FOI Advocate Blog

The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. 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.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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December 3, 2013 1:22 PM

From Voice of OC: The state Supreme Court has rejected a request by Voice of OC and open-government advocates Californians Aware to review a gag order Orange County government leaders imposed on themselves so they wouldn’t have to release information regarding allegations of sex abuse by a top county official.

The case involved a Voice of OC request under the California Public Records Act for documents that would show what top county officials knew about allegations that former Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante sexually assaulted female employees.

Opponents of the gag order fear the tactic employed by Orange County leaders will become a tool statewide for government officials who want to avoid complying with the 45-year-old Public Records Act.

Visit Voice of OC for more. Also see Voice of OC asking California Supreme Court to hear records case for more background.

The Californians Aware and the First Amendment Coalition are members of NFOIC. --eds

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November 7, 2013 2:50 PM

From Voice of OC: The Los Angeles Times, the corporate parent of the Orange County Register and the 800-member California Newspaper Publishers Association are urging the state Supreme Court to overturn a gag order obtained by Orange County that allows it to keep documents secret that show what top officials knew about alleged sexual abuse of female workers.

In addition, the Virginia–based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which is led by reporters and editors from the nation’s largest print and broadcast organizations, is supporting the appeal filed at the state Supreme Court in September by Voice of OC and open-government advocate Californians Aware.

“It’s huge,” said Voice of OC attorney Kelly A. Aviles of the corporate, CNPA and national news organization support. “It's [the case] really garnered national attention,” said Aviles, who is also CalAware’s vice president for open government compliance. “I’m really glad the heavy hitters are speaking up and trying to get this resolved before it causes anyone else any problems.”

[...]

At issue is an unusual series of rulings — “more dangerous” than a gag order, according to Aviles — that were requested by county officials and issued by Orange County Superior Court judges that sealed all county records involving alleged sexual harassment by former county Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante.

Visit Voice of OC for more.

The Californians Aware is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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October 18, 2013 11:18 AM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week. While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

Ruling gives Washington governor's office 'Nixon-style' executive shield

image of Access keyIf Gov. Jay Inslee wants to withhold documents from the public about how he came to policy decisions — on anything from water quality regulations, to religious hospital mergers, to union negotiations — he now has the right to do that, as do all future Washington state governors. The Washington state Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that the governor can claim “executive privilege” and refuse to make documents public indefinitely.

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Connecticut task force divided on privacy concerns

HARTFORD -- The news media need access to as much information as possible -- even gruesome photos -- about Connecticut homicides, in order to better inform the public, a task force looking into victim privacy was told Wednesday. But an attorney for many Newtown families whose loved ones were killed last Dec. 14 said that images of homicide victims should be exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act.

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Editorial: 911 transcripts are closed records in S.D.

I sat down with Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom yesterday to talk about last week's police pursuit in city streets that ended in a car wreck and death of a woman. ... The 911 records of the call might shed light on whether the reporting party identified the Impala's drivers as Native American. Regrettably — and predictably — 911 calls records in South Dakota are considered confidential. It puts us squarely in the minority of states.

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Officials jack up charges to keep public records from being released

A common refrain from government officials who defend the high cost of public records is that it’s just too time-consuming to drop what they’re doing to dig through file cabinets or print out documents and make copies.What do you think? While it’s not unreasonable for governments to recoup some of these costs, open-ended charging policies can sometimes result in abuse, particularly if a records request might reveal potentially embarrassing information should it be made public.

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RI AG sues Woonsocket for public record access violations

The RI Attorney General's office has filed a complaint in Rhode Island Superior Court citing Woonsocket for "two knowing and willful" violations of the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Each violation carries a maximum $2,000 penalty, according to a release sent this morning from the AG's office.

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Indiana AG: Public should have access to death certificates

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Attorney General’s Office has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to hear the appeal of a judge’s ruling that cause of death information is not public record. “In short, our office advocates that local death certificates are a public record that the public should be able to obtain,” said Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the attorney general.

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Public records key to Ohio high school newspaper's scoop in story about on-campus sexual assault

OHIO — When two high school students walked into their local police station and asked to see a public record, they were given what one of them called “the runaround.” But they stuck it through 'til the end, and that end was a scoop that later ended up on TV and radio stations across Cleveland. One day before that visit, Shaker Heights High School had notified students of an assault inside its Shaker Heights, Ohio, campus. The police report showed the incident was more serious though, something school administrators said they did not know.

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Michigan house bills seek lower FOIA costs

Since 1976 when Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was introduced, several elements of the law have been amended to improve transparency of government actions. Several bills proposed in the House seek to lower costs associated with FOIA requests and establish a method of appealing request denials without going to court. State Rep. Mike Shirkey’s proposal, House Bill 4001, seeks to cap the copy charge imposed for requested documents at 10 cents per copy and require that a government entity not charge a fee for a FOIA requestor making copies with their own equipment during an on-site records inspection authorized by this law.

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Greenville (Mich.) settles FOIA lawsuit with Eureka

GREENVILLE — After about a year of costly legal wrangling, Greenville has finally accepted a settlement agreement with Eureka Township regarding a fee the township attempted to levy against the city for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The Eureka Township Board went into closed session to discuss the proposed settlement at their September meeting. The document presented to Greenville City Council members at Tuesday’s meeting was the settlement the township and its legal advisers came up with.

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October 14, 2013 8:46 AM

From San Jose Mercury News: WALNUT CREEK -- The Bay Area News Group is asking a judge to force the Mt. Diablo Unified School District to release internal records about a former Concord elementary teacher charged with sexually molesting 13 young male students.

Citing personnel and investigatory exemptions in the state's public records law, the district has refused to produce documents pertaining to former Woodside Elementary teacher Joseph Martin, 45, who pleaded not guilty in July to 125 felony molestation counts.

Visit San Jose Mercury News for more.

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October 9, 2013 1:07 PM

From Daily Pilot: Costa Mesa officials have denied a public records request for a 20-year-old archaeological study about the Fairview Indian Site.

The Daily Pilot, which filed the request Sept. 23, had sought a copy of the 1993 report, conducted by the Keith Cos.

Visit Daily Pilot for more.

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October 8, 2013 8:52 AM

From Voice of OC: Voice of OC and open-government advocate Californians Aware have petitioned the state Supreme Court to overturn an Orange County gag order, arguing the county is trying “an end run” to hide what executives may have known about alleged sexual abuse of female workers.

Earlier this year, county officials, including the Board of Supervisors, took the unusual step of seeking the order in criminal court so they wouldn’t have to make information public in the case of former county Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante.

[...]

“As long as this gag order persists, we can’t even get into court” to fight for access to public records, said Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware. The underlying issue, he said, is to obtain information for the public about “the inner workings of a county government allowing, allegedly, a continuing number of county workers to be sexually assaulted on the job by a supervisor.”

[...]

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said Orange County used “the criminal court as a way to bypass and abort the ongoing public records lawsuit. That was improper. It’s unfortunate the criminal court allowed itself to be used in that way.”

Visit Voice of OC for more.

The Californians Aware and the First Amendment Coalition are members of NFOIC. --eds

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October 3, 2013 8:55 AM

From Oakland North: In a push to improve government transparency, Oakland city officials on Tuesday launched RecordTrac, a new program designed by Code for America that allows users to request public records online.

RecordTrac shows those seeking records where to find them — even if they aren’t filed under the City of Oakland. Officials said the process by which such requests are filled can be tracked through the program, which will give city government feedback as to whether records searches are going smoothly. The program is designed to allow users to explore all past records requests by anyone who has used the program.

Visit Oakland North for more.

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September 13, 2013 11:39 AM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week. While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

Baltimore city open data

image of Access keyData and confidentiality have sparked big stories the past few months. Between Manning and Snowden, there’s been discussion, conspiracy and crime around data that exists and how that data is used. It often seems that the rules under which we must live are shrouded in obscurity. For the average non-law-degreed citizen, specifics on law and governance are hard to find, or had been until now. On July 17th Baltimore became the first city to open its state-level legal information to the public. Essentially, the Baltimore City Charter and Code were liberated through a transition from .pdf to searchable document. The Open Government Foundation (OGF) leads this initiative. OGF implemented The State Decoded, a non-partisan open source project built under the premise of free, friendly, and accessible rule.

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Iowa open meetings lawsuit details council actions

The city of Clinton’s alleged violations of the Open Meetings and Open Records laws leading up to the $4.5 million EMS settlement were detailed in a motion filed by the Citizens for Open Government this week. Members of CFOG are asking a Clinton County judge to declare the city of Clinton violated Iowa’s Open Meetings law and Open Records law when the city discussed the 2010 emergency medical services billing settlement it entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice and former firefighter Tim Schultheis, who alleged the city had incorrectly billed routine ambulance calls as urgent to receive higher reimbursement rates from Medicare and Medicaid.

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Washington appeals court throws out $650,000 records ruling against DSHS

A state appeals court has thrown out one of the largest Public Records Act penalties ever, ruling an abuse victim was not clear enough in her records requests to justify punishing the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The ruling, issued Tuesday, could erase a penalty of nearly $650,000. But an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely.

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Ohio counties, cities failing to obey public-records law, Yost says

Ohio’s local governments need to pick up their game when it comes to keeping the people’s records and fulfilling public-records requests, state Auditor Dave Yost says. A sampling of 20 counties and cities for compliance with Sunshine laws found weaknesses in the public-records policies and procedures in eight, or 40 percent, according to results to be released by the auditor’s office today.

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Opinion: Love Hawaii schools? Open the Department of Education's books

The Hawaii Department of Education failed a transparency test in a recent national study. Transparency and accountability are keys to open government and ultimately real education reform. In general, my liberal friends want more money spent on schools and my conservative friends want transparency and accountability. The debate over how to fix our public system will continue.

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California lawmakers put open-government measure on ballot

California voters will get a chance next year to change the state constitution to make sure local government agencies provide open access to public records and meetings. The state Assembly on Tuesday provided final legislative approval of state constitutional Amendment 3, which does not require action by the governor to be placed on the June 2014 ballot.

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Newly released public records from Northeast Florida Public Defender Matt Shirk show an office in crisis

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Public records released today offer a glimpse into the tensions inside the Public Defender's Office in the wake of critical news reports, allegations of wrongdoing and the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to investigate the matter. Hundreds of pages of emails, text messages and personnel files were released today. The records include heated exchanges between Public Defender Matt Shirk and one of his former employees and friends, investigator Alton Kelly.

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Arkansas FOIA Road Show clarifies law for many

For many, Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act is a law that only reporters and others who need access to public records need to know about. But many people, each year, find the need to use FOIA to obtain public records, and frequent changes in the law creates a need for people to know about the changes and how to use the FOIA. The Arkansas Press Association, working with the Arkansas Attorney General's office host a FOIA Roadshow, going to several cities to familiarize seekers and keepers of public documents of changes and their rights under the law.

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Editorial: Keep access to Wisconsin court records

Scarcely a session of the legislature goes by without some politician trotting out a plan to foul up Wisconsin’s exemplary open-records practices. To that end, let us acquaint readers with the opening text of the open records law directly stating the intent as it applies to state government, municipalities, school districts and all units in-between. ... The latest attempt to violate the spirit of that law comes from Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee. He wants to restrict access to certain records contained on Wisconsin’s online court database. The court site is exceedingly popular, drawing 3-5 million page views every day. All the information at the online site clearly is public under the open records law, and the same records are available in paper or electronic form at county courthouses around Wisconsin.

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'Absolutely ridiculous' demand that Davison go through Michigan Freedom of Information request for MDOT information has city leaders fuming

DAVISON, MI – Leaders in Davison say it's ridiculous the city had to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Michigan Department of Transportation to find out why the state agency denied a request for a left-turn arrow at a busy intersection. MDOT told the city to file a FOIA request for a traffic survey, crash data and Synchro analysis measuring traffic congestion. The city had received a letter with a summary letter of a study the at M-15 and Flint Street intersection on the northern end of the city.

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3 Seymour police commissioners violated Conn. FOI law, panel rules

The state Freedom of Information Commission on Wednesday made a final ruling that three Seymour police commissioners “violated” the rules of an executive session last year when they allowed the police chief and lieutenant to sit in during interviews longer than necessary. The commission met Wednesday afternoon, and upheld a preliminary ruling made last month by FOI hearing officer Valicia Harmon.

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September 12, 2013 8:02 AM

From San Jose Mercury News: SACRAMENTO, Calif.—California voters will decide whether the public's right to inspect local government records should be enshrined in the state constitution after lawmakers voted Tuesday to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot next June. If voters approve, local governments would have to follow the California Public Records Act and the state's open-meetings law but would not be reimbursed by the state for doing so.

The legislation, SCA3, was proposed in response to a media outcry over changes that loosened requirements on how local governments handle requests for public records. Lawmakers said the changes, which were proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown in the state budget, were intended to save the state millions of dollars it must pay local governments for following the law.

The state "should not have to provide a fiscal incentive to local governments so that they comply with these important transparency laws," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who sponsored the amendment.

[...]

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which supports the amendment, said enshrining the access to public records in the state constitution "will fortify the public's right to access the meetings and records of government agencies as a bedrock principle of democratic government."

Visit San Jose Mercury News for more.

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September 11, 2013 10:33 AM

From The Fresno Bee: SACRAMENTO — The average retirement payout for new retirees in California's biggest public pension system doubled between 1999 and 2012, according to CalPERS data, and initial monthly payments for one group nearly tripled in that period.

[...]

The figures from CalPERS' internal annual reports, obtained by The Sacramento Bee through a Public Records Act request, show how upgraded pension formulas that became fashionable during the late 1990s and early 2000s amplified the impact of pay raises to boost retirement allowances.

Visit The Fresno Bee for more.

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September 6, 2013 12:50 PM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week. While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

Sunshine Law proponents sue city of Groveland

image of Access keyA Sarasota-based organization that seeks compliance with Florida’s open-government laws is suing Groveland to block its transfer of police dispatching services to Lake County. ... In that suit, Citizens for Sunshine Inc. contends a meeting Mayor James Gearhart and Vice Mayor Tim Loucks reportedly had on June 20 with a police sergeant in a grocery store parking lot, where police dispatching was allegedly discussed at length, “tainted” a council vote on Aug. 19 to hand over those services to the sheriff’s office.

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Aide to San Diego mayor suggested deleting certain public records

SAN DIEGO -- Handwritten notes obtained by San Diego 6 show that one of former Mayor Bob Filner's top aides suggested deleting text messages, even though she acknowledged they were "technically public records." The notes, taken by then-Deputy Chief of Staff Lee Burdick, were obtained as part of a California Public Records Act Request by San Diego 6.

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Wyoming governor's office releases about 17,000 pages of e-mails to superintendent Cindy Hill

Governor Matt Mead says his office has been working hard to comply with Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill’s public records request for certain e-mails between members of his staff and the Wyoming Department of Education. Mead says it takes a lot of time to go through the e-mails and make sure they are not releasing information they are not legally allowed to. Mead says to date his office has released about 17,000 pages of e-mails,

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Conn. FOI lawyer: Release Newtown 911 calls

HARTFORD — An attorney with Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission has recommended the release of 911 recordings from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012, siding with The Associated Press in a dispute over records withheld by investigators. The full, nine-member commission is to hold a September 25 hearing before issuing its final decision on whether the recordings should be handed over to the AP.

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Washington high court rules to release psychological report in Seattle slayings

The state Supreme Court has ruled against sealing a psychological evaluation that found Dr. Louis Chen competent to stand trial on two counts of aggravated first-degree murder in the August 2011 deaths of his partner and their young son in Seattle. ... The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Washington Defender Association, Disability Rights of Washington and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers submitted briefs in support of Chen’s argument. Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Washington Coalition for Open Government filed a joint brief in support of the state’s position.

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Ohio Supreme Court allows lawsuit over traffic stop dashcam video

The Ohio State Highway Patrol does not want to give up dashcam footage of a traffic stop from two years ago. Motorist Mark Miller insists the video record of a July 15, 2011 drunk driving stop exists, but state officials refuse to disclose it, citing an exemption for withholding public records related to open criminal investigations. Miller challenged the refusal all the way to the state Supreme Court which ruled Tuesday in Miller's favor by ordering the State Patrol to prove the exemption actually applies. As a member of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, Miller sought to document abuse of power related to traffic incidents involving state Trooper Joseph Westhoven.

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Opinion: Florida records public, but not free

Lourdes Ramirez spent almost two days looking through public records to get a better understanding of Sarasota County's 2050 plan. She did get a few insights. And so did we, although our eye-openers had nothing to do with the county's blueprint for growth east of Interstate 75.

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Ohio patrol must prove records are exempt, justices rule

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the State Highway Patrol must prove that materials withheld from a public-records request are exempt from disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Act. Now, a southwestern Ohio man’s request for records from the patrol will be heard again by the 12th District Court of Appeals after the 7-0 ruling, released yesterday.

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WATCHDOG: South Dakota makes more info available online

You can now go to the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources site to look up production and ownership data on oil and gas wells. You can also get DENR public notices. And you can go to the state Department of Labor and Regulation site for market-conduct examinations by insurance companies. It's a trend that's good for everyone: citizens don't have to make time-consuming FOIA requests and state workers don't have to spend time processing said requests and looking for information.

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NM governor accused of open records violations

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The Santa Fe Reporter has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Susana Martinez, alleging violations of the state's open records laws as well as retaliation by her office against the alternative weekly. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in state district court. It alleges seven instances where the governor's office failed to produce calendars, emails, documents about pardons and other material sought by the Reporter under the state's Inspection of Public Records Act.

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August 30, 2013 9:19 AM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week.

While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

Battle Ground (Wash.) school board violated the state's Open Public Meetings Act, expert claims

image of Access keyBattle Ground school board members violated the state's Open Public Meetings Act when they voted behind closed doors in executive session to spend $400,000 to buy out the contract of the district superintendent, said one of the state's top advocates for open government. "If they voted in a secret meeting to spend $400,000 and didn't bring it to a public vote, that's completely illegal," said Toby Nixon, president of Washington Coalition for Open Government. "If the vote was held behind closed doors in executive session, whether it was part of a regular meeting or a special meeting, then under the Open Public Meetings Act, that action is null and void," he said.

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San Mateo County debuts records database

In a gesture of transparency, county officials earlier this month debuted the Open Data Portal, a new online listing of arcane spreadsheets and miscellaneous public information. The data might seem scattershot right now, but San Mateo County officials say it’s just the start of what they believe will revolutionize local public records. County Supervisors Dave Pine and Warren Slocum championed committing $460,000 in Measure A sales tax money to fund the new database over the next two years with the goal to to push any and all public information onto the site. The site is expected to grow exponentially as a warehouse for all county records for public perusal. Pine described it as a “living and evolving” project. “My bias is: the more data, the better,” he said.

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Florida governor appoints special prosecutor to investigate public defender's office

Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed the state attorney for the Gainesville area Thursday to investigate allegations about the deletion of public records and questionable behavior in the office of Public Defender Matt Shirk reported this week in the Times-Union. . . . In the order appointing Cervone, Scott assigned him to investigate the Public Defender’s Office for “potential prosecution and all matters related to allegations of public records laws violations and any related misconduct.”

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Hanover County (Va.) supervisors want state agency to review Va.’s open meeting rules

The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution in July asking the Virginia General Assembly to change open government regulations to allow larger groups of locally elected officials to meet behind closed doors without notifying the public. “While there was some initial adverse reaction to this, it might be better if there was a calm, deliberate study of this over the course of the next year by the (Freedom of Information Act) Advisory Council, at which point they’ll make a recommendation to members of the General Assembly,” said Hanover County Attorney Sterling E. Rives III.

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Eagan appointed chair of state Connecticut FOI commission

A lawyer and former deputy mayor of West Hartford has been chosen to serve as chairman of Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission. The appointment of Owen Eagan was announced Tuesday by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Eagan is a partner with the firm Eagan, Donohue, Van Dyke & Falsey and a former town councilor and deputy mayor in West Hartford.

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Release of L.A. teachers' performance ratings delayed by judge

. . . [T]he teachers union argued that "immediate release of the scores will cause irreparable harm to privacy rights, and that harm dramatically outweighs any prejudice or inconvenience that might be caused by a brief delay in public release of the records" pending the appeal. The Times had opposed a delay, arguing that the Legislature had severely restricted agencies from using appeals as a delaying tactic to keep public records secret. The Public Records Act bars courts from ordering delays unless those fighting disclosure have a probable chance of success and would suffer "irreparable damage" by the release of documents before the case was settled.

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Orange County Health Care Agency wants $54,371 to produce email records

Orange County’s Health Care Agency (HCA) wants to charge $54,371 for a response to a Voice of OC public records request to review emails from the last six months of 2012 – a whopping $338.14 for each day of emails reviewed. The request asks for electronic copies of any emails referencing the names of six different drugs, exchanged between Dr. Clayton Chau, a former psychiatrist at the agency, and members of its formulary committee, which routinely evaluates the master list of approved medications, between 2007 and 2012. . . . Voice of OC has requested a breakdown of this cost estimate. The California Public Records Act, established in 1968, does not allow government entities to charge fees for inspecting records or the cost to search, review and delete information. They can, however, charge for the cost of copies and for data compilation and extraction of information from electronic records.

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Court rules Atlantic City marketing arm not subject to public scrutiny

An advocate of open government has lost a lawsuit that sought to have Atlantic City’s casino-funded marketing coalition declared a public agency. John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, claimed that the Atlantic City Alliance is actually an arm of government and should have to disclose its records to the public. But a New Jersey appeals court ruled Tuesday that the ACA is the “private” part of a public-private partnership between the state and the casino industry to help revive Atlantic City’s tourism.

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