Editor's Note

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Five-day window may jump to 15 days in Alabama

The sponsor of a bill that provides a government agency with five days to provide requested public records plans to replace it with a bill that increases the window to 15 days, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee passed a bill 9-0 that would give a government entity in the state five days to provide copies of public records requested from the public or the media. The bill now goes on to the full Senate for consideration.

The sponsor, Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, said he reached a compromise with the Alabama Press Association, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama and other entities that would increase that window to 15 days. The committee passed the bill with a five-day window, but Dixon plans to substitute the bill on the Senate floor.

The senator said he arbitrarily chose five days. People have a right to those documents in a reasonable time, he said, but the agency needs time to assemble the request.

More here.

W. Va. Senate to vote on gun bill this week

The debate over whether the public should have access to concealed-weapons permits continues in West Virginia, The Register-Herald (W.Va.) reported. Although the Senate plans to vote on a bill to prohibit public access, a different piece of legislation is being crafted in the House of Delegates to retain the public's right to know.
A renewed battle over the public’s right to access permits to carry concealed weapons is playing out in both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature this week.

A vote is planned at mid-week in the Senate on SB378 that is designed basically as a reciprocity pact, one that allows West Virginia and other states to recognize each other’s concealed permits when residents travel to and from one another.

Attached to that proposal, however, is a controversial provision that says the public has no right to pry into government records through a Freedom of Information Act request to see just who is allowed to pack a hidden firearm in public.
More here.

Judge's omission may cost her a fortune


The Dallas Morning News analyzed public records and discovered that Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, failed to disclose "all beneficial interests in real property" to the Texas Ethics Commission. The commission is investigating her for allegedly refusing to allow a prison row inmate's lawyers to file a plea pass 5 p.m. closing time in order to stop the execution, which occurred within hours. Apparently, the ethics commission doesn't routinely check the completeness of these financial disclosure reports, but The Dallas Morning News did.

The presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, while seeking state aid to defend herself against ethics charges, failed to abide by legal requirements that she disclose nearly $2 million in real estate holdings, according to an analysis of public records by The Dallas Morning News.

Sharon Keller has sought dismissal of the charges on grounds that it would be "financially ruinous" for her to pay private counsel to fight allegations brought by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that she violated her duties in a death penalty appeal.

Keller, the state's highest criminal court judge, faces possible removal from office if a special master agrees that she blocked a condemned inmate's last-minute effort to stop his execution in 2007 by refusing to extend the court's 5 p.m. closing time to allow his lawyers to file their plea. The inmate, Michael Richard, was executed within hours.

More here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

State officials dispute Utah report on mentally ill

An AP report compiled with numbers obtained through the FOIA and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services indicate that Utah has the highest rate increase in younger (22-64) mentally ill nursing home residents. However the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health denies that there's any way that Utah saw a 78 percent increase in younger mentally ill patients in nursing homes between 2002 and 2008. Only one state in the nation, however, saw a decline: Minnesota.

The number of young and middle-aged mentally ill individuals in nursing homes in Utah grew at the fastest pace in the nation during the past seven years, according to an Associated Press study.

But state mental health officials dispute the study. Robert Snarr, manager of state adult programs with Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said statistics kept by the state do not match the AP study. There has been no noticeable increase in demand for nursing home care for the mentally ill in Utah, he said.

According to the study, the Beehive State saw a 78 percent increase in the number of seriously mentally ill people between the ages of 22 and 64 living in state nursing homes between 2002 and 2008.

More here.

Bill aims to correct overclassification of records

Almost a third of the 362,000 FOIA requests made last year have yet to be processed due to overclassification, according to a New York Times editorial. A recently introduced bill would require the "national archivist to prescribe how and what to classify, with particular emphasis on cutting back categories and ending the pro forma withholding of nonsensitive information requested by the public."

By last count, the federal government employs 107 different categories of restricted information — one off-limits category zanily pronounces, “sensitive but unclassified.” This muddle of mislabeling seems designed not to protect legitimate secrets but to empower bureaucrats. The end result has been to greatly blunt the Freedom of Information Act’s mandate to let the public in on the business of government, plain and simple.

The House has just approved a measure to end this plague of pseudoclassification. Its backers say it is not just a boon for the public, but an attempt to promote “a common language within government.” There are so many taboos that agencies are even having trouble understanding one another’s rubber-stamp restrictions.

“Official use only” has been slapped wholesale on documents, even though there’s no common standard for what that means. The House measure would correct that by having the national archivist prescribe how and what to classify, with particular emphasis on cutting back categories and ending the pro forma withholding of nonsensitive information requested by the public.

More here.

Holder, Obama memos look promising

The Dallas Morning News column on watchdog journalism focuses on how memos released by President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder promise more government transparency than America has seen in the past eight years.

When it comes to accessing records held by federal agencies, the rules have changed.

After eight years of secrecy under the Bush presidency, the new administration promises greater transparency. The first wave of openness came in memos released by President Barack Obama on his second day in office.

The instructions on how federal agencies should apply the Freedom of Information Act came late last week when Attorney General Eric Holder released his FOIA memorandum. It rescinds the one in 2001 that told agencies the administration would support withholding of information.

More here.

Ark. bill to exempt executions from public record stalls

An Arkansas Senate committee is trying to reach a compromise concerning a bill that would exempt all "policies and procedures for carrying out the sentence of death and any and all matters related" from the Administrative Procedure Act and the FOIA, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. Execution procedures, including what drugs are used in executions, would then be left up to the prison director.

An attempt to amend state laws on executions stalled in a Senate committee Wednesday after members questioned the need for secrecy about what chemicals are used.

After a lengthy discussion, Rep. Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan, delayed consideration of the bill so a compromise might be worked out between prison officials who want virtually the entire process to be exempt from the state's Freedom of Information Act and some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who said they were concerned that too much would be concealed.

With perhaps two weeks left in the legislative session, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's chief deputy, Justin Allen, promised to bring back House Bill 1706 before lawmakers depart the Capitol.

More here.

New Orleans newspaper sues city for public records

The Times-Picayune newspaper has sued New Orleans for not fulfilling three records requests, the AP reported.
New Orleans' daily newspaper has sued the city, seeking various public records, including the credit card statements of city employees and the e-mails of city recovery chief Ed Blakely and Rica Trigs, head of the city library system.

The Times-Picayune filed the suit Tuesday in Civil District Court. The newspaper says the city has not fulfilled three separate records requests filed between May and December.

The newspaper also has intervened in a separate lawsuit that seeks to block the release of New Orleans Police Department records of internal investigations into police officers, including those involved in the New Year's Eve fatal shooting of Adolph Grimes.
More here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Attorneys for convicted gang leader file records request

Attorneys for Kevin Foster, who received a death sentence for a 1996 killing, have asked the Lee Circuit Judge to review currently exempt records that may be used in an appeal, The News-Press reported.
Attorneys for Kevin Foster, ringleader of the 1990s gang the Lords of Chaos, appeared in court this morning asking for public records for his appeal.

Foster was convicted of one count of first-degree murder in 1998 in the April 1996 killing of Riverdale High School band teacher Mark Schwebes. The jury recommended 9 to 3 that Foster be put to death and that’s where he sits 11 years later — at the Union Correctional Institute on Florida’s Death Row. Foster’s death sentence was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court in 2000.

He and his mother Ruby Foster were also convicted of conspiring to kill Judge Isaac Anderson and witnesses in the case.

More here.

New law prohibits inmates from harassing agencies with requests

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill that seeks to stop inmates from overburdening the Department of Corrections with records requests, the AP reported. The law goes into effect immediately. The bill allows agencies or public employees to refer requests to a superior court judge, who will decide if the requests are legitimate, harassing or intimidating or if they could lead to a security breach.
Jail and prison inmates would be blocked from using public records laws to intimidate or harass state agencies and employees under a measure Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law Friday.

Gregoire quickly signed the bill the same day the Senate unanimously passed it after concurring with some changes made in the House. The House passed the bill on a 94-2 vote Wednesday.

The measure has an emergency clause and goes into effect immediately.

More here.

Also, Legislature approves bill that could limit inmate access to public records, Seattle Times, here.

FOIA exemptions hard to spot

The original Freedom of Information Act included eight exemption categories. The Sunshine in Government Initiative has identified an additional 270, but there could be more. New legislation has been introduced in Congress that would "require any new b(3) exemptions to specifically reference the Freedom of Information Act, so that these exemptions would be easier to spot," the Columbia Journalism Review reported.

The idea behind the Freedom of Information Act is simple: file a request for a document with the government, and they’ll turn it over.

There are, of course, exceptions. The original Act, signed into law on July 4, 1966, listed eight broad exempted categories, including trade secrets, personal medical records, and classified information.

A ninth item ensured it wouldn’t stop there. Section b(3) of the Act says that information can be exempted from disclosure by other statutes. There’s nothing to require that these other exempting statues mention their intent to foil FOIA, and Congress is welcome to write as many of them as they like.

More here.

First Freedom of Information Center director dies

Paul Fisher, a former University of Missouri journalism professor and the initial director of the Freedom of Information Center, died March 17 at the age of 90, the Columbia Missourian reported.
MU journalism professor Paul Fisher's public acclaim as a hero of the freedom of information movement stood in bright contrast to his quiet, private personality.

Friends and colleagues said Fisher, who died Tuesday, March 17, 2009, at Lenoir Health Care Center at age 90, led the crusade for access to public information and helped found the academic study of information access.

"We wouldn't have a Freedom of Information Act in the United States if it weren't for Paul Fisher," said Pat Smith, editor of the Global Journalist. Smith described her friend and mentor as a brilliant, complicated intellectual who loved reading and the craft of journalism.

More here.

Also, Paul Fisher a true champion for freedom of information, by George Kennedy, here.

Proposal for racial data on traffic stops would keep records secret

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle's proposed budget would require 11 counties to compile records on traffic stops in order to determine if racial profiling is occurring, the Journal Sentinel reported. However, the records would be exempt from public record laws. This information is already included in police reports and considered public record, but the proposal would require the data to be organized into a record, which would not be public, for the Department of Justice.

Gov. Jim Doyle wants law enforcement in Wisconsin's 11 largest counties to compile data from traffic stops to determine whether racial profiling is occurring.

The proposal, contained in Doyle's budget bill, also would keep those records secret.

That has open government advocates bewildered. Why keep from the public data that could point to a problem or show that there isn't a problem, they wonder.

More here.

School board members fined for violating open-meetings law

School board members in Spirit Lake, Iowa, who violated the state's open-meetings law twice must now pay $400 each in fines, the Des Moines Register reported. The first violation occurred when members met in a hotel lobby in Des Moines. The second offense referred to an incident in which members discussed the district's finances in a private meeting that had been scheduled to discuss the hiring process for a new superintendent. Citizens are now calling for the resignation of the involved members.
A Dickinson County judge on Monday ordered Spirit Lake school board members to pay $400 each for breaking the state's open-meetings law twice.

Taxpayers who mounted a case against the elected officials now want them to resign.

Board members broke the law in November 2007 when they held a meeting in the lobby of a hotel in Des Moines, 200 miles from Spirit Lake, District Judge John Duffy ruled.
More here.

NY Assembly honors Sunshine Week with nine-bill package

The New York Assembly introduced a nine-bill package that would, among other things, permit the recording of public meetings (provided that it is not done in a disruptive way), the North Country Gazette reported. It would also direct agencies to accept public record requests sent via e-mail.
The Assembly says it will honor “Sunshine Week” by passing a series of bills aimed at strengthening the state’s Open Meetings Law, increasing government transparency and ensuring compliance with Freedom of Information laws.

The nine-bill package is intended to promote public awareness of governmental actions and information as the best way to foster better government through increased openness and accountability. Action on the legislation coincides with the annual Sunshine Week, March 15-21, when media around New York State and throughout the country run editorials, columns, cartoons, public forums and news and feature stories that drive public discussion about why open government is important to everyone, not just journalists.

One of the bills would allow any meeting of a public body to be recorded, broadcast and photographed, provided that it is done in a way that is not disruptive to the meeting. Destito noted that technological advances make it possible to record the proceedings of a meeting without detracting from the deliberative process.
More here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Holder issues new FOIA guidelines

In accordance with President Obama's call for a presumption of openness, Attorney General Eric Holder's memo directs agencies not to withhold records just because they can technically do so. Agencies are encouraged to make discretionary disclosures or partial releases of records that can't be released in full. Another change is that no longer will the department defend a denial of a request simply because the agency had a "sound legal basis" for withholding the documents. It will only defend denials in which disclosure is prohibited by law or would harm an interest protected by a statutory exemption.
Attorney General Eric Holder issued comprehensive new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guidelines today that direct all executive branch departments and agencies to apply a presumption of openness when administering the FOIA. The new guidelines, announced in a memo to heads of executive departments and agencies, build on the principles announced by President Obama on his first full day in office when he issued a presidential memorandum on the FOIA that called on agencies to "usher in a new era of open government." At that time, President Obama also instructed Attorney General Holder to issue new FOIA guidelines that reaffirm the government’s commitment to accountability and transparency. The memo rescinds the guidelines issued by the previous administration.

"By restoring the presumption of disclosure that is at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act, we are making a critical change that will restore the public’s ability to access information in a timely manner," said Attorney General Holder. "The American people have the right to information about their government’s activities, and these new guidelines will ensure they are able to obtain that information under principles of openness and transparency."

The new FOIA guidelines address both application of the presumption of disclosure and the effective administration of the FOIA across the government. As to the presumption of disclosure, the Attorney General directs agencies not to withhold records simply because they can technically do so. In his memo, the Attorney General encourages agencies to make discretionary disclosures of records and to release records in part whenever they cannot be released in full.

More here.

Download PDF of guidelines here.

Ariz. sends mixed message about open government

In honor of Sunshine Week, the Arizona legislative leaders commended their own efforts to increase government transparency, the YumaSun (Ariz.) reported. However, the same day it was announced that reporters who cover the legislature will no longer be provided with space in Arizona Legislature buildings. The dozen or so reporters who use the space pay $77 per month, but the Senate president says the space is now needed for GOP caucuses.
Leaders of the Arizona Senate sent a mixed message about open government Monday at the start of "Sunshine Week," a nationwide event designed to focus attention of the public's right to know about the operations of its government agencies.

Senate President Bob Burns joined with fellow Senate Republicans to proclaim their commitment to open government, citing a number of pending bills that included ones for municipalities to provide searchable online databases listing expenses and a requirement to post open meeting notices online.

Certainly, making information more readily available to citizens, whether it be online or through other methods, is commendable. We will always applaud those efforts.
More here.

Fla. launches state-spending Web sites

The state of Florida launched two new Web sites, which track government-agency spending by contractor name, The News-Press (Fla.) reported. A bill in the Legislature could expand this site to include the spending of local governments and legislative leaders. The next step of this budget tracking tool will include the ability to track every check the state writes.
Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink Tuesday unveiled what they described as the next generation of Florida's legendary open-government laws, new Web sites that track state spending.

The sites (flgov.com/sunshinespending and myfloridacfo.com/sunshinespending) track government-agency spending by contractor name."

Government in the sunshine is more important than ever, especially during these challenging economic times," Crist said.
More here.

Sun isn't shining brightly in Midwestern states

In honor of Sunshine Week, the Citizen Advocacy Center released a study on open-government laws in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The research shows that open-government laws are "sporadically enforced," training for state employees on these policies is poor, and citizens are not provided with opportunities to participate rather than just attend meetings. Reports are available for each of the five states on the Midwest Democracy Network Web site, linked below.
While every state in the nation has laws that require public access to government records and meetings, in five Midwestern states that were recently analyzed, documents are often kept secret and doors can remain tightly closed.

According to a study released Wednesday by the Citizen Advocacy Center in celebration of Sunshine Week (March 15-21), open government laws in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota have systemic barriers that chill public participation and access to government, which weakens our democratic system designed to be by, for and of the people.

More here.

Miss. ranks last for online access

Complaints against attorneys start at the Mississippi Bar Association, which has not computer database of disciplinary action, The Clarion-Ledger reported. Adam Kilgore, general counsel for the bar, said such a listing may be considered when the site is updated. Such are the problems facing Mississippi's online access to public records.
Can you go onto the Internet and see if any serious disciplinary actions have been taken against your doctor or lawyer? In Mississippi, the answer is yes - sort of.

For physicians, decisions can be found on the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure's Web site by sifting through reports of board's monthly disciplinary actions.

For lawyers, any public disciplinary decisions would be available in scant detail from the online docket of the Mississippi Supreme Court, unless the action arrived at the court on appeal. In those cases, the court's official opinion would be on its Web site.

More here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ind. government not yet living in digital age

The Indianapolis Star encouraged state leaders to begin investing in online access to records after the state ranked poorly in the Sunshine Week survey.
State leaders in recent years have invested considerable time and money (and rightly so) in trying to grow the high-tech and life sciences industries in Indiana. They have not, however, as a new survey shows, placed a similar emphasis on moving state government into the digital age, even though ready access to information is vital in both industries targeted for growth.

The survey, conducted by journalism organizations that explored government Web sites in every state, found that Indiana ranks near the bottom in online access to public information. Only Mississippi ranked worse than Indiana in supplying records on such topics as school bus safety, hospital inspections and disciplinary actions against doctors and lawyers. Three other states -- Montana, Oregon and Wyoming -- tied with Indiana in the bottom five of the ratings.

Such neglect of open government is unacceptable at any time. And it's especially discouraging for a state that is trying to attract and retain emerging industries and the educated professionals they employ.
More here.

A look inside the AP's success, struggles with FOIA requests

During Sunshine Week, the AP recounts how it has used data from FOIA requests to break national stories. This story also lists the organization's frustrations with responds to FOIA requests. For example, the Homeland Security Department typically takes 58 days to respond to an expedited request but recently rejected an AP request for a speedy response by citing that it couldn't be that urgent because no other news organization had requested those documents.
President Barack Obama is promising to reinvigorate the Freedom of Information Act by opening more of the government's filing cabinets without a fight. It can't happen soon enough for the people awaiting replies to more than 150,000 requests for information.

Behind the headlines, The Associated Press wrestles with bizarre administrative hurdles and jaw-dropping contradictions trying to use the law; some recent ones are described below.

Obama has begun to deliver, but there are conflicting signs about how far he will go.

More here.

FOI records reveal origins of deficient degree

FOI at Work!

The Richmond Times-Dispatch struggled to obtain records from the Virgina Commonwealth University on Rodney Monroe, the former Richmond police chief who received a degree despite not meeting qualifications. FERPA stood in the way. However, because the police department funded his coursework, some data was available under FOIA. Records show that VCU administrators only briefly mentioned via e-mail that Monroe had not met the requirement to earn 25 percent of credit from courses at VCU.

It was no secret that he took only two courses at Virginia Commonwealth University. Rodney Monroe, then Richmond's police chief, publicly spoke of that shortly before he graduated in 2007.

But far less apparent were how lapses in judgment and university procedures combined to allow him to get that diploma even though he fell far short of requirements for his bachelor's degree.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch used the Freedom of Information Act to help determine what courses Monroe had taken, how much the Richmond Police Department paid for his courses, and to provide insight into internal communications leading up to the approval of his degree.

More here.

La. prison system refuses to release inmate photo

The Shreveport (La.) Times requested a photo of a 73-year-old inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The inmate, who once was a towering, 220-pound man, has apparently deteriorated, been ill and requested a clemency recommendation that would make him eligible for parole and early release. The Department of Corrections said it only releases inmate photos in cases where one escapes custody. They also are not allowing a photographer to visit the prison to photograph the inmate, though they have allowed photography of inmates in the past.
The request seemed simple enough: a current photograph of a Louisiana Department of Corrections inmate.

But what would ensue would be a series of e-mails, jockeying with DOC, a Freedom of Information Act request, and ultimately, no photo.

I had been working on stories about a 73-year-old inmate named Douglas Dennis, incarcerated at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In January, Dennis had sought a clemency recommendation from the state Pardon Board, which, if signed by the governor, would mean Dennis would be eligible for parole and early release from his two life sentences.
More here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Unanswered questions remain in Missouri FOI debate

Since former Missouri Governor Matt Blunt's e-mail controversy of 18 months ago, a new e-mail retrieval system has been implemented in the governor's office but has not been expanded to other offices due to costs, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Hundreds of public officials still maintain that e-mail is not considered public record. It's still not clear what records must be saved, said the court-appointed attorney who oversaw the Blunt investigators' final product. The problem is that the records retention act and the Sunshine Law aren't on the same page.
For 18 months, a cloud of suspicion has blocked out some of the sunshine from the second floor windows of the Missouri Capitol.

Investigators tapped by the attorney general's office tried to determine whether then-Gov. Matt Blunt and his employees were following the public accountability laws that require certain documents to be maintained as open records.

In fact, some laws were being skirted, investigators argued in their final report, which was released this month after more than a year and a half of legal wrangling and political squabbling in which Missouri's Sunshine Law became front page news.
More here.

La. public records law exempts governor

Documents stemming from Gov. Bobby Jindal's office and documents he reviews from other offices are exempted from the Louisiana open-government law, the News Star reported. Despite Jindal's public support for transparency, the state's open records law related to the governor's office was ranked the "darkest" sunshine law in the nation by the Citizen Access Project.
While Gov. Bobby Jindal campaigned on and regularly promotes transparency in government at all levels, the same standards do not apply to his office.

Getting what one would think should be public records from the governor's office is virtually impossible under state law — a law that earns Louisiana a national survey's ranking of worst in the nation for access to the governor's records.

State law exempts the governor from having to release documents that are commonly accessible in other government offices. And through wording added by the Legislature last year, the protection could extend to any other office's document that the governor reviews.
More here.

Miss. needs clarification on what agencies can charge for records

The Biloxi School Board told Keith Rogers it would cost $84 for copies of exhibits presented at a School Board meeting, the Fort Mills Times reported. That included the cost of research, even though the information was already available online to School Board members with a password. The governor told The Clarion-Ledger it would cost more than $14,000 for gubernatorial e-mails spanning four days. That included "$7,500 to hire private attorneys to review the e-mails for exempted material and $5,400 to bring in an out-of-town computer consultant."
Biloxi resident Keith Rogers thought he would be able to review and copy exhibits the School Board used to decide that an 52-year-old elementary school in his neighborhood will be turned into an alternative school next year.

"I thought I would get them because they are public records," Rogers said. "The secretary at first was very defensive about releasing them at all."

She eventually informed Rogers he could have the records for $3 a page. The school system's standard charge includes the cost of copies, research and time, even though in this case the records already had been assembled and were available on the Internet to board members who had passwords.

More here.

More state coverage of online availability survey

Survey: 65 percent of Minnesota government records online, Associated Press
When it comes to online access to state government records in Minnesota, the state is, well, slightly above average.

A survey by journalists and others found that 65 percent of the records checked were available online, compared to the national average of about 60 percent.
More here.

Tennessee not putting some public records online, Associated Press
While more and more government records are available with a few mouse clicks, Tennessee still does not provide some important state records and reports for free online.

A nationwide survey of state government information online found Tennessee, like many states, has no comprehensive database for state spending and doesn't put a variety of inspection reports online, including those for hospitals, child care centers and school buses and buildings.
More here.

Many key records available online, free in Colo., Associated Press
Coloradans can get a wide range of public records online at no charge, ranging from school test results to hospital inspection reports. But some key information is harder to find.

There's no single online source for school bus safety inspection reports, for example. And although death certificates are available online, it costs $9 more than getting them by mail or in person.

More here.

Public records easy to get in Arizona, study says, azfamily.com

When it comes to providing public records online, Arizona is one of the best in the nation.

A study by several journalism organizations found Arizona to be among the top 15 states in the nation for posting records on the internet.

More here.

SC 22nd in nation for online public records, Associated Press
Many of South Carolina's agencies are providing online access to public records - part of what appears to be a nationwide push to draw attention to the public's right to know what's going on in government.

Still, a new study shows that South Carolina trails 21 others that post more records online.
More here.

AP CEO calls for united front on open government

AP CEO Tom Curley provides his thoughts on the Obama administration's call for openness and the possibility of a federal shield law. Overall, he is optimistic about Obama's directive; however, he said, "But the only thing that will really make all these good intentions effective is a work environment in government in which compliance with open records law carries incentives and rewards for government employees."

Tom Curley, president and CEO of The Associated Press, is one of the news media's foremost advocates for open government and freedom of information.

In 2007 and 2008 he earned national awards for his work on First Amendment and open records issues, and this year he received a national citation for journalistic excellence from the William Allen White Foundation.

In question-and-answer form, he discusses the 2009 Sunshine Week initiative spearheaded by media organizations.

More here.

Texas places first in 2009 Survey of State Government Information

See how your state measures up to others in terms of state government information available online:

Most Americans can easily find videos of water skiing squirrels on the Internet but they’ll have less luck finding out whether their children's school buses and classrooms are safe, or if neighborhood gas stations are overcharging.

The Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information online found that while more and more government records are being posted online, some of the most important information is being left offline. And in some cases governments are charging taxpayers to access records that they already paid for, such as death certificates.

More here.

More coverage:

Survey shows some Ky. records available online, Fort Mill Times
In Kentucky, which tied for 26th place, the easiest records to find online are death certificates; however, viewing them is not free. Citizens must order them online and pay processing and delivery fees.

Also easy to find are statewide school test data; disciplinary actions taken against physicians within the past decade; teacher certifications; political campaign contributions and expenses; and personal financial disclosure reports for members of the Kentucky legislature.

Mississippi last in survey of Internet records, Memphis Commercial Appeal.

The state has online data from only four of 20 categories examined by the Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information Online.

But the Mississippi agencies responsible for these records aren’t solely to blame in the lag of posting information online. Other culprits include a shortage of funding for developing and maintaining the Web sites; a shortage of broadband Internet access in this mostly rural state and lack of interest by residents who opt not to go online.
N.C. gets high marks for posting public info online, Times-News Online

The report found that North Carolina, which tied for third place, provides information on 17 out of 20 categories surveyed.

A visitor to the state's government Web site (www.nc.gov) can easily find links to state agencies on health, public education and transportation, but other links listed under "Online Services" and "State Agencies" can be confusing for a first-time user, the survey found.

Florida celebrates 100 years of Sunshine Law

Florida's Sunshine Law began with a bill introduced in 1909 that spanned only 36 words. Of course, the law has evolved since then in good and bad ways, Pat Rice of the Northwest Florida Daily News reported. Just recently, a bill was introduced that would exempt personal identifying information (names, addresses, etc.) for current or former public school teachers, administrators and school board members.
Sunday is Sunshine Sunday, a day each year when newspapers across Florida champion the state's open-records and open-meetings laws.

This year is of special note because it's the 100th anniversary of the genesis of Florida's Sunshine Law, which protects your right to know how your government operates.

In 1909, a state representative from Gadsden County, J.W. Mahaffey, introduced a bill requiring that "all state, county, and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection of any citizen of Florida and those in charge of such records shall not refuse this privilege to any citizen."
More here.

Power company sues county for records related to license renewal

The Alcoa power company, which controls four reservoirs, sued Stanly County for allegedly not responding to records requests and improperly redacting nonprivileged information, the Charlotte Observer reported. The power company wants the judge to decide if the records are exempt from the law, to order the disclosure of the records and to force the county to reimburse Alcoa for its attorney fees. Alcoa is attempting to renew a 50-year federal hydroelectric license.

The Alcoa power company sued Stanly County on Friday, saying government officials have dragged their feet in responding to public-records requests.

Alcoa Power Generating Inc., which controls four reservoirs along the Yadkin River, is hoping to renew a 50-year federal hydroelectric license.

The county has spent nearly a million dollars fighting the renewal. It says the company has not cleaned up 90 years' worth of pollution, a charge Alcoa denies.

More here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

York Daily Record gears up for Sunshine Week

The York Daily Record promises special investigative reports, documents of interest and information on Pennsylvania's new open records law, all in honor of Sunshine Week.

"Sunshine Week," a national effort by media, schools, civic groups, libraries and others to draw attention to public records issues, begins Sunday.

Visit the York Daily Record/Sunday News' open records page, Full Disclosure, for columns on national open records issues, as well as the newspaper's ongoing coverage of right-to-know stories, original documents, "Record Tracker" blog, and links to other sites about open records.

More here.

S.D. sees open-government legislation as first step

An editorial that ran in the Argus Leader praised the South Dakota bill that presumes records are open to the public. The bill passed the Legislature and is expected to be signed by the governor. For the future, the paper writes, "However, it should concern all of us that the price for getting this bill passed appears to have been a blanket exception for all officeholders, allowing all correspondence and work documents, even their appointment calendars, to remain closed to the public. Despite the challenges in the new law, though, it's important to remember that this was a key first step."
Let's make at least one thing clear.

The open records bill that passed the Legislature is historic.

It's a major step forward for South Dakota that should be celebrated.
More here.

Penn. FOI director says state is in 'new era of openness'

The York Daily Record spoke with Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, in honor of Sunshine Week. In regards to the state's 2-year-old right-to-know law, De Bourbon said, "For the first time, government agencies are being told they have not followed the law in denying access to records." For example, the Office of Open Records ruled that "a secretary's tape recording of a public meeting -- even if made only for the purposes of writing up the minutes -- is a public record and accessible to the public." She hopes that fees will be addressed in the future and that agencies will start providing records online via PDFs.
As part of Sunshine Week, a national effort to raise awareness of public records, the York Daily Record/Sunday News asked Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, some questions about the state's new open records law, which is 21/2 months old.
More here.

Utah public records bill dies

From the AP:
A bill that would have made it easier to keep some records private has failed to pass the Utah Legislature.

The House and Senate didn't reach a compromise on House Bill 122, which made changes to the balancing test for the release of 8 types of records covered under the Government Records Access and Management Act that deal with police investigations and legal proceedings.

The Senate passed a version of the bill earlier and sent it back to the House. On Thursday, the last day of the session, the House offered its own version. The two chambers couldn't agree in conference committee and the bill died.
More here.

Americans 'optimistic,' 'still guarded' about Obama's FOI promises

More coverage of the Sunshine poll:

Americans overwhelmingly support President Obama's order that federal agencies must show a "presumption in favor of disclosure" when asked to open government records to the public, an order issued during his first full day in office.

But a survey of 946 adult residents of the United States also found that 61 percent believe the federal government "only sometimes, rarely or never" obeys the Freedom of Information Act that requires such disclosure.

Yet the survey, commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, also found that the erosion of the public's confidence in the openness of the national government has slowed or even reversed slightly after three years of dramatic declines.

More here.

FBI receives worst FOIA performance award

The National Security Archive awarded the FBI its Rosemary Award for the worst FOIA performance by a federal agency, the AP reported. In the past four years, 66 percent of those requesting information were told that the FBI had found no responsive records. In 2008, only 0.5 percent of requesters received all data they asked for. The FBI doesn't check cross-reference names, the entire file or paper/field office records unless it is specifically asked to do so.
The FBI tells two out of every three Freedom of Information Act requesters that it can't find the records they asked for — a failure rate five times higher than other major federal agencies, a private study has found.

The FBI's performance results from an outdated and deliberately limited search process, according to the National Security Archive, a private group that publishes declassified government documents and files many FOIA requests.

The Archive awarded the FBI its Rosemary Award for the worst Freedom of Information Act performance by a federal agency. The award is named for former President Richard M. Nixon's secretary Rose Mary Woods, known for re-enacting her claim to have accidentally erased 18 1/2 minutes of a White House tape recording when she stretched to answer a phone. It's given annually around Sunshine Week, when journalism organizations promote open government and freedom of information.

More here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Former information policy director provides insight on past, advice for future

ProPublica reporter Jennifer LaFleur interviewed Dan Metcalfe, who founded the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy and ran it for more than 25 years. Metcalfe says he has never witnessed a president pay so much attention to FOIA than Obama. Metcalfe advocates a "readily foreseeable harm" standard, which would require FOIA officers to release information that technically falls within an FOIA exemption unless it immediately occurs to them that disclosure could result in harm. He also suggests asking agencies to review "what they have been withholding from the public on that basic since 9/11 and to reconsider that in light of current conditions."
Dan Metcalfe directed the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy for more than 25 years. He founded the office in 1981, under the Reagan administration, and retired in 2007. During that time he drafted two seminal memos on FOIA. One during the Clinton years instructed government agencies to be more open and another in 2001 -- known as the "Ashcroft memorandum" -- that reversed that decision.

He now teaches law at American University and directs the Collaboration on Government Secrecy, the only academic center of its type at a law school.

More here.

Venice cost taxpayers money in delaying settlement

Eric Ernst of the Herald Tribune is pleased with how the city of Venice, Fla., adopted new e-mail policies and increased FOI training. However, the disappointment is that the city accumulated mounds of bills by not settling the case in June. The recent settlement did not differ substantially from the previous ones offered. Taxpayers will now be footing the bill.

If the outside world takes one lesson from the Venice open records/Sunshine Law case, it should be: Fix what's wrong and get on with life.

The city and its eight defendants -- City Council members, advisory board members and a former mayor -- did fine on the fixing.

They adopted procedures to safeguard e-mails regarding public business and they beefed up training.

More here.

Colbert Report addresses gun-permit privacy war

Stephen Colbert says he "longs for a day when gun owners no longer have to hide their relationship with their concealed weapons." This five-minute video features Colbert's thoughts on the Memphis Commercial Appeal's decision to post a handgun-carry permit database online.

More here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Survey shows adults support Obama's FOI plan, still view fed. government as secretive

The 2009 Sunshine Week survey, conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, shows that public opinion about government secrecy is leveling off but has grown steadily since 2006. Not surprisingly, most people still consider their local and state governments more open than the federal government. People are, however, supportive of President Obama's call for more government transparency.
For the first time in four years, public opinion about government secrecy has leveled off, although more than seven in 10 adults still consider the federal government to be secretive, according to the 2009 Sunshine Week survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

Since 2006, the percentage of adults who believe the federal government to be somewhat or very secretive has grown steadily; from 62 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in 2008. The latest survey finds 73 percent characterizing federal government as secretive.

This mood is perhaps buoyed by the nearly eight in 10 adults who think President Obama's Freedom of Information directive calling for a presumption of disclosure is the right thing to do.
More here.

Presumption of openness bill headed to S.D. governor

From the AP:
A bill creating an open-records law that presumes government documents in South Dakota are public unless there's a good reason for secrecy is headed to the governor.

The state Senate voted 27-0 on Wednesday to accept changes to SB147, a presumption of opennness bill. Supporters say the bill strikes a balance between opening public records and protecting the private information that some agencies hold about people.
More here.

Open-government advocates disappointed about watered-down bill

A House bill that was initially lauded by watchdog groups is now being criticized by them, Washington Independent reported. The bill no longer requires all contracts stemming from the stimulus bill to be posted online. Only summaries of contracts worth more than $500,000 will be available to the public.

Internet junkies and wonks alike may have jumped the gun in looking forward to the new online transparency hyped by House members who vowed to put contracts doled out from the $800 billion stimulus package online.

That promise, included in the initial House bill, was hailed by watchdog groups, who pointed to it as real reform in government contracting. However, in a major concession to government contractors, which opposed having the contracts made public, the final bill requires only a “summary of the contracts” to be posted online; and even the summaries will only be available for contracts worth more than $500,000.

According to the law, the government has to provide certain data about federal contracts, including whether the contracting process was competitive, how the contract was awarded, and for those contracts over $500,000 “a summary of the contract.”

More here.

Neb. bill would hide internal audit documents from public

The University of Nebraska is pushing a bill that would keep some documents generated during university internal audits from the public eye, the Associated Press reported. The university says the measure is needed to protect the identity of whistleblowers, but the the state auditor and government watchdog groups are concerned about the secrecy.
Nebraska State Auditor Mike Foley and government watchdog group Common Cause are among those concerned that a bill being pushed by the University of Nebraska would keep residents in the dark.

Under the measure (LB674) from Sen. Danielle Nantkes of Lincoln, some documents generated during internal audits conducted by the university would not be considered public.

University officials said the bill is primarily needed to ensure the names of whistleblowers are kept secret to encourage them to come forward. Under an amendment to the bill, they said that public documents would not be made private once they became part of an audit.
More here.

Open-government bill goes to S.D. House

A bill that would assume all government records are public records unless they are exempted by law or rule has been endorsed by a South Dakota House Committee and now goes to the full House for vote, the Associated Press reported.

A South Dakota House committee has endorsed a measure that declares all government records are open to the public unless a law or rule specifically closes them.

SB147 was approved earlier by the Senate.

The House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to pass the bill after approving some changes that were negotiated by lawmakers, the governor's office and representatives of news organizations.

More here.

Obama approves $1 million for FOIA ombudsman

The Bush administration provided no funding for the new Office of Government Information Services and attempted to relocate it under the Justice Department, which defends the government FOIA decisions, Columbia Journalism Review reported. The good news, however, is that Obama's budget provides $1 million to the new office, which is likely to be up and running by the end of the year in the National Archives, instead.

The budget President Obama just signed includes one million dollars for the new Office of Government Information Services, which will be housed in the National Archives that is charged with serving as a government wide ombudsman for the Freedom of Information Act process.

Gary Stern, the Archives’ general counsel, speaking in January before a Washington College of Law-sponsored conference on freedom of information, made it clear that the agency was expecting an initial appropriation of that amount, and said that most of the funds would go towards the office’s director and a half dozen support staff.

The Bush administration had, despite the explicit intent of congress, signed a quiet budget provision in an attempt to put the office within the branch of the Justice Department charged with defending the government’s FOIA decisions, and provided it with no funding. Outside advocates and members of Congress members who’d worked on creating OGIS not surprisingly viewed this as a rather naked conflict of interest and an attempt to neuter the office.

More here.

E-mails reveal Pelosi staffers impatient about aircraft

FOI at Work!
E-mails obtained through an FOIA request indicate no illegal actions but impatience about the type of aircraft available to Nancy Pelosi, Politico.com reported. The report created by Judicial Watch, which filed the request, also says Pelosi and her staff "frequently made demands on Air Force personnel and often canceled on short notice, costing the military an unspecified amount." Pelosi's spokesperson said the Department of Defense dictates the type and availability of aircraft.
The good-government group Judicial Watch has released a batch of unflattering e-mails, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that show staffers for Nancy Pelosi kvetching about access to official aircraft.

The group, which has investigated politicians from both parties in recent years, isn’t alleging illegality — just petulance.

Pelosi’s office is pushing back, saying the type of plane she uses is dictated by the demands of a transcontinental flight — and the House sergeant-at-arms’ security concerns associated with refueling a smaller plane.
More here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

City of Venice admits Sunshine violations in settlement

In its settlement, the City of Venice, Fla. agreed to adopt measures that include a "mandatory annual training program for elected and appointed officials and a ban on the use by such officials of private e-mail accounts to conduct City business." The City will also pick up attorneys' fees.
On the eve of Sunshine Week celebrations across the nation, and after nine months of contentious litigation, the City of Venice voted today to accept a settlement agreement in a precedent- setting open government case. In the summer of 2008, activist Anthony Lorenzo and Citizens for Sunshine brought a lawsuit centering upon the deletion of e-mails and the alleged use by elected officials of liaisons, in-person meetings, and private e-mail accounts to circumvent Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. Early in the litigation the trial judge took the unusual step of ordering a forensic examination of the home computers of the Mayor, Vice-Mayor and a Councilmember after plaintiffs’ attorneys presented evidence of widespread violations of the Public Records Law. The lawsuit later survived repeated attempts by the defendants to have the claims dismissed prior to trial, which had been scheduled to begin on February 23 before being postponed due to the proposed settlement.

Under the settlement agreement, the City admits to violations of both the Sunshine and the Public Records laws and accepts the imposition of broad remedial requirements to ensure the preservation of public records and uphold the constitutional requirement that public business be conducted in the Sunshine. The settlement also requires the City to pay substantial attorneys fees, as mandated by the Public Records and Sunshine Laws.
More here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Congressional data mining could be on its way

A provision that would Congress and its bodies to release data in raw form was slipped into a spending bill passed by the House of Representatives, Mother Jones reported. If the Senate doesn't edit out the three-sentence statement, the public will no longer have to rely on government Web sites, which filter the data they provide. Some Web sites already use remix raw data to create databases and charts, but they must "scrape" government sites to obtain this data -- a process that is cumbersome and not perfect.

By slipping a simple, three-sentence provision into the gargantuan spending bill passed by the House of Representatives last week, a congressman from Silicon Valley is trying to nudge Congress into the 21st Century. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) placed a measure in the bill directing Congress and its affiliated organs—including the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office—to make its data available to the public in raw form. This will enable members of the public and watchdog groups to craft websites and databases showcasing government data that are more user-friendly than the government's own.

If the Senate passes the bill with the provision intact, citizens seeking information about Congress' activities—such as bill names and numbers, amendments, votes, and committee reports—won't have to rely on government websites, which often filter information, are incomplete, or are difficult to use. Instead, the underlying data will be available to anyone who wants to build a superior site or tool to sift through it. "The language is groundbreaking in that it supports providing unfiltered legislative information to the public," says Honda's online communications director, Rob Pierson. "Instead of silo-ing the information, and only allowing access through a limited web form, access to the raw data will make it easier for people to learn what their government is doing."

More here.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Troopers illegally shoot deer, try to win prize

FOI at Work!

The Traverse City Record-Eagle obtained investigative reports concerning a deer shot illegally by a Michigan State Police trooper from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources via an FOI request. The records show that Jeffrey Hadley and Donald Bolen shot the buck while on duty. They later loaded it into the back of the patrol vehicle, sawed off its head and antlers and discarded the rest of the animal. They claimed the blood and hair in the back of the patrol car stemmed from them transporting a road-kill deer to a needy family. Hadley later tried to enter the deer's rack in a troopers' big-buck contest.

A Michigan State Police trooper who illegally "shined" and shot a 10-point buck while on duty in a state patrol vehicle tried to enter the ill-gotten deer's antlers in a troopers' big-buck contest.

Troopers and patrol partners Jeffrey Hadley, 45, and Donald Bolen, 41, both of Cheboygan, illegally killed a buck sometime after midnight on Nov. 13 -- two days before the firearms deer season -- along Mograin Road in Cheboygan County's Benton Township.

The poaching incident kick-started the troopers' clumsy, six-week attempt to cover their tracks, though Hadley spent part of that time boasting of his monster buck and attempted to enter its rack in a contest.

More here.

W. Va. county clerk withholds names of petition signers

The Shepherdstown Observer is suing the Jefferson County Clerk after it refused to release the names of signatures on a petition related to a zoning change referendum, the West Virginia Record reported. The newspaper requested the documents after learning that about 18 percent of the signatures were deemed invalid.
The Shepherdstown Observer newspaper has filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson County Clerk over her refusal to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Observer says it wanted to see documents related to a petition gathered to spur a referendum on a zoning change passed by the county commission. The change was passed in Oct. 2008, according to the newspaper's complaint filed Feb. 11.

The petition is allowed by law to challenge the zoning change. Ten-percent of registered voters in the affected area have to sign the petition to prompt the referendum vote.
More here.

Ark. House supports concealed handgun bill

An Arkansas bill to exempt records regarding concealed-carry permits from the state FOIA cleared a House committee and will now advance to the full House, where support is widespread, Arkansas News reported.
A bill to prohibit the release of the names and other information of Arkansans who hold permits to carry concealed handguns cleared a House committee Thursday.

House Bill 1623 by Rep. Randy Stewart, D-Kirby, received a “do pass” from the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would make records regarding concealed-carry permits exempt from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Stewart, a former Olympic shooter, filed the bill after a weekly newspaper made a list of the names and addresses of permit holders in the state available on its Web site last month.

More here.

Missouri Roundtable for Life says Carnahan never responded to requests

Missouri Roundtable for Life says it filed three separate Sunshine Law requests and did not receive any response from Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, KMBC-TV (Kansas City) reported. Carnahan's office, however, says it responded to two requests it received from the group, which has filed a Sunshine Law complaint against Carnahan.
Missouri Roundtable for Life (MRFL) filed a Sunshine Law complaint against Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

The group said the complaint was filed because Carnahan failed to respond to the three separate Sunshine Law requests made by MRFL that accompanied three new initiative petitions on Feb. 19, 2009.

Under the Sunshine Law, Carnahan is required to notify a party within three working days of how it is going about handling the Sunshine Law request.
More here.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas names new executive director

Keith Elkins, a veteran TV news journalist will lead the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which has relocated to Austin and seeks to have a more active advocacy role, the "News McNabb" blog reported.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIFT) is pleased to announce that Keith Elkins has been selected as the organization’s Executive Director. FOIFT recently relocated to Austin, after 30 years in Dallas, and is now embarking on a new mission to assume a more active and more visible role in advocating for, and preserving, open government.

“We are very pleased to have FOIFT’s office relocated to Texas’ Capital city where we believe we can make a more significant difference for the citizens of Texas. We are also very excited to announce the selection of a new Executive Director. After a lengthy search process our search committee unanimously recommended Keith Elkins as the best candidate to lead our organization in a new direction,” said President Laura Prather of Austin. “Keith has a deep understanding of and passion for the Public Information laws in Texas and draws from experience on both sides of the aisle on the issues of open government.”
More here.

Text messages are public records, Mich. judge rules

The Detroit Free Press anticipates previewing some 1,400 previously unreleased text messages from former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former aide Christine Beatty on Monday. The messages were requested by the newspaper after prosecutors used them for Beatty's perjury case. Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny denied Kilpatrick and Beatty's right to assert a marital privilege, attorney-client privilege or deliberative-process privilege since the text messages were sent on city-issued pagers.
Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny has ruled that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former aide Christine Beatty have no right to assert a legal privilege that would allow them to keep previously undisclosed text messages secret.

Kenny is giving lawyers for Kilpatrick and Beatty until Monday to appeal.

"This court does not see the existence of a valid privilege that can be asserted by Ms. Beatty or Mr. Kilpatrick at this juncture," said Kenny, in ordering the release of some 1,400 text messages held by prosecutors and previously under seal.

More here.

Details of bailout loans remain a secret

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York provides select members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors the daily reports on bailout loans that journalists have been asking for, Bloomberg reported. Bloomberg has suited for records which mostly exist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which claims it isn't subject to FOIA. The Board of Governors now has 231 pages of these documents; however, it is using a trade secret exemption to prevent releasing the data to the public.
The Federal Reserve Board of Governors receives daily reports on bailout loans to financial institutions and won’t make the information public, the central bank said in a reply to a Bloomberg News lawsuit.

The Fed refused yesterday to disclose the names of the borrowers and the loans, alleging that it would cast “a stigma” on recipients of more than $1.9 trillion of emergency credit from U.S. taxpayers and the assets the central bank is accepting as collateral.

Fed secrecy was the focus of a Senate Banking Committee hearing today in which the panel’s top two members said the central bank’s reluctance to identify companies benefiting from the American International Group Inc. bailout risks undermining public confidence in the government.

More here.

W. Va. chemical plant halts briefing on fatal accident

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board planned to brief the public on a 2008 explosion at a chemical plant run by Bayer CropScience; however, those plans changed when plant operators argued that information related to the investigation is considered "sensitive security information," Secrecy News reported. Bayer refers to the Maritime Transportation Security Act, but Secrecy News points out that this act only says certain facility security data "is not required to be disclosed to the public," NOT that disclosure is prohibited. Coast Guard regulations that protect plant information don't apply to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Government safety investigators canceled a public briefing about an August 28, 2008 explosion that killed two persons at a chemical plant in Institute, West Virginia after operators of the plant said that public discussion of the accident could jeopardize "sensitive security information."

Bayer CropScience, which runs the plant, told the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that relevant information about the plant is protected from public disclosure under the terms of the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, as interpreted by U.S. Coast Guard regulations.

The Board, which is an independent federal agency that investigates industrial accidents, canceled the March 19 public meeting while it seeks to evaluate the Bayer secrecy claims. See "Board Cancels Hearing Under Bayer Pressure" by Ken Ward, Jr., The Charleston Gazette, February 25, 2009.

More here.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

New FOI blog created by Conn. attorney

Attorney Mark Dumas has created a new blog on Connecticut Freedom of Information and open-government laws. So far, his posts have offered insight on hidden costs associated with FOI requests and provided links to great resources and state coverage of open-government issues.

Visit the Connecticut Freedom of Information Law Blog here.

N. M. House approves bill to okay requests via e-mail

Should it really matter whether an FOI request is filed via e-mail or paper? The New Mexico House doesn't think so, the New Mexico Independent reported.

The New Mexico House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would make an e-mail the legal equivalent of a paper request for public documents.

The legislation is needed because some state agencies in the past have not accepted e-mails as a legally acceptable way to request documents.

A similar bill that would accomplish much the same thing, and shorten the period a public agency has to respond to a request for information, has been delayed. That bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, was larded with exemptions to the state’s public records act.

More here.

Children of Central Arkansas trustees get tuition breaks

FOI at work!

As a result of an FOI request, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette learned that five current or former trustees of the University of Central Arkansas received tuition discounts for their children. This could present a conflict of interest, and officials are asking that this practice as least be made transparent and put in writing.

The children of trustees of the University of Central Arkansas have received up to 80-percent discounts on their tuition and fees, the Associated Press reports. Although the tuition breaks appear to be legal, according to a lawyer cited by the AP, trustees do not typically benefit from their board positions.

The discounts could be perceived as gifts, said Jim Purcell, the Arkansas higher-education director, according to the AP. They could also present a conflict of interest for trustees, who set policy for the institutions they serve.

In response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which first reported the discounts, the university named five current or former trustees who received discounts for their children’s tuition and fees.

More here.

Former Gov. Matt Blunt will not face criminal charges

Investigators concluded that former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt's office "did not have adequate policies regarding record retention and state open-records law," the Kansas City Star reported. However, the violations are not considered criminal. Blunt's lawyers said the investigators' report contained “flawed factual assumptions and conclusions.” It's still unknown whether anyone in his administration ordered e-mail backup tapes to be destroyed or not.
A 16-month investigation concluded that former Gov. Matt Blunt’s office did not follow all laws on retaining public records, but investigators decided the violations were not criminal.

The report is the latest word, but likely not the last, on the issue that surrounded Blunt from late 2007 until he left office in January.

A defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit is pending brought by fired administration attorney Scott Eckersley, who contends he was terminated after challenging his superiors’ position on open records.

More here.

Records show Ill. governor is 'thrifty'

Illinois Gov Pat Quinn's travel records show he personally paid for most of his overseas trips (to visit the troops) and didn't accept a meal allowance when he was lieutenant governor, the AP reported.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's penny-pinching reputation was bolstered his first day in office when he flashed a cut-rate hotel's preferred customer card.

An Associated Press review of state travel records backs him up.

Quinn never accepted the $32 daily meal allowance for state travelers during six years as lieutenant governor. He often pays his own lodging, too.
More here.

More Texans drinking away their worries at home these days

FOI at Work!

Figures obtained through an FOI request indicate that more Texas establishments are late in paying their alcohol suppliers, the Dallas Morning News reported. Some of the 23,000 late payers last year obviously struggled with dwindling sales due to the economy. Others say the state law that requires alcohol payments to be made by the 10th or 25th of the month offers a short window to settle their debts, which raises bookkeeping problems.

Hundreds of Texas restaurants and bars have begun running up stout bar tabs with their alcohol suppliers as cash-poor consumers drown their sorrows at home.

For 2008, the number of restaurants, bars and liquor stores behind in their payments to alcohol suppliers leaped more than 18 percent over the 2007 total. That's according to figures from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The commission counted nearly 23,000 late payers last year. The growth rate was more than double the 7 percent rise between 2006 and 2007.

More here.

Newspaper under fire for story based on police report

Although newspapers have a "fair report privilege" ensuring their liable for printing potentially false information they obtained from police reports, a Houston lawyer says an Arkansas newspaper did not proceed responsibly in this case, the AP reported. The article in question centers around a woman who reported that she had been raped at Ryan Whiteside's house. Whiteside had been connected with the high-profile murder case of an Arkansas beauty queen in 2005. The Arkansas Supreme Court will hear his case against The Courier newspaper, which ran a front-page story on the rape accusation, which was later dismissed.
The slaying of an Arkansas beauty queen still dominated talk around Russellville when an 18-year-old woman told police she had been raped at the home of one of the men who discovered the murder victim's body.

The woman said she didn't remember everything that happened at Ryan Whiteside's house, but was sure she awoke next to Kevin Jones, who later was acquitted in Nona Dirksmeyer's death.

Arkansas State Police troopers investigated and dismissed the woman's allegations — a fact not disclosed until after the local newspaper ran a Page One story detailing the accusations against two men already involved in the high-profile murder case.

More here.

Calif. considers limiting Internet mapping sites

Clearly, maps such as Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth aren't the only places one can find photos of schools, hospitals, churches and government buildings. But a California lawmaker is concerned that the ready availability of these images may assist terrorists and has proposed that restrictions be placed on certain images.
A California lawmaker wants to force Internet mapping services to blur detailed images of schools, hospitals, churches and all government buildings, reviving a debate over whether such images can assist terrorists.

Assemblyman Joel Anderson, a San Diego-area Republican, said he decided to introduce his bill after reading that terrorists who plotted attacks in Israel and India used popular services such as Google Earth and Microsoft 's Virtual Earth.

But even if his bill becomes law, it might be difficult to prohibit Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and other mapping companies from posting such photographs. That's because those images already are public and often are posted on the institution's own Web site.
More here.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Campaign to rid universities of Coca-Cola makes use of FOI

Ingenious use of FOI:
The Texas Campaign to Stop Killer Coke’s University Open Records Project is an endeavor to obtain all of the Coca-Cola contracts between Texas state universities and colleges through the use of the Texas Open Records Act, a.k.a. Public Information Act, Chapter 552 of the Government Code. This project was undertaken with an eye towards organizing around the greater Killer Coke movement in Texas. The goal of the Campaign is to kick Coke out of our schools, businesses and governmental agencies for it’s worldwide labor, human rights and environmental abuses. See killercoke.org for more information.
More here.

New Penn. law coming in handy

Media outlets and citizens in Pennsylvania are realizing that the state's new Right to Know Law is providing more records than the last version, The Morning Call reported. The previous law didn't assume that most records are public. The state open records office has 100 pending appeals to review. So far it has overturned three of six appeals.
Early evidence shows Pennsylvania's new Right to Know Law is doing what it's designed to, giving the public more access to records that show how governments are behaving and spending tax money.

Last week, the state open records office posted rulings on its first six appeals. In three cases, one in Quakertown, it ruled governments must provide information they initially refused to release.

Governments could have kept the information secret under the old Right to Know law in two of those cases, said Barry Fox, deputy director of open records.
More here.

Transparency portal proposed but unpopular in Ill.

Illinois state Rep. Michael Tryon is urging the government "to create a Web site with a searchable database containing information about contracts, expenditures and employee salaries," The State (Ill.) Journal-Register reported. However, the legislative director for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said some lower paid employees feel "sort of like their laundry's being aired." In other Illinois ethics news, the executive inspector general for agencies under the governor's office wants the law changed so that he and other inspectors won't have to wait for complaints to be filed in order to investigate anonymous tips.
Spurred by the Dec. 9 arrest of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, officials inside and outside of state government are studying ways to battle government corruption.

GateHouse Media’s State Capitol Bureau is tracking their work and examining the issues that arise at public hearings of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Government Reform. The idea is to help readers understand attempts to fix state government and make it run in a way that better serves the public.

Last Tuesday, the legislative committee focused for a second time on the topic of “open government.”
More here.