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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October 30, 2014 4:03 PM

Caroline County's school board members went into a closed session last week to discuss, among other matters, their own performance. It's probably not a bad idea to evaluate themselves occasionally, but they shouldn't keep it secret from county residents.

In fact, using a closed meeting under the personnel exemption to talk about themselves is not permitted under state law. Virginia's Freedom of Information Act permits closed meetings to discuss ìspecific' people they have the authority to hire, fire, discipline or evaluate.

The exemption doesn't include one another. There are at least two legal opinions-one from the attorney general, another from the state's Freedom of Information Advisory Council-that explain why such discussions can't be held in closed sessions. Continue>>>
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October 29, 2014 11:36 AM

The Port of Tacoma could pay up to $50,000 to defend its commission members against a lawsuit alleging they violated the state's Open Meetings Act by holding confidential meetings with the Port of Seattle commissioners over a planned operations alliance.

The commission unanimously approved last week an authorization for the port to pay legal fees of up to $50,000 to defend commission members in a lawsuit brought by Olympia open government advocate Arthur West. Any costs beyond $50,000 will be paid by the port's legal liability insurance carrier.

That same authorization also would allow the port to pay any fines or judgments against individual commissioners if the courts decide those confidential meetings violated the Open Meetings Act. State law allows governments to pay legal defense costs and judgments in cases brought against their governing officials if those officials acted in good faith as part of their official duties. Continue>>>
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October 27, 2014 11:29 AM

Open-meetings laws are effective only if they actually compel public entities to conduct public business in public. That clearly is the intent, and the Olentangy school board appears to have violated the intent of the law by discussing what should have been public matters through private emails.

The Ohio Supreme Court is being asked to take up an appeal of a case filed by an Olentangy school board member, Adam White, against other members who corresponded with each other via email before taking an official action. White filed suit last year in Delaware County Common Pleas Court, which ruled that four other school board members did not violate open-meetings laws in exchanging the emails.

The Dispatch would welcome the Supreme Court taking the case and affirming the need for boards to adhere to what often are referred to as 'sunshine' laws. Other groups supporting White's appeal include the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, Common Cause Ohio and the League of Women Voters of Ohio, all which joined in a 'friend of the court' brief backing White. Continue>>>
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October 16, 2014 11:39 PM

Since 2010, the North Dakota University System has violated state open records and open meetings laws 17 times, according to records from the North Dakota Attorney General's office. Now Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen is crying foul on some of those requests, saying they're politically motivated.

ìOpen records law is certainly designed to ensure transparent government,î Skogen told an Oct. 3 meeting of the State Board of Higher Education. ìWe all agree on the need for that, but what has happened is these laws are being used for some politically motivated individuals. Now our communications have become a fishing pond in which these individuals cast wide nets in the hope of finding something to use against political opponents or for political purposes.î

But Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who is tasked with enforcing the state's open records laws, said the motivation for open records requests doesn't matter. Continue>>>
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October 14, 2014 2:33 PM

The three Democratic Lucas County commissioners skated on the edge of Ohio's open-meetings law recently when they prearranged and attended a last-minute meeting with Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins.

Commissioners Carol Contrada, Pete Gerken, and Tina Skeldon Wozniak, along with Lucas County Administrator Laura Lloyd-Jenkins, asked to see Mayor Collins after receiving a letter from him about his decision to order police to charge most criminals under state laws rather than city ordinances. The move could save the city $4 million to $9 million but leave the county short that money.

The four took the elevator from the county's eighth-floor office in One Government Center to the mayor's 22nd-floor suite. Mrs. Contrada, president of the commissioners, said it was not a public meeting and not a violation of the law because the three did not deliberate. Continue>>>
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October 9, 2014 1:49 AM

Too many public entities are violating Missouriís open-government laws by meeting in closed sessions without giving a good reason or by discussing things behind closed doors that they shouldnít be, the state auditor said Tuesday.

Auditor Tom Schweich said about 15 percent of the nearly 300 audits he conducted over the previous two years found some sort of violation of Missouri's open-meetings-and-records laws. Thatís an improvement from the 19 percent problem rate for Sunshine law compliance during audits conducted in 2010 and 2011, he said.

'Maybe things are getting a little better,' Schweich said. But he added: 'Thatís not to say I'm happy with the fact that so many entities are still not complying.' Continue>>>
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September 30, 2014 10:30 AM

An open government advocate said Thursday he is filing suit in King County asking a judge to declare a series of secret meetings between the port commissions of Tacoma and Seattle illegal.

Arthur West, an Olympia resident who has made a career of challenging government secrecy, said he believes commission members have wrongly held private meetings to discuss how the two ports can improve their competitive stance in the maritime business.

The two port commissions have held eight meetings, including one Wednesday at Sea-Tac Airport, from which the public was barred, in an attempt to reach agreement on new strategies to attract more shipping business to Puget Sound. Continue>>>
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September 25, 2014 10:26 AM

One of the many questions parents have as part of the controversial school curriculum debate in the Jefferson County School District concerns their legal rights to information from the school board.

If you are in the Jefferson County or have questions about your district there is help finding out your rights to know what is going on in your school district. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition is holding a free informational seminar on Monday, September 29 starting at 7 p.m. about the public's right to know information and its access to open meetings.

"For parents who want to find out what's going on in their school system, these are laws that are incredibly powerful tools to keep them abreast of what's going on with their kids," said Steve Zansberg, president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. Continue>>>
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September 23, 2014 8:50 AM

Some or all members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors often gather at a restaurant following their regularly scheduled voting meetings. The media has not received advanced notice of such meetings. To learn about these meetings, a reporter must attend the board meeting and then hope to be invited or overhear the board members discuss where they plan to eat.

The City Wire recently asked several members of the Board if they considered the restaurant meetings a violation of the meetings rules or a violation of the spirit of the rules. In his response, City Director Mike Lorenz acknowledged that 'some directors have dinner together after nearly every board meeting and have for at least the past year and a half that I have been a member of the board. Each time the media is invited and notified verbally in person when this takes place.'

The experience of The City Wire's two reporters who attend board meetings is that such an invitation is not always made. The only time reporters with The City Wire attended one of the restaurant meetings is when we overheard a discussion, and a board member who observed that we overheard the conversation offered us an invitation. On another night, a reporter by coincidence saw a group of board members at a restaurant. Only when the board members saw the reporter was he invited to sit with them. Continue>>>
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September 17, 2014 1:58 PM

Newspapers, government watchdog groups and open government advocates across the state of Georgia have cheered the recent decision of Forsyth County Superior Court requiring the city of Cumming and its mayor, Henry Ford Gravitt, to shell out $6,000 each for violations of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

The prosecution of the city and mayor has been extolled as a victory for Attorney General Sam Olens. It has been a a victory for the blogger, Nydia Tisdale, whose rights to video tape a city council meeting were abridged.

The case has also been styled a win for open government activists. Newspapers, such as The Valdosta Daily Times, see it as great news for those of us who take our roles as the Fourth Estate of government seriously. This battle and victory, however, in reality is a win for the people of Georgia. Continue>>>
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September 3, 2014 9:22 PM

Every so often, those people charged with conducting the public’s business should read the preamble to state of Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act. Other citizens ought to read it, too. It states: “The legislature finds and declares that all public commissions, boards, councils, committees, subcommittees, departments, divisions, offices, and all other public agencies of this state and subdivisions thereof exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of this chapter that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

We mention this because at least two members of the Olympian Planning Commission – Carole Richmond and Jerry Parker -- don’t seem to understand the meaning of public service. The nonprofit Washington Coalition for Open Government recently presented its Key Award to planning commission member Judy Bardin for calling attention to a series of secret meetings between other commissioners and developers. But Richmond and Parker criticized WCOG and the award. Continue>>>
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August 4, 2014 9:08 AM

Four Fort Smith city directors were dismissed from a lawsuit alleging violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act according to a Thursday (July 31) court filing.

City Directors George Catsavis, Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle were all released from the lawsuit that alleges the FOIA violation after Lorenz had called City Clerk Sherri Gard requesting two items be removed from meeting agendas. Gard then contacted all members of the Board to determine if there was adequate support to remove the items. A city ordinance passed in the 1970s allows removal of items from a meeting agenda if four directors notify the city clerk of their desire to have the item removed.

Attorney Joey McCutchen, representing Fort Smith resident Jack Swink, said Saturday (Aug. 2) that the removal of the four city directors was due to the elected officials' lack of understanding of the Arkansas FOIA law prior to the polling having been conducted by Gard. Continue>>>
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