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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July 9, 2014 8:35 AM

According to the City of Ann Arbor’s log of FOIA requests submitted between January 2013 and May 2014 519 FOIA requests were submitted to the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s office. Thirty-three of the 519 requests came from The Ann Arbor News and the online news site AnnArborChronicle.com. The A2Indy, launched in October 2013, filed five requests. The Ann Arbor Observer filed no FOIA requests. Fewer than a dozen FOIA requests came from local bloggers. Former Annarbor.com lead blogger Ed Vielmetti is one of those local writers.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported in a September 2013 story about the shuttering of AnnArbor.com and the rebranding of The Ann Arbor News: “To fill that gap, a host of locals have themselves become self-styled news ‘organizations’—like Julie Weatherbee, who has become known for live-tweeting city council meetings twice a month, as well as other local events.

FOIA“Edward Vielmetti is a longtime Ann Arbor blogger and Arborwiki editor who, for about 18 months, was lead blogger for AnnArbor.com. (His position was cut during an earlier round of reorganization and shrinking.) Vielmetti, on his own initiative, leveraged his strong network and became a go-to source of local news. People ‘feed me information, either directly via email or via @ messages on Twitter,’ he wrote via email.” Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:27 AM

Every morning, the first waking task most humans perform is checking email or the latest updates on their social media accounts. For developers, that initial daily fix is GitHub, the social coding platform that has captured the hearts of millions of hackers and tech enthusiasts around the world.

The social network for professional developers and everyday hackers aims to bring distributed, open collaborations to the world, one repository at a time, and it's beginning to find its way into government. Founded in 2008 by P.J. Hyett, Chris Wanstrath and Tom Preston-Werner, the San Francisco-based company claims 6 million people have created more than 13 million repositories to date on its platform.

With an ever-growing population of users, an aggressive expansion of features and more than $100 million in venture capital funding, GitHub is going beyond just a tool for the tech elite and is poised to be Silicon Valley's next big public offering. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:25 AM

As part of its regular social media routine, the District of Columbia Council’s official Twitter feed periodically links to obscure or odd provisions of the D.C. Code, like rules governing jostling rights: “Jostle away, but only if a breach of the peace may NOT be occasioned,” the Council’s Twitter feed informed its followers in June.

It may not seem like a big milestone, but the fact that D.C. Council staffers — or anyone for that matter — can simply link to a specific section of the D.C. Code is cause for celebration in digital circles. Until relatively recently, permalinking, which has been a routine Internet function for years, had been out of reach for those working with the D.C. Code.

While information portals like Westlaw and LexisNexis — the latter of which hosts the District government’s law code — are paid to be repositories for local government information, their platforms routinely frustrate Web developers, public officials and open government advocates. In some cases, because of their contractual obligations, local governments are prohibited from releasing the raw data of their jurisdiction’s official law code, legislation and regulations, which can limit access to public information. Continue>>>
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July 7, 2014 5:58 AM

A friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago about my libertarian opinion on these committees that were recently passed by the Rio Rancho Governing Body. It was said that the committees were created in the name of open government between the city and the public, and they offer protection from rolling quorums. It was also said that these committees add a layer of bureaucracy while offering only the illusion of protection.

It is true that they offer only an illusion of protection, but only because the Open Meetings Act offers an illusion of transparency. Even the city attorney must admit to this as she herself stated that it takes a level of “self-policing” on the part of governing body members in order to avoid a rolling quorum.

If you happen to be a councilor’s ideological opposite, can you really trust them to “self-police?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken about how laws intended to curtail behavior are never effective for long, if at all. Those who truly desire to take advantage of their power will do so regardless of the law. These committees, if they work at all, will at some point fail when the loopholes are found out, and something new will need to be offered. Continue>>>
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July 7, 2014 5:54 AM

When the Carmel City Council voted to fire the director of its redevelopment commission last year, he simply kept on working. Why the longtime consultant, Les Olds, felt he had the authority to do so is unclear. Whatever the reason, months later he submitted a bill for $34,000 — and under the council’s direction, the city clerk-treasurer refused to pay.

But Carmel’s mayor, Jim Brainard, found a way to slip the money out of the redevelopment commission’s budget without council approval — by using a nonprofit operated by the city. Some council members were outraged, though probably not surprised. It wasn’t the first time Brainard had used a nonprofit agency to push his initiatives past them. Nonetheless, some saw the payout to Olds as a bridge too far. Councilors say the mayor is using a now-powerful nonprofit to “launder” public money. By skirting the government’s usual checks and balances, they say, Brainard is spending public money however he wants.

Brainard, a lawyer, says it’s all perfectly legit. And, while council leaders agree, they say they’ve had enough of it. “We are the poster child for bad behavior,” said Councilor Luci Snyder, head of the city’s finance committee. “And it’s because we have money and somebody says ‘figure out a way where I could get this money laundered.’ We are the poster child for stretching the limits of what is doable. We operate in the gray areas — and you have to save us from ourselves.” Continue>>>
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July 7, 2014 5:52 AM

One of the standard criticisms of Edward Snowden is that he should have tried harder to air his concerns via proper channels. This is fairly laughable on its face, since even now the NSA insists that all its programs were legal and it continues to fight efforts to change them or release any information about them. Still, maybe Snowden should have tried. What harm could it have done?

Today, Greg Miller of the Washington Post tells us the story of Jeffrey Scudder, who worked in the CIA’s Historical Collections Division. This is a division explicitly set up to look for old documents that can be safely released to the public. Scudder discovered thousands of documents he thought should be released, and he worked diligently through channels to make this happen. When that ran into repeated roadblocks, he eventually decided to try to force the CIA's hand—legally, openly—by filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act:

Scudder’s FOIA submissions fell into two categories: one seeking new digital copies of articles already designated for release and another aimed at articles yet to be cleared. He made spreadsheets that listed the titles of all 1,987 articles he wanted, he said, then had them scanned for classified content and got permission to take them home so he could assemble his FOIA request on personal time. Continue>>>
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CIA, Federal Government
July 7, 2014 5:51 AM

A St. Clair County judge dismissed part of a lawsuit seeking to remove East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks from office but could fine the city for allegedly violating state Sunshine laws.

The legal fight began in May 2013 when Matt Hawkins, president of watchdog group Civic Alliance of East St. Louis, filed a lawsuit against city leaders alleging violations of the state’s Freedom of Information Act and a state law dictating the administration of tax increment financing districts.

Earlier this week, St. Clair County Associate Judge Chris Kolker dismissed Hawkin’s attempt to remove Parks from office, and in a ruling found the city may be penalized for allegedly not following the state’s FOIA. Hawkins said the FOIA-related ruling was a “great victory” and he was pleased the court upheld the law. Continue>>>
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July 7, 2014 5:50 AM

Aaron Swartz was a programmer, a hacker, a freedom of information activist — and a casualty of suicide. Before he turned 20, Swartz had made a fortune for his work on the social news website Reddit. He also was instrumental in founding the nonprofit Creative Commons, and later worked on the successful campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act that was taken up by Congress in 2012.

Just a year later, when he was 26 years old, Swartz hanged himself in his apartment. At the time, he was fighting federal prosecution for illegally downloading millions of pages of articles from the academic database JSTOR. He faced charges of wire and computer fraud and possibly years in federal prison.

Aaron Swartz co-authored RSS and founded the company that later became the social media website Reddit. That case and Swartz's life are the subjects of a new documentary, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that the details of the federal case against Swartz are still hazy. Continue>>>
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Aaron Swartz, hacker, reddit
July 7, 2014 5:49 AM

How citizens access public information may change in Simpsonville. City officials are drafting a Freedom of Information policy to create a standardized process for handling FOI requests, but some provisions in the draft policy’s current form have raised concerns by specialists in public information access.

The resolution drafted by the city attorney was brought up in both City Council meetings in May. At the request of David Dyrhaug, interim city administrator, the issue was tabled for further evaluation. “I hadn’t had a chance to go through it in great depth yet,” he said. “Now I have and I have quasi-concerns with it.”

The issue was raised because the city has no policy in place on who disseminates public information. The nearby cities of Fountain Inn and Greenville don’t have specific policies; both use the state law regarding requests for public information. Mauldin has a specific public information policy to determine how FOI requests are handled. Continue>>>
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July 3, 2014 10:42 PM

On July 4, 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson surprised even some of his closest aides by signing the Freedom of Information Act. Johnson was said to have hated the “government-information bill”; he questioned the motives of the Democrat who was its chief architect, and was so disturbed by its passage that Bill Moyers, then L.B.J.’s press secretary, warned its supporters not to get their hopes up. With Congress in recess and the President vacationing in Texas, it was widely expected that Johnson would pocket-veto the bill.

Yet Johnson—possibly bowing to pressure from within the party, as well as from the American Society of Newspaper Editors—reversed course and signed the F.O.I.A. bill into law. His ambivalence was clear. There was strikingly little fanfare, especially considering the date. Johnson held no official signing ceremony, and the statement that he issued made no mention of the Fourth of July, leaving observers to ponder whether the timing was a symbolic flourish or simply a practical matter, determined by the pocket-veto deadline. His comments dwelled nearly as much on the limitations of the new law as its potential to transform the relationship between citizens and their government. The people, he said, should have as much information as possible—or, rather, all “that the security of the nation permits”:

No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest. At the same time, the welfare of the nation or the rights of individuals may require that some documents not be made available. As long as threats to peace exist, for example, there must be military secrets. A citizen must be able in confidence to complain to his government and provide information, just as he is—and should be—free to confide in the press without fear of reprisal or of being required to reveal or discuss his source. Continue>>>
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July 3, 2014 10:39 PM

Independence Day 2014 marks 48 years since the landmark Freedom of Information Act went into effect — yet Americans are still distrustful of government.

The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966. This legislation gives citizens the right to request and obtain documents from any agency of the Executive Branch of the United States Government except those that are exempted by statute such as classified documents.

FOIA applies only to federal government agencies. Each agency is responsible for meeting FOIA responsibilities for its own records and for having specific information available on its website. Each agency must provide clear description of its central and field organizations and places from which public may obtain information, make requests, or obtain decisions. Continue>>>
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FOIA signing
July 3, 2014 10:37 PM

New legislation introduced in the Senate last week would close the “because I feel like it” loophole in the Freedom of Information Act.

“The Freedom of Information Act is one of our nation’s most important laws, established to give Americans greater access to their government and to hold government accountable,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said in a statement last week after joining Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in proposing legislation to make government more transparent. “Both Democrats and Republicans understand that a commitment to transparency is a commitment to the American values of openness and accountability.”

Unfortunately, the federal government continues to fall short in this regard. President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directed all federal agencies in 2009 to update their FOIA guidelines and operate with a presumption of openness. Essentially, they are asking all agencies to presume that all documents are open, except in rare instances. Continue>>>
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federal FOIA
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