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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November 18, 2014 11:10 AM

Today marks the seven-month anniversary of my oldest outstanding public records request, so please indulge me in some ventilation. Back on April 14, before the snow of last winter melted, I made a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Today, snow once more whitens the ground, and I'm still waiting.

I have asked for the following: Records relating to the "troubled" designation granted to the Housing and Redevelopment Authority of the City of Mound, as well as the most recent list of troubled housing authorities nationwide. I had noticed Mound's name as the only Minnesota public housing authority on this list, so I thought this request would be a simple matter.

Silly me. Continue>>>

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November 17, 2014 2:40 PM

Investments in open data initiatives are rising at all levels of government, especially in counties and cities, where decision-makers expect to increase funding in the next six months, according to a new survey.

Seattle-based Socrata, which specializes in democratizing access to government data, surveyed 961 federal, state and local government employees. Eighty percent said they would invest money and resources in open data initiatives. Of those, 28 percent said they would invest more money, and 52 percent said funding would remain the same.

“Respondents from counties and cities are the most likely to say they are going to invest more, though significant proportions of federal and state respondents also say they will be increasing their investment,” according to Socrata’s Open Data Benchmark Report. Continue>>>
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November 17, 2014 2:24 PM

With $750,000 in additional funding, the OpenGov Foundation plans to expand its footprint into the world of lawmaking tools for citizens and governments.

The Washington, D.C.-based organization reports the new investment comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a civic tech philanthropy that, in July of 2013, funded the nonprofit with $200,000 to develop its Project Madison, an interactive platform that lets citizens opine on proposed and current legislation. The refill of capital is slated to fine-tune Madison further while extending a runway to launch new government partnerships for the group’s AmericaDecoded program, a campaign that liberates laws from publishing copyright for citizen access.

While it affects many, few know of copyright’s pervasive influence on law accessibility across the U.S. State departments and federal agencies — the primary users of the tactic — often employ copyright as a cost-cutting measure to publish and distribute legal codes and regulatory standards. Though this benefits publishers, who can sell online and printed copies for hundreds of dollars, and governments, that can defer editing and annotating costs, it creates paywalls that can lock citizens out. Continue>>>
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November 17, 2014 2:20 PM

The Florida Supreme Court stood unanimously on the side of good government Thursday when it ruled that the public has a right to see documents a Republican consultant created in connection with the Legislature's once-a-decade redistricting process. Now, barring an ill-advised rehearing request by the document owner, Floridians will be able to judge for themselves what role outsiders played in the controversial 2012 redistricting process. The court has reaffirmed its commitment and the state Constitution's requirement to open government.

Thursday's order came months after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled — based on some documents that were sealed by an emergency order of the state Supreme Court — that two congressional districts drawn in 2012 violated requirements in the state Constitution that districts be drawn without regard to protecting incumbents or political parties. State lawmakers met this summer in special sessions to draw a new map that was used in last week's election. Now the Supreme Court has reviewed the sealed documents and ordered them opened. They belong to Gainesville political consultant Pat Bainter and his firm, Data Targeting Inc., and were found by Lewis to provide strong circumstantial evidence that he and other consultants had engaged in "a parallel redistricting process" in an effort to "subvert the political process."

Bainter initially argued the 538 pages of documents contained trade secrets central to his business. Then, as the trial was under way, he argued that the plaintiff's subpoena for the documents violated his First Amendment rights. On Thursday, the justices' rejected both claims and took particular umbrage at the late filing of the First Amendment objection, suggesting it was simply a trial tactic aimed at obfuscating the "truth-finding function of our justice system." Continue>>>
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November 17, 2014 2:15 PM

In another action brought by John Paff, a “self-proclaimed open government activist” who has pursued litigation to secure government documents pursuant to the Open Public Record Acts (“OPRA”) in several instances, a Superior Court judge held that Paff was entitled to the documents he sought as well as attorneys’ fees associated with the action.

By way of the action, captioned Paff v. Bergen County, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2455 (Law Div. Oct. 16, 2014), Paff sought un-redacted versions of internal affairs reports maintained by the Bergen County Sherriff’s Office (“BCSO”) concerning complaints against the corrections officers at the Bergen County Jail.

BSCO produced the reports in response to an OPRA request filed by Paff. However, the copies of the reports the BCSO provided to Paff were redacted to withhold the names of the complainants and the employees against whom the complaints were made. Paff, contending that these redactions were improper, sought relief from the Superior Court as provided for by OPRA. Continue>>>

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November 17, 2014 1:55 PM

Seventy-eight thousand, six hundred and fifty dollars may not be a huge sum in the budget of a town like Wallingford, but why should the town be granting that amount of taxpayer money annually to a “private, nonprofit organization” that doesn’t think those taxpayers are entitled to know what goes on at its meetings?

That’s one question raised by the complaint Town Councilor Craig Fishbein has filed with the Freedom of Information Commission against Wallingford Center Inc. There are others.

Fishbein filed back in April, having requested documents from the center more than a year earlier, he said. “They don’t let the public know when their meetings are and what their meetings are about,” he said. 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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November 14, 2014 12:09 PM

The task of fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests has dogged requestors and the government workers who respond to them since the law was passed in 1966. But a new site under construction could help make the process easier for requesters and lighten the load for government.

Announced in September, the alpha foia.gov is an open source site built by 18F, the digital services group within the General Services Administration charged with helping agencies meet their mission by developing digital and web services.

Although it’s still very much in the early phases, a prototype of the request process demonstrates how the process will work: Continue>>>
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November 14, 2014 12:02 PM

An advocate for open records and open meetings in Tennessee said Tuesday that state and local agencies often broaden protections that don’t apply to them, and citizens and the media should keep them accountable.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, spoke to local media and East Tennessee State University journalism students on the issue of open records and open meetings laws as part of the agency’s educational program.

“A public record is open for inspection unless a state law says it is not,” Fisher said. Often, people who request open records — and are denied — do not follow through with the additional requirement that government agencies must cite the specific state law that exempts the record. Continue>>>
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November 14, 2014 11:58 AM

Open government advocates are blasting a move by the Walker administration to withhold the names of some 40 parties who toured the Hill Farms site last month in advance of a sale and redevelopment of the 21-acre property.

“Is the state contending that the parties seeking a slice of this multi-million dollar pie will lose their appetite if their identities are revealed prior to the completion of negotiations?” says Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

In a move to dispose of state property mandated in Gov. Scott Walker’s last budget, the Department of Administration on Oct. 13 posted a request for proposals (RFP) for a developer to purchase the Hill Farms State Office Building, the undeveloped land around it and the Badger Road State Office Building off of South Park Street. Continue>>>
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November 14, 2014 11:54 AM

NASA has been an open data operation since the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, in the very earliest days of the Space Race after Sputnik. The agency has always published untold volumes of scientific data.

Yet the kind of standardized, machine-readable data demanded by the Obama Administration's Open Government Initiative remains a challenge.

"That made more complicated -- or, you might say, made wonderful -- the job we were already doing," NASA open innovation program manager Beth Beck said in an interview. "Big data is NASA -- that's what we have -- but taking all that data and making it machine readable, that's a big job." Most of the data is already digital and readable by some internal applications created by NASA and its network of contractors. The challenge is finding it in a sprawling, decentralized organization and putting it in a form that others can use. Some important data is locked up in the form of PDFs of scientific articles, when a data analyst would much prefer structured XML or even a comma-delimited download of tabular data. Continue>>>
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November 14, 2014 11:48 AM

One of the core values of the American experiment is the idea of transparency.

Citizens have a right to know what their government is up to – how tax dollars are being spent, what public servants do while on the job, and why certain decisions are made that affect our communities.

Unfortunately, this ideal of government transparency is not always put into practice. In our investigations into government shenanigans, the Watchdog.org team has often encountered the harsh wall of bureaucracy. Here are 10 times the government stonewalled requests for information: Continue>>>
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