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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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 16, 2014 11:38 PM

Meet Ben Balter. He's a Government Evangelist at GitHub, where he leads the efforts to encourage adoption of open source philosophies, making all levels of government better, one repository at a time.

Ben was a member of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows and also served as a Fellow in the Office of the US Chief Information Officer, helping to draft the Presidentís Digital Strategy and Open Data Policy. As both an attorney and a developer, he's probably spent more time pondering and writing about Federal IT Procurement rules than most people would agree is healthy.

Ben will be talking about Software Development as a Civic Service at next week's All Things Open conference, and he answered a few questions for us about what the US government is doing right (and wrong) in terms of open technologies and policies. Continue>>>
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October 14, 2014 2:49 PM

The congressional candidate who accused former Congressman Cliff Stearns of attempting to bribe him to bail on an election now accuses the FBI of taking a dive in revealing the truth about his allegation.

In court records filed last week, Jimmy Jett, who challenged Stearns in the 2012 Republican primary for Florida's redrawn 3rd Congressional District, maintains that the FBI was 'highly generalized and overly broad' in its rationale for withholding information its agents compiled during the investigation.

Accordingly, the former Clay County court clerk wants a judge to review many of the 66 pages the FBI did disclose to him and determine whether the government acted within the scope of federal public records laws. Continue>>>
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campaign, Congress, FBI, Florida
October 14, 2014 2:47 PM

The business of Florida's 12 public universities is supposed to be public like any other state agency. Salaries, contracts, policies and other university business records are supposed to be subject to Florida's expansive Sunshine Law, which mandates that most government actions be open to scrutiny.

But that's not always happening. The universities are getting around Florida's open government laws through dozens of private corporations that have been created over the years to oversee everything from athletic programs to dorm construction to salaries. Under state law, these university corporations don't have to make public the same records their parent universities must provide, though the corporations perform tasks once done by school employees and act on the universities' behalf.

The lack of disclosure makes it difficult for Floridians to know clearly how businesses that are acting on behalf of their taxpayer-supported universities are spending money. Continue>>>
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October 14, 2014 2:46 PM

Pierce County (WA) Prosecutor Mark Lindquist is taking the debate over disclosure of his phone records to the Washington Supreme Court. In two briefings filed last week, attorneys representing the county and Lindquist asked the high court to review a Sept. 9 ruling by the state Court of Appeals.

The appeals court ruled that a lower court must examine Lindquist's personal phone records and text messages to determine whether any meet the standard for public disclosure. Appealing to the state's highest court delays that examination. The Supreme Court could accept Lindquist's petition ó lengthening the debate ó or reject it, theoretically triggering the lower court's examination of the phone records.

The appeal also means more public money spent defending Lindquist's position. The county has paid $253,449 to outside attorneys working on the case, according to billing records from the county's risk management division. The county's recent petition to the Supreme Court was written by Seattle attorney Phil Talmadge, a former Supreme Court justice who charges $375 per hour. Continue>>>
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October 14, 2014 2:45 PM

Transparency is coming, whether the government likes it or not. The only question is whether they decide to bring it to the public before whistleblowers do it for them.

That's the underlying message of Laura Poitras' mesmerizing new documentary, Citizenfour about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency that debuted at the New York Film Festival on Friday night.

Others have hinted in the past that the government better act fast to stem the tide of unnecessary secrecy or have a revolt on its hands. Shortly after the first Snowden leaks (which are chronicled in real-time in the film), journalist Glenn Greenwald told Newsweek: Continue>>>
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October 14, 2014 2:44 PM

One of the big misunderstandings about Missouriís Sunshine Law is that somehow this testimony to transparency is a tool reserved solely to advance the interests of the media. Journalists do turn to the law regularly to uncover documents and to discover what goes on behind closed doors. But you can bet lawmakers were thinking more broadly about the interests of the public when this landmark measure was introduced in the General Assembly as Senate Bill 1 in 1973. This, after all, was the year of the Watergate hearings.

This fact ó that the law exists to serve the public ó is the best reason we know to expect more of our government officials who are subject to its requirements. State Auditor Tom Schweich reported this week that audits of state and local governments over two decades have turned up numerous violations of the Sunshine Law. In the same breath, he cuts officials some slack ó stating ìthe vast majorityî of violations appear to result from confusion or misunderstandings of the law.

The frustration for interested citizens is this is not a problem of their making, but it directly impacts them when they are rebuffed in attempts to keep meetings open and records available for public scrutiny. 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 13, 2014 1:58 PM

The state's first Open Government Symposium will be held in Macon Friday. The free event kicks off a series of symposiums to be held around the state of Georgia in an effort to incubate a culture of government transparency, according to organizers.

Valdosta Daily Times Editor Jim Zachary, who is director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, and colleague Holly Manheimer, who is the director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, have organized the symposium and will provide the training while sharing their experiences in open government advocacy.

Valdosta State University Professor Dr. Patricia Miller, journalism advisor, will join Zachary and Manheimer, along with investigative reporter Oby Brown, of the Telegraph in Macon, for an open forum and roundtable discussion at the symposium. Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:51 PM

It's election season, and many candidates are on a "listening campaign" and kissing babies all over in the run-up to voting day in November (and let's not forget early voting). Although not a "sexy" topic, and although the operations of a procurement department may not be a hot talking point during in a follow-up to a stump speech, how your school district, local government or state agencies operate reflects the policies of the politicians who were elected to run those agencies. My colleague Erica Harrison and I have worked with federal, state and local government agencies, and the sophistication and transparency vary widely among and within all levels of government. Whether the agencies are open and transparent, or secretive and closed, goes a long way in showing whether you elected someone representing the people or special interests.

Procurement departments are responsible for seeking out, selecting and purchasing large quantities of goods and services for public consumption. Companies of various sizes submit bids on public contract opportunities by offering competitive prices, unique qualities or innovative approaches to meeting a department's needs. The estimated values of these procurements (e.g., fiber optic equipment, teacher professional development and student textbooks, restaurants in government buildings) can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars and are likely procured through some public proposal process--a process that, obviously, requires taxpayer dollars to administer and could put taxpayer dollars at risk if not done properly. The best procurement departments have protocols for public contracting to ensure that businesses offering their goods or services can find opportunities, fully participate in the request for proposal processes and be heard in cases of dispute. Here is a short and high-level accountability checklist to arm you with questions to see if your local or state procurement departments are high-functioning and poised to make the most of taxpayer dollars.

1. Is information about the procurement department easily accessible? Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:49 PM

The League of Women Voters of Calvert County released a nearly 80-page report on its findings regarding the transparency of the Calvert County government, using three 'case studies' in the group's analysis: the expansion of the Dominion Cove Point facility in Lusby, development surrounding the former Calvert Middle School property and the preparation of the annual county budget and Capital Improvement Plan.

The report lists areas of improvement the county can make for public participation and transparency. Roberta Safer, the league's first vice president and editor of the study, said the purpose of the report is not to take a stance on issues but, rather, to encourage dialogues with the county government about transparency.

ìWhat we want is a dialogue with the commissioners,î Safer said in an interview Wednesday. ìÖ We have no beef with anybody or anything.' The study is the result of months of work by the 'eague's observer corps and other members and was given to the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners at its regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 7. The league was expected to hold a town hall meeting on the study on Thursday, Oct. 9, after time of press. Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:46 PM

Rhode Island's quasi-public agencies, such as the RI Airport Corporation, RI Resource Recovery Corporation, RIPTA, the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority and more than a dozen more, perform essential government functions and provide essential services. Equally important as the work they do is their accountability to the public.

These agencies are empowered to collect fees and generate revenue and to manage significant public resources, yet most of them are exempt from many kinds of public oversight, such as executive and legislative budgetary review required of other state departments. Consequently, these agencies need to be more transparent, not less, because while they operate independently, they would not exist but for their relationship with state government. Like all other state departments, they need to demonstrate a commitment to protecting the interests of Rhode Island taxpayers by achieving the highest standards of open, effective and ethical operations.

Approved by the General Assembly this year and signed into law by the governor was legislation I sponsored, 2014-S 2585Aaa (and its companion House bill, 2014-H 7138A), ìThe Quasi-Public Corporations Accountability and Transparency Act.î This legislation requires the agencies to carry out their government missions effectively, and exemplify a commitment to transparent, accountable and effective government. The new law ñ which applies to more than a dozen-and-a-half agencies and several agency subsidiaries ñ codifies the role and responsibilities of the agency board members, establishes specific transparency and accountability requirements and calls for a performance audit every five years, beginning in 2015. Continue>>>
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