Expanding his drive to open government, President Barack Obama is ordering two studies of whether the government is classifying too much information and using too many different ways to keep it from public view.More here.
He wants the answers in just 90 days, and it's no secret which way he's leaning.
In a memo Wednesday, Obama ordered national security adviser James L. Jones to consult relevant agencies and recommend revisions in the existing presidential order on national security classification that lays out the rules under which agencies can stamp documents confidential, secret or top secret.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Obama orders review of classification system
Ill. House unanimously approves FOI overhaul
Taxpayers trying to wade through the sometimes-murky waters of government bureaucracy would find a clearer stream under legislation the Illinois House approved Wednesday.
Lawmakers voted 116-0 to overhaul the state's Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts.
The bill would require government bodies to respond to requests for documents more quickly, create a position in the attorney general's office responsible for ruling on and mediating disputes and impose civil penalties for bureaucrats who purposefully ignore a request or disregard the law.
City slowly releases payroll records
The San Jose Mercury News filed a public records request for the 2008 payroll records for all city workers in order to create public employee compensation databases. All jurisdictions provided the full records except for Watsonville, which is releasing information "as it becomes available." Watsonville initially just released records on the highest paid police officers and firefighters. It hurried to released the names and salaries of other employees who made more than $100,000 because some thought police and firefighters were being targeted. The city attorney says Watsonville is only legally bound to release records for employees with salaries of $100,000 or more.
City officials have released the names and salaries of 27 employees who made more than $100,000 in 2008.
The release came late Friday, a day after the Sentinel published the names of police and firefighters who earned more than $100,000 in 2008, a story that sparked controversy in City Hall corridors and in the community.
On April 27, the Sentinel made a public records request for the 2008 pay records for all city workers as part of a countywide project to create public employee compensation databases. The city and county of Santa Cruz databases are available on the Sentinel's Web site, santacruzsentinel.com.
Dissecting Sotomayor's media law record
We're compiling a full report on the record of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, in the areas of First Amendment and media law, and expect to post our findings here tomorrow. In the meantime, though, Sotomayor's input on three cases seemed particularly noteworthy:More here.
In high-stakes prosecution, Sotomayor rejected prior restraints on the press.
A 2005 opinion regarding the high-profile prosecution of a bank executive suggests that Sotomayor, in her time as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan (2nd. Cir), understood well the value of a transparent judiciary and a free press.
UA professor, FOI advocate honored
Congratulations to David Cuillier, assistant professor at The University of Arizona School of Journalism and chairman of the national Freedom of Information committee for SPJ. Cuillier won AEJMC's "Promising Professor" award and was recently named a research fellow for 2009-2010 by the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the UA.
An assistant professor in The University of Arizona School of Journalism took first place in the national "Promising Professor" faculty competition. The award is given by the Mass Communication Society division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, known as AEJMC.
David Cuillier, who teaches courses on public affairs reporting and computer-assisted reporting, will be honored as one of the nation's best and brightest teachers at AEJMC's national conference Aug. 5-8 in Boston. The competition was open to faculty who have taught no more than five years full-time. Cuillier also won the graduate student category of the competition in 2004 while a doctoral student at Washington State University.
At the conference, Cuillier will give a presentation about his teaching and present two research papers: one based on a study that shows skepticism is closely tied to support for freedom of information, and the other about teaching methods in journalism education. He also was invited to speak on a panel about press access to law enforcement information.
Newspaper uncovers water sample results via FOIA
The Exponent Telegram received copies of the weekly reports on water samples collected by the the city of Clarksburg, W. Va., via FOIA. Although the state doesn't have a standard for the level of total dissolved solids that are allowed in public waterways, the average level being discharged into the West Fork River is 527 parts per million. Pennsylvania has a limit of 500 parts per million. Levels in Clarksburg have reached as high as 852 parts per million.
Although West Virginia has not set a standard for the levels of total dissolved solids allowed in public waterways, the average levels being discharged at Clarksburg’s wastewater plant are higher than those allowed in Pennsylvania, records show.More here.
Plant Superintendent Bill Goodwin said the average level of total dissolved solids being discharged into the West Fork River is 527 parts per million. Pennsylvania allows no more than 500 parts per million.
He said the amount by which Clarksburg exceeds Pennsylvania’s standard is quite small.
Check out submitted open-government ideas
Check out the ideas here.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Judge urges city to settle rather than endure a costly trial
Unless the city of Yakima and a local attorney settle their dispute over an alleged violation of the state open-meetings law, they should prepare for a costly trial, a judge has ruled.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson said he could not determine whether Tim Schoenrock deserves attorney fees for his work on the case without a closer look at whether members of the Yakima City Council violated the Open Public Meeting Act when they lined up support for a new budgeting policy last month.
A trial, Gibson wrote, would be risky and expensive for both sides. He urged the city and Schoenrock to settle the matter out of court.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Senate creates process to ban release of detainee photos
The ACLU’s effort to get photos documenting the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan was halted by the Senate on Thursday night, in an amendment to the appropriations bill.
The Senate also agreed to require new laws that exempt information from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act to specifically reference the FOIA, making them easier for requesters to spot.
The two changes were part of the supplemental appropriations bill, which the House already passed. The House and Senate will now reconcile the two versions of the bill.
Records indicate other UK athletes tested positive for banned substances
The Herald-Leader obtained records under the Open Records Act that show the number of UK athletes who have tested positive for banned substances in the past few years. Jeremy Jarmon has been the "most prominent," but another UK athlete was dismissed in the latter part of 2008 and another was penalized for testing positive for marijuana (first offense). The school did not release the names or the teams of those who tested positive in the school's internal testing. (Jarmon tested positive in an NCAA random test). At UK, 13 athletes during the 2006-07 year and 10 during the 2005-06 year tested positive for marijuana.
Jeremy Jarmon was not the first University of Kentucky athlete whose career was cut short because of a positive test for a banned substance. But he's certainly one of the most prominent.
One UK athlete was dismissed from a team between July and December of 2008 after a positive test for marijuana. A second athlete who tested positive for marijuana was simply penalized because it was a first offense, according to records of internal testing at UK Athletics that the Herald-Leader obtained under the Open Records Act.
The records UK provided were from the school's internal testing, not from the NCAA. Jarmon came up positive in a random test conducted by the NCAA. The substance was not disclosed.
Federal government Web sites promise more transparency
On his first full day in office, President Obama issued his first executive order directing federal officials to come up with ideas for making government information more visible and accessible to the public within 120 days.More here.
Today -- the 120th day since the edict -- the White House is rolling out a host of online initiatives intended to foster more dialogue and collaboration between citizens and bureaucrats.
The launch includes the debut of a site called Data.gov, where agencies will post data that can be culled by Web developers to make new Web and cellphone applications. Also starting today, the WhiteHouse.gov homepage will become a repository for citizen suggestions and discussion regarding new open-government policies.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Open-government advocates oppose Illinois FOIA rewrite bill
Open-government advocates say Illinois would be better off with an existing but flawed Freedom of Information Act than with a revised law released by House Democrats late Tuesday, just one minute before midnight and less than two weeks before the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn.
Rather than making records more accessible, officials with the Illinois Press Association say the provisions put forth by legislative leaders would make it easier for government officials to delay and ultimately keep some records secret.
“This would just open up a whole new range of litigation,” said Beth Bennett, IPA director of government relations.
La. governor backs loosely drawn bill
Louisiana's Senate has approved legislation aimed at making more of the governor's records public but an opponent says the bill contains a loophole keeping many documents secret.
Gov. Bobby Jindal backed the bill, approved Wednesday, as an alternative to another measure that would have made the governor's office subject to the same open records law as other state agencies.
The bill, which goes next to the House, keeps under wraps records relating to the "deliberative process" of the governor and his "internal staff."
Public invited to participate in drafting Open Government Directive
Read the initial OMB Watch blog here.
On January 21, 2009, his first full day in office, the President issued a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and called for recommendations for making the Federal government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.
As Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President says in the video below, we are proud "to announce an important next step in this historic call to action – one that will help us achieve a new foundation for our government – a foundation built on the values of transparency, accountability and responsibility."
Access the White House Open Government blog here.
Participate in the brainstorming session here.
Conference participants develop plan of action for open governments
The Carter Center in conjunction with other organizations held a conference in Peru where more than 115 representatives from 18 countries discussed obstacles and potential solutions to the right of access to public information in the Americas. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter spoke on the final conference day and reminded participants that "access to information can change the landscape of society."
Participants in a conference on the right of access to information released today their findings and plan of action to advance the right in the Americas.The Americas Regional Plan of Action provides a blueprint for the regional and international community, states, and non-state actors to establish, develop, and nurture the right of access to information in the Americas and calls on them to commit to the plan in furtherance of our common objective. The regional document serves as an annex to last year's global Atlanta Declaration and Plan of Action.
The conference was held April 28-30, 2009, in Lima, Peru, and was organized by The Carter Center in collaboration with the Organization of American States, the Andean Jurists Commission, and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. More than 115 representatives from government, civil society, media, private sector, regional intergovernmental organizations, international and regional financial institutions, and donors from 18 countries in the region came together to consider the main obstacles and potential solutions to advance the right of access to information in the Americas.
To read the full Americas Regional Findings and Plan of Action and the Atlanta Declaration for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information, please go here.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Reporter attributes Wash. roots to how she rocked Parliament
Nice bio from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Heather Brooke, who requested expense-accounts information on Parliament members five years ago. Her request set the stage for Tuesday's resignation of the speaker of the House of Commons and possibly criminal prosecutions of parliamentarians who abused their expense accounts.
If the British tabloids knew about the sex-advice column Heather Brooke wrote for the University of Washington Daily nearly two decades ago they might run with it as a salacious news item.
Something like "sex writer rocks Parliament."
But that information hasn't reached them, it seems, and Brooke has proven to an entire nation she is a journalist of another ilk. In doing so, the former Seattleite has shaken up the British parliamentary leadership and perhaps changed forever the relationship between the British press and the House of Commons.
Okla. judge releases 911 tape
A Mayes County judge on Monday approved the release of a 911 recording from a Pryor woman who died this month after her car was swept away in floodwaters.More here.
In issuing his order, District Judge Terry McBride blocked a permanent injunction sought by William Kendrick against 911 service operator Mayes Emergency Services Trust, which contacted the Kendrick family after receiving media requests for the recording. William Kendrick's daughter, Kimberlyn Rae Kendrick, pleaded for help in a 911 call to the emergency service before she drowned May 2.
On Monday, McBride told the court that Kimberlyn's "final words seem private. However, there is no exception in the Oklahoma (Open) Records Act that I could find to deny access to those public records."
School board reaches settlement in newspaper suit
The Steamboat Springs School Board formally accepted a lawsuit settlement offer from the Pilot & Today on Monday.
The settlement was tentatively approved by board members last month on the heels of a March ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals that the previous School Board violated the state’s Open Meetings Law by not properly announcing the intention of its executive session at a Jan. 8, 2007, meeting. As a result of the ruling and settlement offer, the district will pay $50,000 of the newspaper’s attorney fees and release the transcripts from the illegal meeting.
The motion to accept the settlement offer was approved 4-1 on Monday, with a couple of board members expressing satisfaction that the lawsuit is now behind them. Board member John DeVincentis was the only dissenting vote, but he wasn’t the only one displeased with the outcome.
New twist in Palin hacker case
A surprise legal maneuver by the defense in the Sarah Palin hacking case could undermine key charges carrying the stiffest potential penalties.
A lawyer for the Tennessee college student charged with hacking into the Alaska governor’s Yahoo e-mail account last year says his client couldn’t have violated Palin’s privacy because a judge had already declared her e-mails a matter of public record.
“He’s not suggesting that e-mail can’t be private,” says Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department cybercrime prosecutor. “He’s saying this particular e-mail was not private or personal because of who she is and because it wasn’t intimate communication.”
EPA puts status of FOIA requests online
You may still be waiting for EPA to fulfill your FOIA request, but you can at least check easily on the status of your request -- thanks to a new online status report.
The Web page, browsable here, may state the obvious, but it could also save you time on the phone. You have to know your Request Identification Number, since that's how the requests are listed.
The report lists the date the request was received, the date a response is due, and the status (pending, closed, etc.)
It does not identify the requester or the information requested -- so you can not browse the status of other people's requests.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Charles Davis' take on White House FOIA decision
Charles N. Davis [Executive Director, National Freedom of Information Coalition]: "The May 19 federal appellate court decision finding that the White House's Office of Administration is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act is an act of legal finery in bad need of a legislative fix.More here.
Indeed, the court's decision is but the latest example of how crabbed judicial interpretation of the Act has restricted its ambit even as the digital communications of the era bedevil a law created in the days of manila folders and Smith-Corona typewriters.
In upholding a ruling last year by a federal judge, the appeals court found that the White House does not have to make public internal documents examining the potential disappearance of emails during the Bush administration.
Penn. newspaper denied credit-card receipts
Northumberland County President Judge Robert B. Sacavage has sought advice from the state on how to proceed with Commissioner Vinny Clausi’s request for credit-card receipts from the Adult Probation Department.More here.
The issue has mushroomed into a debate over the public’s right to know, separation of powers and record-keeping procedures in the county.
The News-Item has filed official requests for the same documents through the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law (RTK) and Rule of Judicial Administration 509. While the RTK request was denied, the court has 10 days from the day of receipt, which was Wednesday, to respond to the Rule 509 request.
Museum keeps contract for Tut exhibit under wraps
Taxpayers spend untold millions to subsidize the Dallas Museum of Art. But the museum says they have no right to know what kind of deal it cut with the for-profit organizers of the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibit.
The Dallas Morning News formally requested a copy of the Tut contract in January, citing a state law that requires most nonprofit organizations to make their financial records public.
Museum lawyer Gary Powell said the DMA would not comply because it promised exhibit organizers absolute confidentiality.
White House Office of Administration not subject to FOIA
In a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the White House Office of Administration is not required to respond to FOIA requests, Politico reported. The group was seeking information about "an archiving failure which allegedly resulted in millions of White House e-mail messages being misfiled or even lost."
The White House's Office of Administration does not have to respond to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a 3-0 decision this morning.
"Because nothing in the record indicates that [the Office of Administration] performs or is authorized to perform tasks other than operational and administrative support for the President and his staff, we conclude that OA lacks substantial independent authority and is therefore not an agency under FOIA," Judge Thomas Griffith wrote in an opinion joined by Judges David Sentelle and Raymond Randolph.
The setback for transparency advocates came in a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington seeking information about an archiving failure which allegedly resulted in millions of White House e-mail messages being misfiled or even lost.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Newspaper fights Naval Academy for records
A seemingly simple question about whether the Naval Academy treated men and women fairly in sexual misconduct cases took three years and 3,000 pages of documents to only partially answer.
Getting these documents was not easy even though the Naval Academy is a publicly funded institution. It receives between $200 million and $300 million each year in taxpayer dollars, and applications from between 9,000 and 15,000 of the nation's young people annually.
The Capital became interested in the sex abuse cases after some midshipmen and academy graduates alleged in 2006 that there was a double standard of justice being meted out to male and female mids.
Conn. Corrections wants to bar inmates from getting personnel files
Sometimes it only takes a letter.
Using the Freedom of Information Act to request employee files, prison inmates can learn the home addresses and disciplinary records of state Department of Correction workers. State law allows them access to the information unless the department can prove that the request would threaten employee safety.It is a process that concerns the department, which worries that access to such information could lead to its employees being harmed or blackmailed, said Bryan Garnett, the DOC's external affairs director.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Records indicate shooter had history with Trolley Square
The 745 pages of FBI reports on the 18-year-old who shot nine people at Trolley Square revealed that the mall was a childhood hangout for Sulejman Talovic, who also had made racist and violent remarks long before his rampage, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. This article is based on an FOIA request Nate Carlisle filed two years ago.
When 18-year-old Sulejman Talovic walked into Trolley Square and opened fire on shoppers, he was returning to a childhood hangout, according to newly-released FBI documents.
Talovic and his family used to live one block from the mall, and one person told agents Talovic played there with his sisters as a child. Another said Talovic was at Trolley Square "every day," and that the mall "was the only place he went." Someone also recalled Talovic once got into a physical fight with someone at the mall over a video game.
The documents provide the first possible explanation for why Talovic, a Bosnian immigrant who came to the U.S. at the age of 9, chose the mall as the site of his rampage. They also detail racist, violent statements made by Talovic -- among them that he planned to shoot white people like Serbs, had been a member of the Klu Klux Klan, and shot someone in a drug deal gone bad.
Nev. legislators urged to conduct business in public
An open government group on Thursday urged legislators to support greater transparency in government and to conduct more state business in public.
Nevada Freedom of Information Coalition president Thomas Mitchell said the group is asking state lawmakers to sign a pledge committing themselves to supporting stronger open meeting and public information laws, and to encouraging better online access to legislative votes and data on state spending.
"This is the public's right to know. If you're going to be citizen, if you're going to vote, if you're going to be involved, you need to know what's going on." Mitchell, the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said at a news conference. "Otherwise, we're left in the dark, we're left to guess, we're left to rely on leaks."
Fort Lauderdale commissioners advised to stay off Facebook
We've seen a few stories lately about cities and agencies joining the Twitter or Facebook madness. There's certainly no Facebook craze in Fort Lauderdale City Hall.
City Attorney Harry Stewart advised commissioners against setting up pages on Facebook, or creating personal websites with content that could be public record.
Stewart's full memo about Facebook is here.
Paterson veteos N.Y. Sunshine Law amendment
New York Gov. David Paterson has vetoed legislation that would have allowed judges to fine school boards, municipal councils and other public bodies up to $500 for violating the state open meetings law.More here.
The measure, which passed the Assembly 142-1 and the Senate by voice vote, would have amended the so-called "Sunshine Law" law that allows judges to invalidate for "good cause" votes or actions taken behind closed doors.
The law is meant to ensure deliberations and decisions are public, with exceptions for personnel matters, litigation, contract negotiations and secret police activities. Formal votes to spend public money must be done in public.
Friday, May 15, 2009
Great news for open government in Oklahoma
Records of government business belong to the public even if they are created, received or stored on an official's private smart phone or laptop, according to an Oklahoma AG opinion released Thursday.
"To conclude otherwise would allow public officials and employees to circumvent the open records laws simply by using privately owned personal electronic communication devices to conduct public business," the opinion said.
The opinion also prohibits public officials and employees from altering or destroying public records on their private communication devices unlessallowed to do under the state Records Management Act.
"E-mails, text messages and other electronic communications made or received in connection with the transaction of public business, the expenditure of public funds or the administration of public property are subject to the Oklahoma Open Records Act, [its exemptions] and the Records Management Act regardless of whether they are created, received, transmitted or maintained by government officials on publicly or privately owned equipment and communications devices," the opinion concluded.
Unlike in many other states, attorney general opinions in Oklahoma are binding unless overturned by a court.
Opinion 09-12 noted that government officials and employees increasingly use privately owned "computers, laptops, cell phones, PDAs, smart phones, and other personal electronic communication devices in conjunction with their work."
Public access to such electronic communications became an issue in April 2008. OSU student Jenny Redden, for an independent study with me, reported in The Daily O'Collegian that OSU President Burns Hargis and several hundred other university employees conduct the public's business on their smart phones or cell phones.
OSU administrators claimed the related text-messages, e-mails and numbers dialed were secret. They contended that the ownership of the cellular device, not the substance of its related records, should decide whether those records are public.
That policy earned OSU officials the annual Black Hole Award from FOI Oklahoma Inc. in March.
The notion put forth by OSU poses a serious threat to open government because it contains no limiting principle. If a record is secret because it's on the mayor¹s iPhone, then so are documents on the mayor's own laptop even if he's conducting the public's business on it while seated at his office desk.
Courts and attorneys general in other states have rejected the reasoning used by OSU officials, holding that it is the nature of the record created that determines if it is open to the public.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondon's office followed suit, saying that nowhere in the Open Records Act "is ownership of equipment mentioned as a factor in determining what is or is not a record."
"We conclude that who owns an electronic communications device has no bearing on whether an electronic communication created or received on that device is a record," the opinion said. "Thus, a communication that meets the definition of a record under the ORA is subject to disclosure regardless of whether it is created or received on a publicly or privately owned personal electronic communication device, unless some provision of law allows it to be kept confidential.
"Nor does the location of the electronic communications equipment matter, whether it is used in a governmental office, in a public official's or employee's home, or somewhere in transit between them," the opinion said.
The opinion also reasoned: "Like the ORA, the RMA makes no distinction between records that exist on publicly owned electronic communication equipment and those on privately owned equipment. Therefore, public officials may not partially or wholly mutilate, destroy, transfer, remove, alter, or otherwise damage or dispose of records on their personal electronic communications devices, except as provided by law."
Read the AG's opinion here.
Jenny's series on open government at OSU can be found at:
Thank you to Drew Edmondson and Assistant Attorney General Debra Schwartz for this written opinion. It will go a long way toward protecting open government in Oklahoma.
Thank you, also, to Susan McVey, director of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, and Bill Young, the department's public information administrator, for requesting the opinion.
Investigation into sheriff's public appearance will remain private
Information regarding a federal investigation into Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott's appearance at a Sarah Palin rally will not be released to the public, the Naples Daily News reported. The Office of Special Counsel, which announced the inquiry seven months ago, cites the privacy exemption as to why it won't even confirm the existence of the investigation or report on its progress. The appearance gained national attention for Scott's use of Obama's middle name. The investigation was to determine if Scott violated the federal Hatch Act, "which prohibits state and local employees of agencies that accept federal funds from using their office to further partisan aims."
A federal investigation into Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott’s appearance at a campaign rally last year will not become public — due to concerns for the outspoken sheriff’s privacy.
A staff attorney for the Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency that announced the inquiry into Scott seven months ago, said he was not allowed to even confirm an investigation exists, much less report on its progress.
Privacy concerns will also keep the office from releasing any results of a concluded investigation, the attorney said.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Obama reverses stance on torture photos
President Barack Obama declared Wednesday he would try to block the court-ordered release of photos showing U.S. troops abusing prisoners, abruptly reversing his position out of concern the pictures would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House had said last month it would not oppose the release of dozens of photos from military investigations of alleged misconduct. But American commanders in the war zones have expressed deep concern about fresh damage the photos might do, especially as the U.S. tries to wind down the Iraq war and step up operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Obama, realizing how high emotions run on detainee treatment during the Bush administration and now, made it a point to personally explain his change of heart, stopping to address TV cameras late in the day as he left the White House for a flight to Arizona.
Ill. AG suggests all privacy exemptions go through her office first
Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan wants to force public agencies throughout Illinois -- from town halls to school boards -- to report to her office every time they cite privacy as an excuse to withhold public records.More here.
"It is by far the most broadly abused exemption to the state records law," said Cara Smith, Madigan's deputy chief of staff. "We think that is far less likely to happen if they know they have to report it to us every time they use it. If they have a valid reason, then they will have nothing to worry about."
But a top lobbyist for municipal government in Illinois said the idea of elevating one exemption to public-records law over all the others is "without merit."
Wash. panel considers abandoning 'legislative privilege'
It’s been nearly 40 years since Washington voters, seeking to make government more transparent, overwhelmingly passed a law requiring cities, counties and state agencies – with some exceptions – to open their meetings and files to the public.
Want to see how much everybody’s paid? You can. Want to see a mayor’s e-mails? They’re available. The travel receipts turned in by a city councilman on a trip? Help yourself.
Government officials who wrongly deny requests face fines of up to $100 a day. The small city of Mesa, north of the Tri Cities, was fined $246,000 for wrongly refusing records to a former mayor in a dispute that began in 2002. City leaders are considering bankruptcy, the Associated Press reported.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
American reporter causes stir in British Parliament
It took a sassy American to force stuffy British lawmakers to come clean over their expenses.
Heather Brooke, a 38-year-old Pennsylvania-born reporter, has become the scourge of parliament, forcing the publication of legislators' expenses claims following a five-year legal battle that has exposed Britain's deep-rooted culture of official secrecy.
The expense bills reveal how lawmakers frittered away public money with claims for porn movies, chandeliers and housekeepers or repaired their tennis court, swimming pool or helicopter pad.
AG proposes rewrite of Ill. FOIA
Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office has released a revised version of state's Freedom of Information Act in another effort at strengthening the law that gives the public access to government records but is criticized as weak and full of loopholes.More here.
Advocates say Madigan's proposed FOIA rewrite, released Tuesday, adds some much needed teeth to the law, while critics say it's too complicated and may create more problems than it solves.
Both sides, though, still have some concerns they want addressed.
Landowners, not registered voters, control Ave Maria
Stimulus creates jobs in areas with low unemployment
The billions in transportation stimulus dollars that President Barack Obama promoted as a way to create jobs shortchange counties that need the work the most, an Associated Press analysis has found.More here.
The AP's review of more than 5,500 planned transportation projects nationwide is the most complete picture available of where states plan to spend the first wave of highway money. It reveals that states are planning to spend 50 percent more per person in areas with the lowest unemployment than in communities with the highest. The Transportation Department said it will attempt to replicate the AP's analysis as it continues pressing states to dole out money fairly.
One result among many: Elk County, Pa., isn't receiving any road money despite its 13.8 percent unemployment rate. Yet the military and college community of Riley County, Kan., with 3.4 percent unemployment, will benefit from about $56 million to build a highway, improve an intersection and restore a historic farmhouse.
Saturday, May 09, 2009
Iowa governor releases e-mails from private account
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has released some e-mails he sent in his first two years in office using private computers and non-government servers, a move that follows criticism that he was using private e-mail accounts to dodge public-records law.
Freedom-of-information advocates called the decision a step forward for transparency in state government that counters a trend of public officials who deny access to electronic correspondence.
Joseph P. Sandler, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney for Culver's election campaign, said after researching the matter, he concluded that the governor's e-mails dealing with state business between addresses on non-government servers are public record. He made the decision in response to a public records request by The Associated Press.
Ill. attorney general supports some exemptions
Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan created the Public Access Bureau in 2004 -- a first-ever effort in Illinois to help the public get a clearer picture of how state and local governments make decisions.More here.
The office has trained and advised public officials on open meetings and open records issues. It also has helped mediate records disputes between citizens and government agencies, an effort she says has been stymied by a lack of teeth.
Madigan, a Democrat pondering a run for governor in 2010, says she wants to do more. Seizing upon the public outcry for change following the scandalous tenures of two successive governors, she is seeking more authority to settle records disputes and penalize public officials who violate the law.
Handgun bill passes Ore. House
The Oregon House has overwhelmingly approved a bill to limit public release of information about concealed handgun permit holders.More here.
The measure was endorsed Monday after supporters said making that information public would jeopardize the personal safety of concealed handgun permit holders.The issue came up after news organizations and others sought to obtain lists of people with those permits.
British lawmakers expense cat food, horse manure, X-rated movies
It has all the makings of a Monty Python sketch - prim British lawmakers caught in a farce over expense claims for everything from X-rated movies to a bathtub plug.More here.
But reality has come home to roost in the often absurd world of Her Majesty's Government.
Friday's leaked list of lawmaker expenses has leveled another blow to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's beleaguered government, which has been blamed for a litany of problems ranging from the Iraq war to the deepening recession.
Friday, May 08, 2009
Penn. law likely to change how e-mail is handled
Pennsylvania's new Right-to-Know law stands to change the way many government entities administrate public records, particularly the way e-mail messages are handled, according to Guy P. Beneventano, municipal law expert and partner in the Harrisburg law firm Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, LLP.More here.
"As a general rule, all records, including information maintained electronically, are presumed to be public records," Mr. Beneventano said today. "That includes email messages created, received or retained as of January 1, 2009, which means government entities should start with the understanding that the email is part of an official public record if it is sent or received in the ordinary course of the government's business."
Mr. Beneventano said that public access to email communications is limited only if the email fits one of three categories of exemptions in the law. "The email is presumed to be a public record unless it fits one of thirty statutory exceptions; unless it is protected by a legal privilege -- such as attorney-client privilege; or unless it is otherwise exempt from disclosure by some other federal or state law, regulation or court order."
Monday, May 04, 2009
E-mail records reveal Bay City's strategy for responding to death
FOI at Work!
The Bay City Times obtained more than 130 pages of e-mail related to how city officials planned to address the death of a man found frozen inside his home after the city installed a "service limiter" on his electric meter. City Manager Robert V. Belleman provided "talking point" to city officials and had the electric department forward all requests for comments to his office. When state lawmakers asked for copies of the city's electric utility policies, they received them as a "professional courtesy." The Times was forced to submit a FOIA request and wait three weeks to receive the same information.
Following Marvin E. Schur's freezing death, Bay City officials communicated via e-mail as they worked out a game plan to respond to the situation and to address the public and news media.
Those official correspondences were obtained by The Times this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The records, more than 130 pages of e-mails, show City Manager Robert V. Belleman began corresponding with city officials on Jan. 23 after The Times called to inquire about the death of the 93-year-old man.
Police chief used city credit card at casino, topless club
Brent Liddy, acting police chief in Walled Lake, Mich., "inadvertently" used a city credit card at a local bar, Detroit casino and Lansing topless club, reported Spinal Column Newsweekly, which obtained the records via FOIA. Liddy paid off the charges with private funds, and an investigation is ongoing. When the newsweekly asked for a copy of the city's credit card policy, a city clerk asked that a FOIA request be submitted. The newspaper obtained a copy through another source.
Acting Walled Lake Police Chief Brent Liddy's use of a city credit card at a local establishment, a Detroit casino, and a Lansing topless club has prompted an ongoing investigation, and may lead to changes in the city's policy on employee and officials' use of municipal credit cards.More here.
According to city credit card records obtained by the Spinal Column Newsweekly through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the card in question was used on Dec. 15, 2008 to make a payment of $105 at the Copper Mug in Walled Lake; on Dec. 17, 2008 at the MGM Grand Casino in Detroit to make a $1,054 payment; and on Jan. 11, 2009 to make a $600 payment at Omar's Showbar in Lansing.
At least three city officials have confirmed that it was Liddy who used the city credit card on those dates and at those locations, although some officials say that Liddy's use of the city credit card was "inadvertent."
Texas Senate approves bill that exempts employee data
The Texas Senate today approved a bill that will allow current and former government employees in Texas to keep secret an increased array of state-kept information about themselves.
Things such as home addresses, phone numbers, Social Security number and information that “reveals whether the person has family members” could be kept secret.
Under current law, employees can opt to keep that information secret. Under Senate Bill 331, it will automatically be exempt from the Texas Public Information Act.
Fla. city bans texting during meetings
Text messaging is an everyday habit for many, but if public officials use it to talk about public business, they could be violating the law.More here.
It's a complaint throughout Florida: How do you make text messages a matter of public record if they disappear into thin air with the delete key?
One area city commission has this solution: a ban on texting during public meetings.
Culture of secrecy shrouds Illinois
Thom Rae wants to know why his town is spending $1 million to keep a second-run theater afloat.More here.
Kevin and Anne Barber want to know what happened to the principal who forced their 8th grader and his classmates to kneel painfully on a gym floor during a lecture on respect.
Patricia and Joel Garza want to know why so many secrets surround the investigation into the crash that killed their grown son.
They all want answers. The answer they all got was "no."
Sunday, May 03, 2009
Countries choose security over openness
Legislation like Cayman’s Freedom of Information Law is sometimes being placed on the back–burner by wealthy democracies concerned about security and financial stability.
That was one of the major concerns raised during an international right to information conference hosted by the Carter Center this week in Lima, Peru.
“It’s quite clear that when under pressure, whether it be to deliver public services or under threat of terrorism…or when faced by a banking crisis…the holders of information tend to contract their enthusiasm for both the spirit and the letter of the law when it comes to transparency,” said Richard Calland of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.
Google tool tries to make data mining easy
The recently launched Google Public Data plans to start with U.S. population and unemployment data and add on emissions stats from the EPA, the Washington Post reported. The new tool "is taking data, reformatting it so it's immediately consumable ... so people don't have to go through rows and rows of data." Google says many agencies do not organize their Web sites in ways that can be easily indexed by search engines. Some embed codes into their sites, which makes the information invisible in searches.
Google launched a new search tool yesterday designed to help Web users find public data that is often buried in hard-to-navigate government Web sites.
The tool, called Google Public Data, is the latest in the company's efforts to make information from federal, state and local governments accessible to citizens. It's a goal that many Washington public interest groups and government watchdogs share with President Obama, whose technology advisers are pushing to open up federal data to the public.
The company plans to initially make available U.S. population and unemployment data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, respectively. Other data sets, such as emissions statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, will roll out in the coming months.
CDC assessed risks of releasing info
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is withholding about 4,000 pages of documents that reveal how it conducted risk analyses on Alison Young's reporting, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported. A leaked memo indicated that after the newspaper requested documents on a no-bid contract, CDC officials ordered an analysis on what would happen to CDC's reputation if the information became public. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution filed an FOIA request in January 2007 for all other documents related to risk assessments but has been denied all but 46 pages.
Employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have generated about 4,000 pages of documents assessing risks to the agency’s reputation posed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporting.
But the CDC is keeping those records secret, despite directives from the Obama administration that federal agencies presume government records are open to the public under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Release of the CDC records “would interfere with the agency’s deliberative process and have a chilling effect on employee discussions,” CDC freedom of information officer Lynn Armstrong said in a letter sent this month to the AJC.
Saturday, May 02, 2009
Mo. Sunshine amendment defeated in House
The Missouri House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment on Tuesday that would have added clarification to Missouri’s open records law.More here.
The amendment, offered by Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-Olivette, was defeated by a 81-79 margin that was largely a party line vote. Nine Republicans joined the vote; all but two Democrats voted in favor of the amendment. The amendment would have clarified the definition of a public official to include all state elected officials and private individuals records when working in a public capacity.
Four other amendments were approved by a voice vote.
Air Force One photo shoot cost taxpayers $328,835
President Barack Obama ordered a review of a publicity-photo shoot with one of the planes that serves as Air Force One that cost taxpayers $328,835 and caused a furor in New York City.
Obama said he wasn’t informed in advance of yesterday’s low-altitude flight over New York Harbor, which rattled windows in New York’s financial district and prompted some office workers to flee buildings in fear it was a terrorist attack.
“It was a mistake,” Obama said today before a meeting at FBI headquarters in Washington. “It will not happen again.”
Romanoff honored for televising of House sessions
Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff is being honored for putting House sessions on television.
Romanoff, a Denver Democrat, will be given the Sue O'Brien Award for Public Service by the Colorado Freedom of Information Council on Thursday.
Romanoff led a campaign to establish a nonprofit broadcasting organization to provide live, streaming video coverage of proceedings on the House floor.
Friday, May 01, 2009
Open meeting laws may be unconstitutional
Elected officials have First Amendment rights to speak to each other in private. A federal appellate court decides that the Texas Open Meetings law must pass the strict scrutiny standard to be held constitutional, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported. “The Supreme Court’s decisions demonstrate that the First Amendment’s protection of elected officials’ speech is robust and no less strenuous than that afforded to the speech of citizens in general,” Judge James Dennis wrote for the three-judge panel. Few laws are upheld as constitutional under this test which requires that the law is narrowly tailored to advance a substantial government interest. The determination must first be made by the federal trial court, RCFP reported.
In an opinion that could call into question the constitutionality of open meetings laws everywhere, a federal appellate court held Monday that the Texas Open Meetings law must pass a heightened constitutional test under the First Amendment.
In a relatively brief opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) held that elected officials have First Amendment rights to speak to each other in private. As a result, open meetings laws that prohibit private speech between elected officials have to pass stringent constitutional muster, the court said.
The case centers on two city council members who were prosecuted for violating the law by privately e-mailing each other. Their alleged crime was “acting as a quorum in exchanging private emails discussing whether to call a council meeting to consider a public contract matter,” according to the court.
PDF of court opinion here.
Va. coalition explains FOI on YouTube
The video can be found on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ee597Zob2EE
Also, you can follow the coalition on Twitter: https://twitter.com/opengovva
And Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=47495844131