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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February 25, 2015 12:41 AM

With the upcoming Mayoral and Aldermanic elections for the City of Chicago, the city has apparently decided to keep requested public records a secret. The records requested are such that they could point to disqualification for office if revealed.

On January 31, 2015, I requested records relating to nearly every elected official in the City of Chicago government. The records I was seeking pertain to debts owed to the city, which included the time-frame for election petition filing. (read it below)

On February 2, 2015, I received an email extending the deadline by an additional five working days, and it stated the records would be provided on or before February 18, 2015. Continue>>>
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February 16, 2015 11:05 AM

College environmentalists are using public records laws to investigate the circumstances surrounding the hiring of an economist at the University of Kansas (KU) who has spoken out against wind subsidies, according to his attorney.

Dr. Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the university, found himself at the center of an environmentalist campaign after testifying to the state legislature that Kansas should do away with green energy quotas in the spring of 2014. Shortly after his testimony, Schuyler Kraus, a KU student and environmentalist, submitted a public records request demanding all of his email correspondence dating back to 2004.

“In light of recent testimony made by Dr. Arthur P. Hall in favor of S.B. 433, an effort to repeal Kansas Renewable Portfolio Standards, Students for a Sustainable Future (SSF) endeavors to bring KU students and Kansas citizens greater transparency regarding Dr. Hall’s background, connections, and affiliations to disclose significant conflicts of interest,” the records request begins. “The processes by which Dr. Hall and others were hired at KU were orchestrated by Charles and/or David Koch.” Continue>>>
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February 12, 2015 1:50 PM

On Tuesday, Jeb Bush, “in the spirit of transparency,” released a mass of emails sent to him during his time as Florida governor.

Many of the emails are the stuff of public record, and “would have surfaced anyway due to sunshine laws and nosy journalists,” as The Christian Science Monitor put it.

Indeed, most of Mr. Bush’s emails came with a disclaimer: “Most written communications to or from state officials regarding state business are public records available to the public and media upon request. Your e-mail communications may therefore be subject to public disclosure.” Continue>>>
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February 10, 2015 1:25 PM

Denial of public records, excessive fees to find out what the government is doing, violations of open meetings law and long delays in getting information are some of the problems open records advocates find in Tennessee.

News media routinely face hurdles in getting information to report to the public but ordinary citizens have it 10 times worse, said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. She made the comment during the annual Associated Press-Tennessee Press Association legislative preview session.

Fisher told the story of a widow who was charged $1,000 just to see the case file involving her husband who had been shot to death by a sheriff's deputy. Continue>>>
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February 9, 2015 12:33 PM

A case headed for a Staten Island courtroom on Thursday that seeks to unlock grand jury evidence in the police killing of Eric Garner is part of a national push to pry from law enforcement information long kept secret.

While journalists and civil libertarians have historically clamored for the release of details related to questionable police actions, the crisis of confidence in law enforcement that followed Mr. Garner’s death and the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., has propelled the issue onto legislative and political agendas nationwide.

From Albany to Jefferson City, Mo., to Sacramento, elected officials and law enforcement leaders are increasingly confronting demands for police information and questions of transparency in the criminal justice system. Continue>>>
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January 30, 2015 1:39 PM

Ever since President Obama launched the Open Government Initiative in January 2009, government agencies have been in a mad dash to publish more and more data. The vision is to bring accountability to the government, foster collaboration across agencies, and encourage participation of the public by sharing data openly. In the past six years, we have come a long way. However, we are still far from the goal. Through our work at LiveStories, helping government agencies become more data-driven, we see three major obstacles that prevent our public institutions from being more transparent and efficient:

1 - Available Does Not Equal Accessible
Government agencies are focused on making data available as quickly as possible. The Open Information Directive was ambitious in its deadlines, but speed was prioritized over scope. The directive defined Open Data as being machine readable, platform agnostic and accessible through web search. This has led to data being published in file formats such as CSV, XML, JSON, and RDF, formats that are used by data analysts and developers who are familiar with databases, pivot tables, and programming. Reality is, most people do not possess these skills. So while the data is in fact available, it isn't really accessible to a large majority of the population. This is equivalent to watching a foreign movie without subtitles.

2 - Overpriced and Overly Complex Systems Limit Efficiency
The public sector has been put in an arm lock by legacy vendors and contractors who install and maintain overpriced, archaic, and complex software systems. These systems usually only work in a vacuum, meaning that they don't play along with other systems. So, while the data is being opened up, the tools are stuck in the last century. This brings us to the third obstacle. Continue>>>
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January 27, 2015 12:50 PM

New Mexico State University plans to propose extensive changes to restrict the reach of the state’s public records law – amendments that transparency advocates call “troubling” and vow to fight.

A document prepared by NMSU and obtained by the Journal describes a litany of proposed exemptions to the Inspection of Public Records Act, including some that would make secret much of the public sector hiring process and certain law enforcement activities.

The changes have also been a topic of discussion at the Council of University Presidents, made up of the heads of seven New Mexico public universities. Continue>>>
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January 19, 2015 4:47 PM

Public records will become cheaper and easier to access under changes to Michigan's Freedom of Information Act.

Government agencies will not be allowed to charge more than 10 cents per page for copies of public records; they can face increased fines for delaying responses, and people seeking the records now can sue if they consider the fees to be exorbitant.

Dirk Milliman of the Michigan Press Association said the changes have been years in the making and involved compromise, but, overall, the new law increases transparency and access to public records. Continue>>>
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November 17, 2014 1:44 PM

I've written multiple times over the years about the importance of freedom of information laws, and the need to help the public understand that access to information about government is a right for all citizens, not just journalists.

Too often, people think (or they're erroneously told by government officials) that they can't obtain certain information unless they're a reporter.

But this week, I'd like to share information about a proposed update to a freedom of information policy that actually could make it tougher for reporters to get information compared with a private citizen. Continue>>>

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October 28, 2014 10:02 AM

Gov. Andrew Cuomo took office four years ago promising the most transparent administration in history, but journalists and advocacy groups say his office instead tightly controls requests for public records on anything controversial and routinely delays or denies their release.

For decades, responding to requests under New York's Freedom of Information Law was the responsibility of individual state agencies. Current and former state officials say that began to change a year into Cuomo's administration, and now such requests are often routed through the governor's legal counsel.

Travis Proulx, former director of communications for the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, said the shift was a reaction to an embarrassing story - a 2011 New York Times series on abuse of the disabled in state care that was based largely on public records. Continue>>>
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October 16, 2014 11:41 PM

The Indiana Supreme Court's ruling that causes of death are public records and must be available at county levels is a decision worth applauding. That we, as The Tribune's Editorial Board, favor the ruling probably comes as no surprise. As journalists, we vigorously defend the concept of transparency in government. But the unanimous ruling released recently, which reversed the lower courtsí decisions, is one that is in the best interests of all Indiana residents.

The lawsuit at the center of this decision was filed after the Vanderburgh County Health Department denied access to cause of death information in 2012, claiming a 2011 state law restricted such information to those who could prove they had a direct interest in it. But the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that death certificates filed with local health departments are in fact public record, covered under Indiana's Access to Public Records Act.

The high court acknowledged that such public disclosures could be painful for the family and friends of the deceased. It goes on to say that the General Assembly has weighed these competing interests and 'concluded that the public interest outweighs the private.' Continue>>>
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September 30, 2014 10:26 AM

Officials in Ferguson, Missouri, are charging nearly 10 times the cost of some of their own employees' salaries before they will agree to turn over files under public records laws about the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Missouri's attorney general on Monday, after the AP first disclosed the practice, contacted Ferguson's city attorney to ask for more information regarding fees related to document requests, the attorney general's spokeswoman said.

The move to charge high fees discourages journalists and civil rights groups from investigating the shooting and its aftermath. And it follows dozens of records requests to Ferguson under the state's Sunshine Law, which can offer an unvarnished look into government activity. Continue>>>
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