FOI Advocate News Blog

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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 28, 2014 5:45 AM

Illinois residents will now have easy access to online information regarding mass transit employee salaries as well as safety and budget information. Citing the benefit of increased government accountability, Gov. Quinn Friday signed a bill to reform the state’s mass transit hiring policies.

Andrew Nelms is director of policy and communications for Americans for Prosperity, a group that advocates for lower taxes and government accountability. He said legislation like the bill signed Friday could be beneficial for taxpayers.

“Anytime taxpayers have access to information like this, it’s a victory,” Nelms said. “I think it’s a bonus to have greater accountability and a checks-and-balances process when we’re talking about such large sums of taxpayer dollars.” Continue>>>
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August 28, 2014 5:42 AM

The Organization of American States (OAS) will launch, on Tuesday, August 26, the virtual course "Strategies for Open Government in the Americas" for 217 officials from the region, in order to enable them to implement strategies for the consolidation of more participatory, transparent and open government.

The course will last seven weeks, and although it is aimed at public officials, it is open to the general public. Taught from the Virtual Campus of the Department for Effective Public Management of the Secretariat for Political Affairs of the OAS, the course has the support of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Latin American Centre for Development Administration (CLAD).

The above institutions agreed to promote this initiative after agreeing on the importance of promoting policies of Open Government, and given the need for public institutions of the countries of the region to understand and train their human resources in the area. Continue>>>
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August 28, 2014 5:40 AM

If you want to download court records in the United States, your first stop is probably PACER, the oft-maligned digital warehouse for public court records. Maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the system charges 10 cents per page of search results within its archive, and 10 cents per actual page of court documents that are officially in the public record. It's a useful tool for attorneys, but often difficult for the average citizen to navigate and understand.

Freedom of information advocates have long criticized PACER — and tried to create some public archives outside it. But at least, for the most part, digital copies of more recent court documents were available somewhere. However, on Aug. 10, the database unceremoniously announced the removal of access to certain case files — and not just a handful, but entire categories of documents coming from five courts.

Charles Hall, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office, told The Post via e-mail that the change was made on Aug. 11 in preparation for an overhaul of the the PACER architecture, including the implementation of the next generation of the Judiciary's Case Management and Electronic Case Files System. "NextGen replaces the older CM/ECF system and provides improvements for users, including a single sign-on for PACER and NextGen," he wrote. Continue>>>
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August 28, 2014 5:38 AM

The Virginia Department of State Police has refused to disclose the types of patrol rifles and other tactical weapons and vehicles it possesses in a decision criticized by civil liberty groups and open-government advocates. The Rutherford Institute in Albemarle County, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Virginia Coalition of Open Government questioned why state police would not release basic descriptions of their taxpayer-funded firearms stock and equipment.

“Transparency in government is the basis of democratic freedom,” said John W. Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer and president of the Rutherford Institute. “If the American public is paying for it, and we’re supposedly the masters, then the servants should tell us what they have if we need to know.”

State police twice denied Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch seeking complete inventories of the department’s weapons and armored vehicles. The agency provided a partial list that included handguns, shotguns and several vehicles, but denied all the rest, citing an FOIA exemption that allows discretionary release of “specific tactical plans,” which the newspaper did not request. Continue>>>
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August 28, 2014 5:36 AM

Judge Robert Adamson ruled in favor of Attorney General Sam Olens in a lawsuit filed in June 2012 against the City of Cumming and Mayor Henry Ford Gravitt for violations of the Open Meetings Act. Judge Adamson ordered the defendants to pay $12,000 in penalties, the highest amount possible under the law. Defendants have also been ordered to pay attorney's fees in an amount to be determined at a later hearing.

“This ruling is a major victory for government transparency,” said Olens. “Georgians deserve a government that operates openly and honestly. The essence of our democracy is that elected officials are held accountable to the citizens and that citizens are allowed to exercise their rights granted by the First Amendment.”

At a Cumming City Council meeting on April 17, 2012, Mayor Gravitt demanded that citizen Nydia Tisdale cease filming the meeting and subsequently ordered her to leave the meeting. Ms. Tisdale returned to the meeting with another hand held camera and was again told to stop recording the meeting. Georgia's Open Meetings Act expressly provides that visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted. Continue>>>
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August 28, 2014 5:33 AM

Capping seven years of work, San Jose officials have adopted a slew of sunshine reforms meant to keep City Hall more open. The vast majority of the 80 or so policies have been in place for the past several years but are only now set to become law following a unanimous vote from the San Jose City Council on Tuesday. By setting the reforms into law, it binds future city leaders to follow the same guidelines used by the current administration.

But there were also some changes that slightly water down the rules, and critics again bemoaned that the council failed to adopt some of the recommendations made by the task force billed with reforming the city's open government policies.

The ordinance brings Mayor Chuck Reed's "Reed Reforms" full circle after he ran on an open government platform in 2006 following scandals from previous mayor Ron Gonzales. Reed, who is termed out of office at the end of the year. Continue>>>
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August 25, 2014 8:27 AM

Finding the balance between the public’s right to know about government and government’s position that national security and other vital concerns should prevent sharing of certain information is the ongoing struggle in our democracy.

Amid so many potential threats to our security, with Sept. 11, 2001, always there to remind us what CAN happen, the willingness of even the most staunch advocates of open government to argue for secrecy is a reality.

Against that backdrop, it is necessary to make the case for how secrecy ultimately makes us weaker. Lee Hamilton, director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and a man who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, writes in “Why Government Openness Matters”: Continue>>>
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August 25, 2014 8:24 AM

Judicial Watch announced Thursday that is has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to uncover reports of sexual misconduct by airport screeners.

The legal action is connected to a March FOIA request that asked DHS for information about passenger complaints about sexual harassment. While Judicial Watch agreed to narrow its request for information in March, TSA did not produce any documents at all, “or respond in any other substantive way as required by law.”

The government watchdog group said the issue of sexual misconduct by TSA came to light in January, when a Colorado woman filed a complaint that a frisking she received was sexual assault. Judicial Watch cited a press report in which Jamelyn Steenhoek was quoted as saying the agent touched her in place she’s “not comfortable being touched in.” Continue>>>
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August 25, 2014 8:23 AM

Earlier this year Cartersville Attorney Lester Tate won the Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation in recognition of his work on the Judicial Qualifications Commission for the state of Georgia.

Tate, who has served on the JQC for four years and is its vice chair, was one of 11 people to win the award. In a May 1 press release, the GFAF said the commission deserved its award by issuing an opinion, “which aggressively reinforced the importance of open judicial proceedings in Georgia.” The opinion, known as Opinion 239, was intended to inform judges on the importance of keeping courtroom proceedings open to the public.

“What happened with this was we got a ton of complaints from various individuals, ranging from simply family members of people who were involved in court proceedings to reporters who were trying to cover court proceedings, that they couldn’t get in the courtroom [and] that there were signs on the courtroom doors — ‘Defendants and lawyers only’ — or that a courtroom had been closed or cleared out. That kind of thing,” he said. “The U.S. Supreme Court actually held in a case coming out of Georgia that, absent specific findings — and there’s certain reasons that you can close a courtroom — but absent specific findings that it needs to be closed for some special purpose, the default position is the courtroom ought to be open and it ought to be where any member of the public can walk in and can observe the proceedings. Because that’s part of what engenders public confidence in the proceedings — that they’re able to watch them and know what goes on. Continue>>>
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August 25, 2014 8:21 AM

President Barack Obama’s White House has interfered with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests over the release of communications with a dozen federal agencies, according to a lawsuit filed on Monday by Cause of Action, a government watchdog organization.

Cause of Action has sued ten cabinet agencies — including the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Health and Human Services — the Internal Revenue Service, and the White House Office of Management and Budget for allowing the White House to influence the FOIA process and delay response to document requests.

“Accountable and transparent government does not involve instructing agencies to send politically sensitive records to the White House for review,” said Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “The bureaucracy has violated the law by stonewalling the public’s access to documents for political reasons.” Continue>>>
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August 25, 2014 8:19 AM

State Treasurer Josh Mandel has been on a personal mission over the last few weeks, visiting organizations across Ohio in an attempt to garner support for H.B. 175, which, if passed, would place "Ohio's checkbook" online, making it accessible to all.

The "Open Ohio" bill passed the Ohio House of Representative June 4 by an 86-8 vote after being introduced in May 2013. The bill is before the Ohio Senate, where Mandel is hoping for passage by December. Mandel stopped by the Kent offices of Record Publishing Aug. 15 to explain the bill in detail and share his vision of transparency.

"What we are trying to do here is open up the state checkbook," Mandel said. "I think the people of Ohio have a right to know how their money is being spent." Mandel wants the state's finances placed online in a searchable, downloadable form which can be accessed and compared, he said. Mandel's hope with the bill is to "create an army of citizen auditors throughout Ohio." Continue>>>
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August 25, 2014 8:17 AM

The pulpit is calling. It’s time do a little preaching. The subject isn’t fresh. The spin is different. The old sermon is about FOI. The new message is about FYI. For your information, FOI stands for Freedom of Information. Hopefully, that is not new information. For your information, FOI is information for you.

You thought it was for journalists? You thought wrong. FOI and FYI should be blended into something that you need to grasp: freedom of your information. FOYI. We think of ourselves as bulldogs. Our mission is to protect you from ignorant or deceptive and even devious public bodies. We make a lot of noise when sunshine laws are trampled upon.

We need to do a better job of inspiring citizens — you — to make noise. Whimpers are better than silence, but shouts are needed to make a difference. Bark. Growl. Show your teeth. Be ready to bite at the ballot box. We need to unite. “We” should be journalists and citizens. Rather, citizens and journalists. Without more of a grassroots push for FOI reform, government could run amok. Continue>>>
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