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 20, 2014 10:26 AM

Wisconsin open records advocates and municipal leaders have brokered a truce in a fight over police record redactions, creating a request form that allows the public to get clean copies if they reveal who they are and why they want the documents.

The deal is a departure from Wisconsin's open records law, which does not require either piece of information. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the two groups that crafted the agreement, say it's meant as a non-binding, stop-gap measure to ensure people can get full reports while a state appeals court sorts out whether federal law mandates the redaction of personal information. "We don't like it," Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said of the agreement. "They're making you do something our state records law says you can't do. (But) it makes a bad situation slightly better."

Police departments often use motor vehicle records to obtain people's names, addresses, birthdates and other personal information. More Wisconsin departments have been redacting that information from incident and accident reports before releasing them to avoid violating the 1994 federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which requires states to obtain consent before they release a driver's personal information. Continue>>>
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August 12, 2014 7:35 AM

Law-enforcement agencies wield great power and therefore must be accountable to the public for its use. This applies regardless of who is paying an officer’s salary, especially when that employer is an institution such as a university.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is weighing in on a legal fight to establish that arrest records and incident reports of Otterbein University and other private universities and hospitals are public documents. DeWine filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Ohio Supreme Court in support of a suit filed by a former Otterbein student journalist Anna Schiffbauer. In it, he asserts that since these private police departments are a creation of state law — granting them governmental police powers, including the authority to arrest — they are public officers required to turn over records.

Westerville-based Otterbein denies that it is required to disclose records and has asked the court to dismiss the suit. Universities, though, should recognize that parents, students and the community have an important interest in police activities. Continue>>>
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August 12, 2014 7:34 AM

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett should get off the fence and reappoint Monroe County native Terry Mutchler to a second term heading Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records. Mutchler's six-year term ended in April, and she and her busy staff have been in limbo ever since. The work the OOR does is vital. The office advocates for Pennsylvania citizens, helping to ensure access to government records and training public officials on how to comply with the law.

Interest in open government is keen and never-ending, as it should be in a democracy. Mutchler's office has handled more than 11,000 appeals of Right-to-Know request denials, answered more than 50,000 emails and phone calls and led some 1,400 training sessions for public officials, journalists and citizens.

Mutchler has strong backing for a second term, including letters of support from both Democratic and Republican state officials. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9, has praised her integrity, leadership and work ethic. Mutchler hopes to continue working with Pileggi to improve the Open Records Law, to strengthen her office's guidelines by turning them into formal regulations, and to continue training public officials. Continue>>>
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August 7, 2014 7:35 AM

The woman hired six years ago to oversee sweeping changes to Pennsylvania's open records law is waiting to see if she still has a job. More than three months since her six-year term expired as executive director of the Office of Open Records, Terry Mutchler doesn't know whether Gov. Tom Corbett will reappoint her to a second term.

Mutchler, a former Associated Press journalist, took the $142,358-a-year post after lawmakers voted in 2008 to grant unprecedented access to the inner workings of public agencies. “Every day you come in (and), for me and my family, we wonder if that's my last paycheck,” Mutchler said. “I'm willing to take that, but it's very, very stressful on the staff.”

Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said the governor will decide “at the appropriate time.” Mutchler said that as a “liberal Democrat, out-lesbian,” she might be out of Corbett's comfort zone — but said, on balance, her deputy, Nathan Byerly, is a conservative, straight man who voted for Corbett. Continue>>>
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August 6, 2014 6:29 AM

A new court of appeal ruling could make it easier for journalists to request data under the UK Freedom of Information Act in a specific file format.

The decision relates to a 2010 FoI request to Buckinghamshire County Council for information about the 11+ school entry exam to be supplied "in Excel format". When the council complied with the FoI request a month later, it supplied the applicant, Nick Innes, with 184 pages of data in PDF format instead.

Appeal court judge Lord Justice Underhill said in last week's ruling: "The result of course was that, although he had all the information for which he had asked, it could not be manipulated or processed in any of the ways permitted by the standard Excel software (e.g. generating graphs or tables or performing statistical analyses)." Continue>>>

July 29, 2014 6:45 AM

The disappearance of rights is seldom an immediate process. There are too many people willing to stand up and fight against such an undermining of power. The danger is when it comes as a trickle or a tweak. That’s what slowly erodes the soul of transparency.

Gov. Pat Quinn recognized the steep downward slope on which such a tweak would have perched Illinois’ open records law last week when he vetoed a legislative plan to give municipalities more leeway in answering some requests for information. Let’s hope lawmakers leave it alone.

The state’s open records laws stipulate what government agencies must show the public. It doesn’t matter if it’s a school board or a state’s attorney, the overriding belief is that people have a right to know how their money is being spent and what their government is doing. Continue>>>
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illinois, open records
July 29, 2014 6:43 AM

In his first day in office, President Obama signed the memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, calling for a new era of open and accountable government.

“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.” — President Obama, Jan. 21, 2009

In today’s increasingly digital world, it is vital that the American public has access to all appropriate federal government communications to improve transparency and increase trust. Yet, five years after the president’s commitment, the government has yet to effectively and safely create this level of openness. Given that the federal government is now the single largest producer, collector, consumer and disseminator of information in the U.S., there is no doubt that it’s time to review policies and procedures of information communication and dissemination to determine a real-time approach to information management. Continue>>>

July 1, 2014 1:06 PM

The Colorado Supreme Court has sided with open-government advocates in a case over records and court costs. The court ruled 5-2 Monday that people who win open-records lawsuits can be reimbursed for legal fees — even if they win access to only some of the records.

The case stemmed from a 2006 open-records request from the Colorado Republican Party to some Democratic state lawmakers. The GOP wanted to see results from a public survey, and a court later ruled that some but not all of the surveys were subject to the Colorado Open Records Act.

A lower court ruled that because the GOP did not prevail getting all the records, it could not be reimbursed for legal fees. An appeals court reversed that decision, a reversal the Supreme Court upheld. Continue>>>
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June 19, 2014 11:03 AM

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has championed greater transparency for government and groups in his cross-hairs during his three-plus years as the state's top law enforcement official. But when it comes to his own dealings with a powerful political consultant and close adviser, Mr. Schneiderman is shielding them from public view—under legal reasoning some leading experts say is clearly wrong.

In March, Crain's filed an open-records request with the state attorney general seeking any emails since 2011 between any employee of his office (including Mr. Schneiderman himself) and Jennifer Cunningham. Ms. Cunningham is one of the state's top political consultants and is also Mr. Schneiderman’s former wife. The two divorced in 1996, but the relationship remained amicable enough that she served as the media and advertising director for his successful 2010 attorney general campaign.

In rejecting the request, Mr. Schneiderman's office cited an advisory opinion from 2010 by the State Committee on Open Government, a governmental office that monitors open-records requests. Yet the author of that very opinion told Crain's Tuesday that Mr. Schneiderman’s legal interpretation of it is incorrect—and that the 2010 advisory opinion does not apply to Ms. Cunningham’s situation. Continue>>>
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June 5, 2014 12:32 PM

In its own polite, Midwestern fashion, The Des Moines Register is mad as heck and is not going to take it anymore. After Iowa officials refused to release records showing alleged abuses by state employees, the paper is pursuing dual lawsuits to force the records into public view. In one case, the Register is even suing the state’s new public information board, formed expressly to address years of complaints about records transparency.

The legal moves, coupled with related efforts at coalition-building, are part of an avowedly more assertive posture by the paper to shift the state’s political culture toward openness—a stance that is welcomed by open-government advocates in Iowa, even if its prospects for success are uncertain.

One of the suits, filed against the Iowa Department of Public Safety, seeks police records of an incident last fall in Worth County in which an inmate was Tasered multiple times and died while in custody—a death that the state medical examiner ruled a homicide. The other suit involves a 2012 video that shows an employee at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo slamming a female inmate’s head against a wall; the employee has been fired and the home has been closed, but the state has refused the Register’s requests to release the video on the grounds of protecting the alleged victim’s confidentiality, and the Iowa Public Information Board ruled in the state’s favor by a vote of 6-3 in February. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:34 AM

Mount Pleasant city officials announced last week that commissioners will interview finalists for the vacant city manager position on June 24. City officials still have not released the names of the finalists, even after receiving a formal request under Michigan’s public records law by Central Michigan Life.

Interim City Manager Nancy Ridley is the only finalist who has been publicly named. Ridley and City Clerk Jeremy Howard said the other finalists have asked that their names remain confidential until just prior to the interviews. “It is in the public’s interest to know who the finalists are – one of them will be running the city,” said Central Michigan Life Editor In Chief Ben Solis. “It is impossible for us, or city residents, to investigate their backgrounds, previous work history and what they can offer to Mount Pleasant if we don’t even know their names.”

CM Life made a formal request for the names of the finalists using the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a state law that allows citizens access to public records. A FOIA request asking for the applications of the finalists was delivered to Ridley on May 27 following a city commission meeting. Ridley declined to provide the information and stated to Solis at the meeting that the city would deny the newspaper’s request. On May 28, Howard stated in the formal request denial that the information is exempt from FOIA. Continue>>>
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April 8, 2014 12:49 PM

Sen. Fred Dyson’s bill would make it so all criminal cases that result in a dismissal or an acquittal are considered confidential. They won’t appear on the Internet, and you won’t be able to access them at the courthouse unless you are a state worker who deals with child welfare.

The Eagle River Republican presented it on the Senate floor as a justice issue. “This one is about Amendments Four and Five: privacy and due process,” said Dyson, referencing the United States Constitution.

The rationale behind the bill is simple: If a jury does not find a person guilty of a crime, then that person should not be punished by the court of public opinion.

According to data from the Department of Law, about a third of misdemeanor charges and a fifth of felonies never go trial. Dyson said over time, that adds up to a lot of people with publicly available criminal records who never saw the inside of a courtroom but might be judged negatively when applying for a job or an apartment. Continue>>>
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