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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November 25, 2013 4:20 PM

From Sunlight Foundation: November 30th marks the first major deadline for agency compliance with President Obama’s Open Data Executive Order and accompanying Memorandum M-13-13. In addition to representing an important step in the march towards open government and proper data management, this is an opportunity to evaluate agencies, identify best practices, and advocate for change. The Executive Order will continue to be implemented over the coming months and years, but agencies should, and will, be judged on how much effort they put into this first deadline. The level of agency compliance now will be a clear representation of how seriously they take the Executive Order.

Guidance issued alongside the Executive Order provides a strong roadmap for agency participation, but leaves some important points up for interpretation. Notably, agencies are given too much leeway to keep even the existence of their data secret.

Visit Sunlight Foundation for more.

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November 22, 2013 1:54 PM

From Governing: The easier it is for us to find important information about cities, counties and states, the better we’re able to report on topics of interest to our readers. But transparency isn’t just about us. It can help citizen organizations, good government bodies, advocacy groups, the press at large and even the general public. What’s more, accessible information makes it easier for legislators and city council members to drill down to the facts, creating more capacity for informed decision-making.

To be sure, progress has been made on a number of transparency fronts, and we certainly appreciate the additional data we’re able to find easily each year. That said, from our personal experience and conversations with experts in the field, much of the talk about heightened transparency in government is more rhetoric than reality.

Take so-called “online spending transparency,” or Web-based checkbooks that offer a clear and simple way to see where tax dollars are going. All 50 states have them. Optimally users would get, according to the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a host of “checkbook-level information about expenditures including those made through contracts, grants, tax credits and other discretionary spending.”

Visit Governing for more.

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November 15, 2013 12:13 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.

R.I. activist files open-records complaint in search for information on payments made to House Speaker Fox

image of Access keyPROVIDENCE — The citizen-activist who filed an ethics complaint against House Speaker Gordon D. Fox in connection with his role as a closing attorney for the troubled Providence Economic Development Partnership loan program has now filed a related open-records complaint with the attorney general’s office. Judith Reilly lodged the open-records complaint against the PEDP after the city agency advised her it had no records of how much Fox was paid for his services as PEDP’s closing attorney from 2005 through early 2010. The complaint is pending.

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Ombudsman warns ruling could lead to Iowa open meeting violations

A ruling Thursday by a state board opens the door for Iowa governments to elude a law requiring that the public be given at least 24-hour notice before meetings are held, Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider warned. That warning came in a meeting just before the Iowa Public Information Board, an enforcement body of the state’s public meeting and open record laws, voted unanimously in favor of a ruling written by the board’s director, Keith Luchtel.

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N.J. court upholds OPRA request by Northern Valley Regional parents

Hackensack — Northern Valley Regional High School parents, who said that the school board did not comply with the Open Public Records Act to provide access to records regarding a random drug testing policy, received a small victory when a Bergen County judge ruled that the school district must turn over fifty-seven documents for his review. Superior Court Assignment Judge Peter Doyne rejected the district’s argument that the request made by a group of parents for the documents was improper at a hearing on Nov. 7, and ruled that the district must send 57 withheld documents regarding random drug testing to the court for further review.

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Editorial: Public has a right to yawn

To take a famous Shakespeare quote and turn it on its ear: “A thorn by any other name would be as sharp.” In New Hampshire, it’s called the Right-to-Know Law. They call it the Public Records Law in Vermont, the Public Records Act in Massachusetts and it’s known as the Sunshine Law in Florida. At the federal level, it’s known as the Freedom of Information Act.

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Editorial: Bringing Mass. into the digital age

Easy access to public records is necessary for government accountability. But Massachusetts’ public record law is out of date. State agencies routinely charge 20 cents a page for documents that can be delivered in an electronic format, and requests for documents often go months without reply. Fortunately, an amendment filed by Representative Peter Kocot of Northampton would correct these deficiencies. Legislators should embrace it.

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Limits on fees for public records passed by Michigan House committee

LANSING — Public bodies would be limited in what they could charge for copying public records under the Freedom of Information Act under a bill passed by a House committee Tuesday. The bill would allow public bodies to charge $0.10 per page for documents requested by anyone under the Freedom of Information Act. They also could charge labor costs of up to three times the minimum wage in Michigan of $7.40 per hour.

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News groups appeal order to seal court records, Idaho

BOISE, Idaho -- A coalition of news organizations has asked a federal appeals court to order the release of sealed witness testimony and exhibits in an antitrust trial involving the expansion of a health care system. The organizations challenged a protective order issued earlier this year by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill that allowed attorneys for St. Luke's Health System, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, the Federal Trade Commission and others to keep a large amount of testimony and evidence hidden from public view.

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Former Washington auditor calls for public access to records

PASCO – “Creating open public records is not a partisan issue,” said Brian Sonntag, former Washington state auditor. “Citizens have the right to expect nothing less.” Sonntag’s comments were made at the Pasco Red Lion yesterday morning, Tuesday, during the Washington Policy Center’s first-ever Solutions Summit.

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Tennessee DCS posts documents relating to child deaths

The Department of Children’s Services will now post on its website documents relating to its internal investigations into the deaths and near deaths of children. The agency already has posted more than 3,600 pages of documents relating to the deaths or injuries suffered by 64 children in Tennessee during the last half of 2012. All identifying information has been redacted.

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Will open data make Honolulu gov’t more transparent?

The Honolulu City Council today unanimously passed an open data bill that aims to make government more transparent. If Mayor Kirk Caldwell signs the bill it will essentially help to open up reams of government statistics and data in a format that can be manipulated to build apps, create visualizations of complex information and help citizens analyze government services.

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Duffey looks to streamline access to public records in Ohio

State Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington) has introduced a series of bills designed to make it easier to find and understand data about local and state government. Called the DataOhio Initiative, the program would promote open standards and make Ohio government more accountable to Ohioans, he said.

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Groveland Mayor Jim Gearhart quits amid Sunshine-law probe

GROVELAND — Mayor Jim Gearhart, who's been under fire from residents and city employees amid an investigation for possible Sunshine Law violations, stepped down on Wednesday. Gearhart, a member of the City Council since 2007 who was elected mayor last year, blamed "politics" and "brutal attacks" for his resignation in a letter he delivered to Interim City Manager Willie Morgan.

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Florida appeals court rules teacher data is public record

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A Florida appeals court says that data used to prepare teacher evaluations is a public record. The 1st District Court of Appeal on Tuesday sided with The Florida Times-Union in a lawsuit the newspaper filed against the Florida Department of Education.

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November 13, 2013 10:06 AM

From PR Watch: Records obtained by DBA Press and the Center for Media and Democracy (DBA/CMD) shed new light on a technology, OpenMIND, utilized by law enforcement/counter-terrorism fusion center personnel in gathering and analyzing mass amounts of "open source intelligence" derived from the online lives of Americans.

According to records obtained by DBA/CMD, this technology -- employed by state/regional "homeland security" "fusion centers" -- is able to access to password protected sites and is deliberately designed to hide both the presence of inquiring analysts, as well as their subjects of interest. These technologies serve as vacuums that amass, store, and collate vast amounts of data in order to monitor shifts in public opinion and predict the possible future actions of those being monitored.

Visit PR Watch for more.

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November 7, 2013 2:03 PM

From FierceGovernmentIT: The United States says it will expand open data and modernize the Freedom of Information Act as part of six new transparent government commitments made in an updated national action plan released by the White House Oct. 31.

The United States issued the commitments during the Open Government Summit in London. This year, the annual event brought together 1,000 delegates from more than 60 countries to discuss open government plans.

Visit FierceGovernmentIT for more.

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November 7, 2013 1:54 PM

From Digital Journal: SACRAMENTO, CA--(Marketwired - Nov 7, 2013) - e.Republic's Center for Digital Government and the Digital Communities Program today announced the top-ranked cities in the 2013 Digital Cities Survey.

This year's top-ranked cities -- Boston; Irving, Texas; Avondale, Ariz.; and Palo Alto, Calif. -- improved transparency with open government initiatives and access to city services via mobile apps. The cities eliminated waste and enhanced service levels using agile project management, and reduced costs and improved services through advanced analytics and performance measures.

Visit Digital Journal for more.

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November 7, 2013 1:48 PM

From Sunlight Foundation: The recent Open Government Partnership meetings in London have provided a good opportunity to assess the direction of our community. The latest comes from Jonathan Gray, and the title -- Open government should be about accountability and social justice, not the digital economy -- more or less speaks for itself:

[...]

I agree with Jonathan's diagnosis of distinct strains within the open government data community. But I don't think they have to be in tension. I've argued before that a big tent is beneficial to us all -- that blurring the lines between open data for accountability and open data for economic development can serve both constituencies' needs. After all, the great thing about open information is that its supply is limitless.

Visit Sunlight Foundation for more.

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October 24, 2013 12:18 PM

From Digital Journal: Seattle, WA (PRWEB) October 22, 2013 - Court Records is a new background check website that provides people with thousands of online court records. These court records cover everything from the addresses and full names of the plaintiffs, attorneys and defendants, to the specific US statute violation in question and final judgment of a case. In addition, on this website, people will discover how to understand the way the court systems in the United States are organized, and how to know where to look and what to expect to find at each level court. Furthermore, people will find out a detailed overview of the US court system organization, and full information on every level of court system. Moreover, the website also introduces some main types of court records such as criminal court records, civil court records, and state court records. After the Court Records website was launched, a lot of customers have used it to get a criminal background check easily. Consequently, the website Vkool.com completed a full overview about the effectiveness of the Court Records website.

A full overview of Court Records on the site Vkool.com indicates that this website takes people step-by-step through the process of discovering 5 types of courts such as county courts, courts of appeals, bankruptcy courts, state courts, and district courts. The website also provides people with a lot of tips on court records searches, and 20-year address history with details and phone numbers. In addition, on this website, people will get a people search engine that helps them find US public records, and carry out a full criminal check about felonies, misdemeanors and sex offenses. Furthermore, people also discover all the basics of the United States court record keeping system, and the reasons why they have to perform a court records search. Moreover, when becoming members of this website, people will be able to search court records of many areas such as Alabama, Nevada, California, Ohio, Florida, Washington, and Texas.

Visit Digital Journal for more.

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October 24, 2013 12:03 PM

From Journalist's Resource: Since the Progressive Era, ideas about the benefits of government openness — crystallized by Justice Brandeis’s famous phrase about the disinfectant qualities of “sunlight” — have steadily grown more popular and prevalent. Post-Watergate reforms further embodied these ideas. Now, notions of “open government” and dramatically heightened levels of transparency have taken hold as zero-cost digital dissemination has become a reality. Many have advocated switching the “default” of government institutions so information and data are no longer available just “on demand” but rather are publicized as a matter of course in usable digital form.

As academic researchers point out, we don’t yet have a great deal of long-term, valid data for many of the experiments in this area to weigh civic outcomes and the overall advance of democracy. Anecdotally, though, it seems that more problems — from potholes to corruption — are being surfaced, enabling greater accountability. This “new fuel” of data also creates opportunities for new businesses and organizations; and so-called “Big Data” projects frequently rely on large government datasets, as do “news apps.”

Visit Journalist's Resource for more.

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October 11, 2013 7:26 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.

Michigan lawmakers approve new limits on public records, remove controversial 'journalist' definition

image of Access keyLANSING, MI -- The Michigan House on Wednesday approved a bill seeking to slow "ambulance chasing" attorneys from using public traffic accident records to find new clients. In doing so, lawmakers removed controversial language that would have defined who is or is not a journalist. The Michigan Press Association and other First Amendment advocates had raised red flags over House Bill 4770, which as introduced would have prevented immediate access to accident reports for most individuals but included exceptions for certain groups, including newspaper, radio or television employees.

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Idaho judge rules against media groups in hospital case

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge presiding over an antitrust lawsuit between two major Idaho health care providers has declared that trial testimony and documents can remain hidden from public view, providing attorneys make a compelling case for secrecy. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled Tuesday after a coalition of Idaho news organizations challenged a broad protective order approved by the judge for documents and testimony leading up to the trial.

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Lawsuit over mug-shot web sites captures a public records dilemma, Ohio

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Debra Lashaway is realizing that the Internet never forgets. Years after she was exonerated of a theft charge, she remains online through a lasting image of her arrest: a mug shot.

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Times-News co-sponsors Idaho open government workshop

Public documents are the backbone to government transparency, but sometimes wading through what is or isn’t open can be confusing. To help the public navigate Idaho’s public records law, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Idahoans for Openness in Government are holding a workshop for those who want to learn more about access to public records and meetings.

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Texas appeals court hears Bexar open records case

AUSTIN — An appellate court heard clashing arguments Wednesday over Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson's long-running refusal to disclose official communications in his private email accounts. The Precinct 4 commissioner, who in 2012 was ordered by a trial court in Austin to release transportation policy-related emails sought by the San Antonio Express-News, insisted anew that the communications were not subject to the Texas Public Information Act. State and newspaper lawyers countered that the messages must be shared because they were official business.

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Editorial: N.M. Governor must be more open about travel

It's a problem that dates back to at least the Richardson administration, and remains unresolved to this day: the governor being less than transparent with their daily schedule and travel plans. The Associated Press reported last week that in response to its request for travel records, information provided by the Susana Martinez administration for political trips not related to state business was incomplete and inconsistent with previous statements.

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Sarasota development review panel to meet in sunshine

SARASOTA - A committee charged with helping to shape Sarasota developments will no longer hold private meetings before signing off on projects in public, City Attorney Bob Fournier said this week. Fournier has advised members of the Development Review Committee to end that practice, he said, and make all meetings public, after open government advocates complained last month that the DRC appeared to be violating Florida's Sunshine Law.

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Wis. Senate sends AG ‘sunshine’ legislation to governor

MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) — The Wisconsin Senate has passed legislation aimed at bringing transparency to the state’s hiring of private sector attorneys on a contingency fee basis. On Tuesday, senators concurred 23-10 and sent the legislation, the Transparency in Private Attorney Contracting Act, or Assembly Bill 27, to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.

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Vermont announces 'open data' pilot project

As Vermont’s state government takes its first baby step into the giant world of open data, the state’s civic hackers are lining up to help. Harry Bell of Vermont’s Department of Information and Innovation announced Tuesday that the state would be stepping out of its website shell and into the “open data” movement — a growing international trend toward making government data more available to the public.

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Hendersonville (Tennessee) public records ordinance clears hurdle

Citizens may soon be able to make their own copies of public records at Hendersonville City Hall, but would still have to pay a labor charge for retrieving and redacting those records if the process takes more than an hour. Hendersonville leaders passed an ordinance late Tuesday outlining how public records will be handled. The measure passed 9 to 3, but will require another vote before it takes effect.

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Asheville, Buncombe (NC) crime databases offer access to public records

Two relatively new online databases, from the Asheville Police Department and Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, offer extensive access to crime reports. Both use a program called Police to Citizen (or P2C) that allows users to look up information on crimes in their neighborhoods and search for alleged and convicted offenders by name. Buncombe’s P2C has been online for a little more than a year and was recently enhanced to include more thorough information, according to Kim Pruett, Buncombe County’s director of information technology. Asheville’s P2C, implemented in collaboration between Asheville and Buncombe IT staff, was launched in August.

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Who’s got that public record you want? Louisiana government begins to comply with new law

State Rep. Chris Broadwater typed away on a Dell laptop last week at his legislative office in downtown Hammond. Broadwater was checking to see which government agencies had complied with a measure, House Concurrent Resolution 129, that the state Legislature approved unanimously in June. Sponsored by Broadwater, it requires government agencies to make it easy for citizens to find out online how they can file public records requests, by identifying who on the website is the custodian of those records.

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Spokane (Washington) Public Schools to pay $130,000 in public records dispute

Spokane Public Schools will pay a Spokane woman with a history of needling officials $130,000 after failing to comply with a 2009 public records request. Laurie Rogers is a private tutor, frequent critic and describes herself as an advocate for transparent government. She had filed a request for all “promotional materials on the 2006 and 2009 bonds and levies.”

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Mich. bills to limit access to juvenile records, accident reports move forward

LANSING — Two bills that would make it more difficult or impossible for the public to access the criminal records of juveniles and accident records from police passed overwhelmingly in the Legislature on Wednesday. The first bill, passed unanimously in the Senate, would shut out the public from access to the criminal records of juveniles available on a Michigan State Police-run online data base. The records could be released to other law enforcement agencies and employers who do criminal background checks on potential employees.

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Vermont gun group responds to Burlington rejection with second FOIA

Undeterred by the City of Burlington’s refusal to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs has filed a second FOIA request, the group reported yesterday on its website. The original request was for documents and correspondence related to the city’s undermining of state preemption laws for firearms. That effort was reported in this column on September 21, and produced a response from the city three days later.

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Former Polk County deputy suing sheriff over public records

LAKELAND | A former Polk County sheriff's deputy who was fired earlier this year is suing Polk Sheriff Grady Judd for not providing public records, according to court filings. Shawnee McCawley requested copies of emails and text messages from eight Sheriff's Office employees in an Aug. 9 letter sent by certified mail, according to the lawsuit.

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October 4, 2013 9:04 AM

From National Journal: Thursday morning's New York Times starts with a blockbuster story on Obamacare:

"A sweeping national effort to extend health coverage to millions of Americans will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of the low-wage workers who do not have insurance, they very kinds of people that the program was intended to help, according to an analysis of census data by The New York Times."

It's a major revelation for the nation's hotly contested policy, but it wouldn't have come to light without publicly available census data. But right now, because of the government shutdown, that's data that you can't find online.

Visit National Journal for more.

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October 3, 2013 8:20 AM

From NJ.com: As hundreds of thousands of federal workers were sent home amid the first federal government shutdown since the 1990s, so too did many of the databases that provide government transparency and allow researchers to understand the social and economic fabric of the United States.

Because of a lack of staffing or because they were deemed non-essential services, much of the statistical information kept by the federal government will remain dormant as long as the shut down continues, if it hasn’t disappeared entirely.

The U.S. Census Bureau and Data.gov – a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s open government initiative – shuttered entirely early Tuesday morning, while other agencies, such as the FEC and the Bureau of Labor Statistics will not update their websites, cutting off a flow of critical economic and political information.

Visit NJ.com for more.

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