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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Obama orders review of classification system

President Barack Obama ordered national security adviser James L. Jones to suggest revisions to the existing presidential order on national security classification, the AP reported. Jones is also tasked with deciding whether a National Declassification Center should be created to address the backlog of 51 million pages scheduled for declassification. Obama also called for a government-wide task force to standardized the stamps used on controlled but unclassified documents. There are currently 107 different stamps and 130 different procedures for appying them.
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.

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.
More here.

Ill. House unanimously approves FOI overhaul

The Illinois House voted 116-0 in favor of a bill to overhaul the state's FOI and Open Meetings acts, the AP reported. The bill, which gives a public access counselor in the attorney general's office power to mediate disputes and making binding decisions among other improvements, now heads to the Senate.
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.

More here.

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.

More here.

Dissecting Sotomayor's media law record

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press posted an analysis of how Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, handled three cases related to media law. In U.S. v. Quattrone, she wrote the majority opinion that struck down a gag order on the press related to the retrial of a former Credit Suisse First Boston executive. In Aequitron Medical Inc. v. CBS, she wrote the opinion that allowed the infant monitor manufacturer to sue CBS News for various business claims but dismissed the defamation and trade libel claims based on procedural grounds. Although Sotomayor has favored withholding records rather than releasing them under federal FOIA, she ordered the release of the suicide note of former deputy White House counsel Vince Foster.
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:

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.

More here.

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.

More here.

Newspaper uncovers water sample results via FOIA

FOI at Work!
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.

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.
More here.

Check out submitted open-government ideas

The National Academy of Public Administration, which hosted the White House's online brainstorming session, collected nearly 900 submissions and 33,000 votes on ideas for how government can be more accessible and transparent.

Check out the ideas here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Judge urges city to settle rather than endure a costly trial

A trial could be expensive and risky for both the city of Yakima and Tim Schoenrock, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson wrote in an opinion, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported. Schoenrock alleges that council members violated open meetings law by arranging votes for a budgeting policy outside a public meeting. His case rests on e-mail records. The judge could not determine ahead of time whether Schoenrock would be eligible for a reimbursement of attorneys fees should the case go to 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.

More here.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Senate creates process to ban release of detainee photos

The Senate passed two FOIA-related amendments to the appropriation bill, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported. The first "creates a process for the Secretary of Defense to certify to the president that the release of photos and videos taken between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 22, 2009, of people captured by U.S. forces outside the United States would endanger lives." This would protect the photos from being released for at least three years. The second amendment requires new laws related to exemptions to specifically reference the FOIA.
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.

More here.

Records indicate other UK athletes tested positive for banned substances

FOI at Work!
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.

More here.

Federal government Web sites promise more transparency

The White House unveiled two Web initiatives to support President Obama's call for a more transparent government, the Washington Post reported. Data.gov will serve as a depository of raw data from various agencies. WhiteHouse.gov will provide an opportunity for citizens to suggest and discuss new open-government policies. The White House Web site will also feature "Innovation Gallery," which will serve as a showcase of government agencies' efforts to be more transparent and include "a timeline to display open-government milestones as they are reached."
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.

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.

More here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Open-government advocates oppose Illinois FOIA rewrite bill

The current Illinois FOIA is weak but better than the revised bill, open-government advocates told The State-Journal Register. They initially supported revisions drawn up by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, but changes last week, supposedly made by staff for the House speaker and Senate president, were met with opposition. Included in the changes: "a blanket prohibition on releasing home addresses and license plate numbers" and "allowing public officials to satisfy FOIA requests with paper records, and charging for each page, rather than providing information in electronic format."

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.

More here.

La. governor backs loosely drawn bill

Opponents of the open records bill recently approved by the Louisiana Senate say the measure could cause more harm than good, the AP reported. Gov. Bobby Jindal approves of the bill, which is not as strong as previous versions and protects records relating to the "deliberative process" of the governor and his "internal staff."
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."

More here.

Public invited to participate in drafting Open Government Directive

OMB Watch reported last week that the Office of Science and Technology Policy was preparing to invite the public to make recommendations for the Open Government Directive that President Obama assigned on his first day in office to the Chief Technology Officer. The public engagement process will have three phases, according to the Open Government Blog on the White House Web site. An initial brainstorming online session will allow the public to vote on suggested ideas or add their own. On June 3, the best ideas "will be fleshed out on a weblog in a discussion phase." On June 15, phase three will use a public wiki to "draft recommendations in collaborative fashion."

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."

Read the initial OMB Watch blog here.
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.
More here.

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.

More here.

Okla. judge releases 911 tape

The recording of a 911 call from a Pryor, Okla., woman who drowned after her car was swept into the floodwaters was released, Tulsa World reported. An attorney representing the victim's family argued that the release served no public purpose and would cause the family "severe and irreparable injury and harm" in the form of "emotional trauma."
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.

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."
More here.

School board reaches settlement in newspaper suit

The Steamboat Springs School Board in Colorado agreed to pay $50,000 of The Steamboat Pilot & Today's attorney fees after a lawsuit stemming from the board's violation of open meetings laws. The board will also have to release minutes from that executive session in which its “notice was deficient in failing to state that the executive session would concern the release of the survey results. In addition, the notice was deficient in not identifying that the ‘personnel matter’ was specifically the performance of the superintendent.”
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.

More here.

New twist in Palin hacker case

Defense lawyer Wade Davies has asked a federal judge to dismiss the four federal charges pinned on David Kernell , the Tennessee college student who allegedly hacked into Gov. Sarah Palin's Yahoo e-mail account, Wired reported. Davis argues that in Tennessee, an act must expose something inherently private and place the victim in a false light for it to be considered an invasion of privacy. This wasn't the case, he says, because "an Alaska court has issued an order requiring Ms. Palin to preserve the correspondence in her private e-mail accounts on the grounds that the e-mails are public records."

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.”

More here.

EPA puts status of FOIA requests online

From the Society of Environmental Journalists:
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

From Jurist:
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.

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.
More here.

Penn. newspaper denied credit-card receipts

From The News-Item:
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.

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.
More here.

Museum keeps contract for Tut exhibit under wraps

The Dallas Morning News has been denied a request for a copy of the contract between the Dallas Museum of Art and the organizers of the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibit. The museum won't discuss contract terms, reveal how many people saw the exhibit or provide board meeting minutes. The newspapers cites state law that requires most nonprofit organizations to release their financial records.

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.

More here.

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.

More here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Newspaper fights Naval Academy for records

The Capital has spent three years fighting for Naval Academy records, and the battle is not close to being finished. In March 2006, the Maryland newspaper asked for documents on how the Naval Academy handled sexual misconduct cases and filed an FOIA request. After the academy said no such documents existed, the paper filed another FOIA request for which the academy used a privacy-concern excuse. The Capital hired an attorney, and the navy judge advocate general granted the newspaper's appeal in September 2008. However, The Capital has only received partial documents and none involving the sex abuse cases from 2007 and 2008. The newspaper has filed another request for these documents.
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.

More here.

Conn. Corrections wants to bar inmates from getting personnel files

The Conn. Department of Correction is concerned that inmates can file information requests and obtain home addresses and other data about department employees, the Record-Journal reported. A House bill "would prohibit the department's commissioner from disclosing personnel, medical or similar files, including security investigation records and complaints against current or former correction's employees, to inmates unless there is a court order to do so." Even if the bill were passed, inmates could find personal information about employees on the Web or have family members request the information. Since 2006, only five requests filed by Conn. inmates have been for 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.
More here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Records indicate shooter had history with Trolley Square

FOI at Work!
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.

More here.

Nev. legislators urged to conduct business in public

The Nevada Legislature is exempt from state open meetings laws, but the Nevada Freedom of Information Coalition is hoping legislators will transcend the law in favor of transparency, San Jose Mercury News reported. The group is asking lawmakers to sign a pledge committing themselves to stronger open government laws and will post who does and does not sign the agreement.
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."

More here.

Fort Lauderdale commissioners advised to stay off Facebook

Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Harry Stewart discouraged commissioners from participating in "a Facebook page or any similar interactive communication technology," the Sun Sentinel reported. The attorney general, however, told the city of Coral Springs that a Facebook page was okay but that freedom of information laws would apply. The Sun Sentinel obtained a copy of the attorney general's opinion and has posted it.

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.

More here.

Paterson veteos N.Y. Sunshine Law amendment

New York Gov. David Paterson vetoed a bill that would have allowed judges to fine public agencies for violating the state open meetings law and to invalidate votes and actions taken in those behind-closed-doors meetings, the AP reported. Paterson said he vetoed the bill because it allows for civil penalties to be imposed on local governments, meaning that taxpayers would bear the burden.
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.

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.
More here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Great news for open government in Oklahoma

From Dr. Joey Senat, Associate Professor at OSU School of Journalism and Broadcasting:

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.

More here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama reverses stance on torture photos

From the AP:
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.

More here.

Ill. AG suggests all privacy exemptions go through her office first

Illinois public agencies wanting to cite privacy as their reason for withholding public records might have to go through the Attorney General's Office first, the Chicago Tribune reported. This proposal is included in Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan's package for pending legislation that would rewrite the state's weak FOIA. The privacy exemption allows officials to withhold anything that constitutes "a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The Attorney General's Office would determine if using the privacy exemption was appropriately applied and then issue a binding decision.
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.

"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."
More here.

Wash. panel considers abandoning 'legislative privilege'

Washington's Sunshine Committee is considering a recommendation to abandon legislative exemption, The Spokesman-Review reported. Current state law "allows Senate and House clerks to keep secret anything that's not an 'official action' of the House or Senate." This means lawmakers can refuse to release e-mails or letters though they sometimes do voluntarily release them. Critics say doing away with the exemption will only lead lawmakers to start using personal computers and e-mail addresses to subvert the law.
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.

More here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

American reporter causes stir in British Parliament

In 2001, Heather Brooke, a 38-year-old reporter from Pennsylvania, requested details on British lawmakers' expenses, but her request was met with derision, the AP reported. She submitted her request again in 2005 with no success. Even three years later when Britain's information ombudsman ordered that lawmakers' receipts be released, the parliament speaker tried to stop publication of the data. Britain's High Court rejected the appeal and ordered the release. Although the data won't be released until July, the Telegraph obtained the information early and printed details of lawmakers charging horse manure, porn movies, housekeepers and tennis court repairs to their expense accounts.
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.

More here.

AG proposes rewrite of Ill. FOIA

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office released a revision of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, The Register-Mail reported. The rewrite calls for five days rather than the current seven for agencies to respond to a FOIA request. Agencies that don't respond in that time will not be able to claim that releasing the requested documents would be "unduly burdensome." Agencies would be required to respond to FOIA requests for commercial gain in 21 days. Each public bodies would have to have a "Freedom of Information officer" to manage FOIA request.
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.

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.
More here.

Landowners, not registered voters, control Ave Maria

The Naples Daily News spent a year reporting "A Town Without A Vote," a records-driven series on Ave Maria's government. In June 2004, a law was passed that gives the authority in Ave Maria to landowners, not registered voters. This ensures that Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos., the largest landowners, forever control the town government. Six similar governments, which might not protect citizens' constitutional right to select their leaders, have popped up across the state.

More here.

Stimulus creates jobs in areas with low unemployment

Communities with the highest unemployment rates are receiving the least amount of transportation stimulus dollars, according to an AP analysis of more than 5,500 planned transportation projects. The analysis revealed that "states are planning to spend 50 percent more per person in areas with the lowest unemployment than in communities with the highest." The money is being doled out to projects that are ready to go, which leaves out projects in struggling communities that haven't been able to fund the preparation and plans required.
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.

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.

More here.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Iowa governor releases e-mails from private account

In response to an AP request, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver released some e-mails he sent during his first two years in office, when he used a private server from his campaign rather than a state e-mail account, the AP reported. The AP had requested e-mail communication from Culver and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge about right-to-work and prevailing wage issues. Iowa law does not specifically list e-mails as public records.
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.

More here.

Ill. attorney general supports some exemptions

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who might be a candidate for governor in 2010, is trying to add muscle to the Public Access Bureau, which currently doesn't have much power to enforce public records laws, the Chicago Tribune reported. However, Madigan doesn't disagree with some of the controversial exemptions to the Illinois public records law. She supports the exemption of preliminary drafts and performance evaluations of public employees.
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.

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.
More here.

Handgun bill passes Ore. House

A bill that would exempt handgun permit information from Oregon's open records law passed the state House and moves on to the Senate, the AP reported. The bill would allow local sheriffs to decide appeals to open the information on a case-by-case basis.
The Oregon House has overwhelmingly approved a bill to limit public release of information about concealed handgun permit holders.

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.
More here.

British lawmakers expense cat food, horse manure, X-rated movies

The Daily Telegraph published examples of how British lawmakers are expensing absurd items such as horse manure, maid service, cat food, fertilizer, X-rate movies and repairs to a Chinese needlepoint rug. Rules state that British lawmakers should only file claims on public money for expenses related to parliamentary work. Itemized receipts for British lawmakers' claims on public money were long kept from the public until a FOI ruling ordered the release of about 2 million receipts in July. The Daily Telegraph obtained the records ahead of time.
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.

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.

More here.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Penn. law likely to change how e-mail is handled

Pennsylvania's new Right-to-Know law includes all electronic information in what is presumed to be a public record. The law is likely to lead to new policies on what is considered public versus private electronic communications and how e-mails are preserved, according to the law firm Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall.
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.

"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."
More here.

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.

More here.

Police chief used city credit card at casino, topless club

A nice example of local watchdogging:
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.

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."
More here.

Texas Senate approves bill that exempts employee data

The Texas Senate unanimously passed a bill that automatically exempts data about current and former state government employees, the Austin American-Statesman reported. This includes home addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers. Another exemption could keep employee photos, time sheets and work locations private.

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.

More here.

Fla. city bans texting during meetings

After some questioned Commissioner Herb Zischkau's texting during a Deltona, Fla., meeting, officials implemented a ban on texting during public meetings to avoid illegal communication among members or the appearance of such, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Text messages have proved problematic for open records advocates. Most messages aren't archived and can only be retrieved within a few days via a subpoena, which usually takes longer than a few days to obtain.
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.

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.
More here.

Culture of secrecy shrouds Illinois

In the past four years, more than a thousand citizens have filed complaints regarding Illinois public officials who have refused or ignored public records requests, the Chicago Tribune reported. The newspaper's article attributes theses problems in Illinois to "a notoriously weak open records law, an unsympathetic political culture and an attitude of disdain among many public servants who consider documents their own." Even the state's top law-enforcement officer is powerless. Of the more than 100 strongly worded letters she sent last year asking for the release of public records, fewer than 24 were successful. This excellent article provides three examples of how the open government laws have failed Illinois citizens.
Thom Rae wants to know why his town is spending $1 million to keep a second-run theater afloat.

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."
More here.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Countries choose security over openness

At an international transparency conference in Peru, participants admitted that right-to-information laws are often placed on the back burner in the midst of security and financial concerns, Cay Compass News reported. Also discussed was whether transparency should be a luxury item considering its cost. The United States reportedly spends $353 million a year filling requests, most of the cost being from requests to security agencies.
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.

More here.

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.

More here.

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.

More here.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Mo. Sunshine amendment defeated in House

An amendment that would have clarified how Missouri defines a public official was defeated in the House of Representatives, The Daily News reported. The definition would have included all state elected officials and private individuals when working in a public capacity. Amendments that were affirmed include requirements that all elected officials go through a Sunshine Law course and that some internal police investigation records be opened.
The Missouri House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment on Tuesday that would have added clarification to Missouri’s open records law.

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.
More here.

Air Force One photo shoot cost taxpayers $328,835

Sen. John McCain has asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to provide an explanation for who approved the photo mission and how much it cost, Bloomberg reported. An Air Force spokeswoman quoted the $328,835 cost, which includes fuel and maintenance. President Barack Obama has directed Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina to review "how the decision was made to conduct the flight."
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.”

More here.

Romanoff honored for televising of House sessions

Andrew Romanoff, former Colorado House speaker, will receive the Sue O'Brien Award for Public Service from the Colorado FOI Council for his efforts to facilitate live coverage of House proceedings, the Examiner reported.
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.

More here.

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.

More here.

PDF of court opinion here.

Va. coalition explains FOI on YouTube

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government has posted a brief how-to video on using the state's Freedom of Information.

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