a federal shield law: to protect the rest of the world from us...


Sunday, June 01, 2008

Now THAT is some redacton....

From the ACLU's excellent work on the CIA files comes this gem:

After CIA Director Michael Hayden publicly admitted that the CIA has, in fact, waterboarded detainees, the agency could no longer cling to its last excuses for covering up the use of the very word “waterboarding” in CIA records. As a result, yesterday we obtained several heavily redacted documents in response to an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by the ACLU and other organizations seeking documents related to the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody overseas.

While the documents do, in fact, reveal the word “waterboarding” or some variation, they leave pretty much everything else to the imagination. The pages that haven’t been completely withheld (many of them contain the words “Denied in Full” instead of any actual content) have the clandestine blacked-out look that’s become a sort of trademark of this administration. This is my favorite: