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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June 19, 2017 8:18 AM

Score a significant victory for the Fort Smith law firm that's been fighting one battle after another to ensure and preserve freedom of information and transparency in that community.

I've written some lately about attorney Joey McCutchen and his law partner Chip Sexton in their lawsuits involving the Fort Smith School Board alleging Freedom of Information Act violations by holding what amounted to business sessions by email exchanges over several days. During those electronic back-and-forths members discussed who would be best to fill their slate of officers for the coming year. 

Circuit Judge Stephen Tabor in his order the other day found it was undisputed fact that the board unintentionally conducted what amounted to an extended meeting, all without legally required notice to the public.

Then the judge permanently enjoined the board from repeat performances.

I'm proud of McCutchen and Sexton for taking a stand to defend the Freedom of Information Act and what is clearly the right thing. If only all were so committed to important causes that affect all of us.

And they did it all without expectation of personal aggrandizement or enrichment. Although McCutchen is within his rights now to seek legal fees connected with this months-long battle, he was forgoing that option as long as the board agreed to accept the decision without appeal.

Up in Fayetteville, McCutchen and company continue to use the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to review relevant financial records maintained by Springdale's beleaguered Ecclesia College. Just how has that tiny college been spending the public money it's received courtesy of our elected lawmakers?

But the private college's attorneys say they won't permit a review because those records supposedly have been sealed in a protective order by a federal court in the ongoing public corruption criminal case against a former state legislator, a business consultant and Ecclesia's president, Oren Paris III. The other former legislator entangled in the case pleaded guilty in January. Read more...

Arkansas
June 19, 2017 8:08 AM

A public-private agency that promotes Florida’s tourism industry won full funding from the state legislature despite criticism that the state support amounts to corporate welfare.

But the $76 million approved for Visit Florida during a special session of the legislature last week came with stiffer reporting requirements aimed at making the agency’s activities more transparent.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has been critical of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, which doles out taxpayer-funded economic incentives designed to bring more jobs to the Sunshine State.

“As we’ve said, spending more taxpayer money on VISIT FL (or less) has not demonstrated a direct impact on tourism,” Corcoran said in a Twitter post in February.

An earlier version of the state budget that the legislature passed in May slashed funding for Visit Florida to $25 million. But Scott, a strong supporter of promoting tourism, called for a special session to restore full funding to the agency, along with other legislative matters.

“The speaker believes the oversight and accountability measures passed this session will ensure that Visit Florida spends taxpayer dollars appropriately and transparently,” Corcoran’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, told Watchdog.org.

The legislation passed in the special session contains a number of transparency provisions, including a requirement that all the agency’s contracts be placed on the corporation’s website for public viewing, as well as limitations on expenses and matching requirements between public and private contributions. Read more...

June 19, 2017 8:01 AM

How much faith do you have in government running things?

State Sen. John Eichelberger, a Blair County Republican, wants the government to handle publication of public notices, taking them away from media companies and putting them on a government-run website.

Eichelberger introduced Senate Bill 745, which essentially gives the government the power to control its own notices. The bill was referred to the Senate Local Government Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York.

Like many organizations, we think that’s bad policy and urge readers to tell their representatives to oppose it.

Legal notices are valuable sources information that lets the public know about tax increases, public meetings, government projects and zoning laws, among others. Under current state law, local governments must post public notices in newspapers. You’ll find them in most classified sections.

The Meadville Tribune charges for pubic notices, just like other companies do. However, moving notices to a government-run website will not eliminate costs or come free of charge. We think taxpayers still will be on the hook for the costs associated with gathering the information, writing the notices and posting them to a government site.

When we asked Republican state Sen. Michele Brooks, whose 50th District includes all of Crawford County, her stance on the bill, she declined to take a position on the bill in its current form, saying through a spokeswoman that the bill would likely be amended before a final version comes up for a vote. Read more...

Pennsylvania
June 15, 2017 12:01 PM

An unanimous decision from the state Supreme Court last week serves as a rebuke of the Port of Vancouver Commission and an affirmation that public agencies are, indeed, beholden to the public. In the process, the court defined a dereliction of duty by port commissioners and provided insight for this year’s election.

In a suit initially brought by conservation groups, the Supreme Court ruled that Port of Vancouver commissioners violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act in 2013 during discussions that led to a lease for an oil transfer terminal. The commission agreed to a deal with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. for the construction and operation of a terminal that could bring in up to 15 million gallons of crude each day and transfer the oil to marine vessels. The terminal, which would be the largest of its type in North America, is undergoing a state review that will be sent to the governor for approval or rejection.

Washington’s act governing public meetings dates to Watergate-era concern about government secrecy and has served the state well by holding elected officials accountable and reinforcing the public’s right to know what those officials are doing. As quoted by the Supreme Court, the preamble of the legislation says, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.” In chastising the Vancouver commissioners, Justice Charles Wiggins emphasized the damage done to “transparency and popular sovereignty by approving expansive discussion in executive session of matters squarely in the public interest.”

The commissioners held talks about the terminal behind closed doors, ignoring their duty to the public. It was an abdication of responsibility and was offensive to those who believe publicly funded organizations run by publicly elected officials must never ignore the “public” portion of their duties. When questions were raised about the secrecy of the negotiations, commissioners held a public meeting in which they doubled down on their mistake by rubber-stamping approval of the terminal for a second time. Read more...

June 15, 2017 11:55 AM

At one point during a Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council discussion about closed meetings of public bodies, a distinguished lobbyist for local government argued secrecy is necessary to, as he put it, keep the stupid in the room.

Turns out, we could tell him something about that.

The closed door session at which three Peninsula Airport Commissioners decided to guarantee a loan to People Express Airlines makes clear the appalling risks when public bodies make decisions in secret. That deal cost $4.5 million in public funds.

We never had a chance to understand the concerns of the only commissioner to express his opposition, behind those closed doors, because when it came time to vote all he felt he could do in public was abstain. Read more...

June 7, 2017 9:00 AM

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” state Rep. Weston Newton said.

Newton’s comments came this week after the state Legislature voted to amend South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act.

The Bluffton Republican said he is “delighted” that some much-needed changes have been made.

“We’ve been working on this for a number of years,” Newton said.

The act outlines how public bodies, such as state and local governments and school districts, comply with records requests from the public.

Newton said the law as it stood was missing some vital requirements.

“There was no deadline as to when documents had to be produced,” Newton said.

The time to respond to requests has been shortened from 15 to 10 days and there is now a deadline to produce requested information. Read more...

June 7, 2017 8:37 AM

In a world that is becoming increasingly communicative — where people often receive their news, share news, state their opinions and post pictures with their whereabouts via social media — the lines are perhaps a bit more blurry about how such information can be used.

Last month, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, released a map that details specific cities, counties and law enforcement agencies across the United States that have spent at least $10,000 on social media monitoring software.

All of the data — which comes from public reports, information from the government procurement database SmartProcure, public records requests via the ACLU of Northern California and the investigative news site MuckRock — found that nationwide, at least 151 police departments, cities and counties spent millions of dollars collectively on social media monitoring software. Read more...

June 7, 2017 8:33 AM

Djion Oates was arrested and charged with robbery on his 16th birthday and sentenced to five years of probation. About three years later, he was arrested and charged with murdering a man on MetroLink. But according to the Missouri Highway Patrol’s website, he has been missing since he was 15 years old.

And he’s not the only one whose name appears on the state’s list of missing juveniles who have long since been accounted for either by subsequent run-ins with police, unreported reunions with their families or even death. The list has fluctuated between 370 and 380 missing juveniles throughout the month of May.

Police say parents and guardians are lax about following up when juveniles they report missing are found. Some parents, including Oates’ mother, Lakesha Oates, blame police for not following up with them or filing proper paperwork. Read more...

Missouri, open data, Youth
June 7, 2017 8:27 AM

We hear governments boasting all the time about their transparency websites and there is no question that the material that’s posted on the Internet is generally leagues better than in the past.

But we have a gripe. There is one transparency topic that appears to be in deep decline – the recording of meeting minutes for work that takes place in legislative committee meetings, advisory panels, commissions and task forces.

Meeting minutes are a great source of information for journalists, advocacy groups, government officials and interested citizens. Yet they are staggeringly uninformative; the governmental equivalent of empty calories.

Take a look at the agenda and draft minutes from a California Actuarial Advisory Panel meeting on March 10, 2017 (Read more)

June 7, 2017 8:18 AM

Even with the Freedom of Information Act, requesting government records remains an arduous process—especially compared to the efficiency of the legal world.

Earlier this month, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz wrote to the Federal Bureau of Investigation demanding former FBI director James Comey’s notes of conversations with President Trump.

Congress has wide discretion to investigate what it chooses, including the right to issue subpoenas demanding access to potential evidence. But Chaffetz isn’t the only one interested in reading Comey’s notes, which reports have indicated document the president attempting to influence the FBI’s investigation into Russian election interference. The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Privacy Information Center have both filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for the documents.

“While we hope that Congress will be serious about its constitutional oversight role, we believe the issues raised by the Comey memos are so vital that the public should have access to them without delay,” wrote Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, in a blog post. Read more...

May 22, 2017 7:58 AM

Given the large shortfall facing lawmakers this year, one might think they would try to reduce potential waste, mismanagement and corruption regarding expenditure of taxpayer dollars. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that would have reduced oversight of some multimillion-dollar contracts.

Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed the bill recently, and deserves credit for demanding greater accountability in government contracting.

House Bill 1667 would have changed state law so that the “State Department of Education” would be responsible for seeking bids from vendors to provide state tests in grades 3 through 12, and the "Department" would be given authority to “award contracts based on the selected proposals that were submitted.” The legislation repealed language that previously gave the state Board of Education that authority. Read more...

May 22, 2017 7:53 AM

A strong bipartisan majority of Colorado legislators came together during the 2017 legislative session to pass HB 1313 - Civil Forfeiture Reform.

The bill, which adds necessary transparency and due process protections to the asset forfeiture practices of Colorado law enforcement, passed out of both chambers by a combined 81-19 vote and is awaiting signature by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

As two of the bill's prime sponsors, Sen. Tim Neville (R-Littleton) and I support HB 1313 and urge the governor to respect the will of more than three-fourths of the Legislature by signing it into law.

Colorado's law enforcement can take cash and property from people without charging anyone with a crime - much less securing a conviction - when co-operating with the federal government on investigations.

Law enforcement agencies then get a cut of the proceeds - up to 80 percent - which they can spend in any way they please without a public process. This allows law enforcement agencies to self-fund outside the normal appropriations' process, which by and large is the job of the legislative branch whether it is in state or local governments. Read more...

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