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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August 31, 2012 11:29 AM

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:

Know Your Rights: Open Records in Rhode Island

What is APRA?: The Access to Public Records Act, or APRA, is the Rhode Island state law that gives individuals the right to see and obtain public records. The law provides guidelines for obtaining access to these records, and also defines which records are subject to public inspection and which are exempt.

Who is subject to APRA?: All state and local governmental agencies are public entities and are subject to APRA. This means that every public body or entity is responsible for maintaining records and documents for public review, inspection and copying. The law also applies to various so-called “quasi-public” agencies. Judicial bodies are subject to APRA only in respect to their administrative functions.

Visit ACLU of Rhode Island for the rest.

In conjunction with this brochure from ACLU, be sure to see more about the important changes in Rhode Island's Access to Public Records Act.

Records request ban by some in Tennessee General Assembly bad for state 'business'

Opinion from the Tennessean: It’s an unfortunate truism in state government these days that you can’t count on a good thing. A law that has been designed to benefit the public in a most sensible way is going to be tampered with.

Consider Tennessee’s open records law. It was written and passed by a previous legislature mindful that Tennesseans had become fed up with government bodies acting behind closed doors and controlling the flow of information, even though that information was well within the public’s right to know.

Now, a number of influential legislators in our General Assembly are trying new ways to control that information, by imposing fees on individuals who request records from government agencies and watering down requirements that legal notices be adequately advertised.

Visit Tennessean editorial for the rest.

Iowa’s new Public Information Board holds second meeting

DES MOINES, Iowa: The Iowa Public Information Board, which was created earlier this year by the state Legislature, held its second meeting on August 21. The independent organization, which is tasked with oversight and enforcement of the state public meetings and open records law, held it’s first meeting on July 19. However, the only public notice given was a posted meeting agenda on a bulletin board by the governor’s office, thus few people even knew it was happening.

Visit Ballotnews for the rest.

August 31, 2012 10:55 AM

From Reuters:

Delaware's push to expand the state's legal industry was dealt a blow on Thursday when a federal judge ruled its high-profile Court of Chancery judges could not preside over arbitration proceedings that are closed to the public.

 
The court's five judges were sued by the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, a group that promotes government transparency, for holding what the group said amounted to "secret" hearings to settle large business disputes.
 
The federal judge hearing the case, Mary McLaughlin of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled that the arbitration cases amounted to nonjury trials and must be open to the public.
 
[...]
 
The ruling on Thursday seemed to surprise John Flaherty, the leader of the group that filed the lawsuit. "Oh my gosh, that's a great victory for the rule of law," he told Reuters.

Delaware Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC.--eds.

August 31, 2012 10:30 AM

From RT.com:

The US Justice Department is being sued after failing to adhere to Freedom of Information Act requests for documents on a federal surveillance program that has targeted the email and phone conversations of Americans throughout the last five years.
 
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy groups that fights to protect civil liberties in the digital age, filed a lawsuit on Thursday this week that names the Department of Justice as the sole defendant.
 
The EFF charges that the DoJ violated the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, by failing to expedite previous requests filed with the government for documents relating to a 2008 amendment included in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under that year’s update to FISA, feds were awarded legal wiggle room to collect and comb through any communication originating in the United States that is sent abroad through email or phone, all under the guise of national security. The EFF and others attest that the government has extensively violated the US Constitution by doing as such, though, and is now suing the DoJ not for ongoing abuse of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure, but for the department’s failure to quickly honor the FOIA request and for wrongful withholding of agency records.

 

August 30, 2012 3:44 PM

From Delaware Online:

Delaware Chancery Court’s private arbitration process – which was criticized by open government groups as a secret court – has been declared unconstitional by a federal judge.

In a 26-page ruling handed down this afternoon, U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin in Philadelphia stated that the Chancery Court’s arbitration proceeding – which is presided over by a Chancery Court judge behind closed doors – amounts to an improper secret proceeding.

[...]

This was exactly the argument that the Delaware Coalition for Open Government made when it filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Chancery Court’s “secret” private arbitration process in October, 2011.

Read more about the ruling (PDF)

The Delaware Coalition for Open Government is a member of NFOIC; John D. Flaherty is president of DelCOG. -- eds.

August 30, 2012 3:32 PM

From Lehigh Valley:

The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission is not subject to the records laws of Pennsylvania or New Jersey, according to commission attorney Jonathan F. Bloom.

Instead, the commission created its own policy in 2009, but it's a far cry from New Jersey's demanding Open Public Records Act.

August 30, 2012 3:20 PM

From NorthJersey.com:

The New Jersey Senate and Assembly members were urged in a resolution passed by the Township of West Milford Council on Aug. 15 to look at and weigh input from local government authorities and to abide by the concept of State mandate State pay. Two additional resolutions sent to the legislators oppose changes to the Open Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act.

[...]

The resolution points out that local governments continue to struggle with fiscal restraints and escalating property taxes and streamlined fiscal policies. It says that the municipalities have made significant budget cuts in an effort to provide much needed services with minimal impact to local property taxes. The resolution expressed concerns that local representatives feel their pleas made to State legislators have fallen on deaf ears. The resolution said local officials have developed skepticism for how their voices are heard.

August 30, 2012 3:03 PM

From The Columbus Dispatch:

You know things must be getting interesting when the Columbus Board of Education holds an entire three-hour board meeting without saying a single meaningful word in public.

[...]

When The Dispatch asked for clarification, district general counsel Larry Braverman said that the Columbus Board of Education's seven-members gathering wasn't "official business." So what was it? A party? Why was the district providing free meeting space for something that wasn't official business? And isn't ethics training something directly related to an elected board member's official activities? The trainer from the Ohio Ethics Commission made clear to reporters as she was leaving that she was there on official business -- and being paid for it -- regardless of what the board was there for.

August 30, 2012 2:45 PM

From Lehigh Valley:

A lawsuit against Warren County Community College is back on the statewide Internet database after a complaint from a public records advocate.

[...]

The lawsuit vanished from the state's searchable database because of an error, according to Leslie Santora, an officer with the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Normally, whistle-blower lawsuits -- like the one brought against the college -- include basic information that is searchable by the public, such as the case title, type of suit and parties named.

August 30, 2012 1:47 PM

From The National Law Journal:

A federal judge in Washington has called on top Justice Department officials to make key decisions in the dispute over access to information about the secret work acclaimed civil rights era photographer Ernest Withers performed for the FBI.

[...]

A newspaper, the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, sued the government in 2010 to gain access to Withers' informant file. For months, the government said it could neither confirm nor deny that Withers served as an informant for the FBI. DOJ lawyers are now fighting the release of information that would provide the scope of Withers' clandestine work.

August 30, 2012 12:26 PM

From The Hill:

A nonprofit watchdog group is calling for an investigation of Energy Department (DOE) emails that might have been used to shield evidence of a faltering loan program from the public.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) wants to know whether DOE directives to use personal email accounts to discuss official business violated public records laws. Personal email accounts are considered outside the purview of the Federal Records Act, a law that can be used to obtain government correspondence for investigations and other matters. The DOE program in question awarded now-bankrupt solar-panel maker Solyndra a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

August 30, 2012 12:13 PM

From The Huffington Post:

Even though it's against the law, lobbyists are throwing parties for members of Congress at the Republican National Convention, NBC News reports.

The 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act prohibits lawmakers from attending convention parties that are "directly paid for by a registered lobbyist" or "a private entity that retains or employs such a registered lobbyist." Here's the loophole: As long as lobbyists and their employers do not directly pay for the party, it's a free-for-all.

August 29, 2012 10:02 AM

From Student Press Law Center (SPLC):

The North Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case regarding campus police records at private schools, an important victory for the Elon University graduate and former student journalist.

In June, the N.C. court of appeals ruled that private university police departments in the state are not subject to the state’s open records law. The appeals court upheld an earlier ruling issued last year that found the school provided sufficient information when Nick Ochsner requested police records from the school’s Campus Safety and Police Department.

Ochsner, a former reporter for the school’s campus TV station, sought records relating to an on-campus arrest of another student. He was eventually provided a bare-bones incident report with the suspect’s name, date and location of arrest, charges and bond amount. Ochsner seeks the narrative account of the report.

Campus police records at public universities are public under the state’s open records law.

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