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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March 4, 2014 2:22 AM

The advent of info-communication technologies and the Internet has ushered in an era of new possibilities for transparency. Information can be stored and disseminated more easily by governments. It can also be read by anyone with access to the Internet, anytime, anywhere. Considered a form of bolstering public confidence in governance, it has been proposed by optimists as the solution to what is considered one of the most impalpable problems plaguing democratic governance: increasing mistrust of the government on the part of citizens. Patrick Birkinshaw has previously argued that transparency should be viewed as a basic human right (i.e. the “right to know”), while sceptics such as Baroness Onora O’Neill postulate that too much transparency incites further stress, confusion and uncertainty in the public.

In light of the News of the World scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry, the culture and practices of the British press are undergoing great scrutiny and criticism. Apart from involving government officials and policymakers, celebrities such as Hugh Grant have become prominently involved, developing transparency into a hot-button issue. Regardless of its impacts, it is incontestable that mere transparency alone, without concomitant increases in public participation, cannot ameliorate any sort of democratic deficit. Arguments regarding the need for transparency in the UK have been especially prevalent since governments in the EU have started to follow in American footsteps by issuing access regulation, sharing many features with the US Freedom of Information Act. Continue>>>
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March 4, 2014 1:11 AM

Cities and their photo enforcement contractors are often reluctant to respond to freedom of information act requests. Odessa, Texas did its best to suppress a request for emails between city employees and American Traffic Solutions (ATS) by allowing the vendor to argue it was exempt from handing over the documents.

"Information is excepted from the requirements of [the public disclosure law] if it is information that, if released, would give advantage to a competitor or bidder," states Section 552.104 of the Texas Government Code, which ATS cited.

Under Texas law, the attorney general decides whether an exemption applies or not. Attorney General Greg Abbott also happens to be the Republican nominee for governor against Democrat Wendy Davis in a campaign that already saw red light cameras become an issue in the primary campaign. Abbott is in favor of allowing the public to vote on whether cameras should be used or not, while Davis is an enthusiastic backer of automated tickets. An Abbott deputy ruled against granting the exception for ATS. Continue>>>
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March 3, 2014 2:22 AM

The First Amendment Foundation’s James C. Adkins/Sunshine Litigation Award goes to The Florida Times-Union and Editor Frank Denton for recent success protecting and defending open government laws through litigation in three recent cases.

The award was created to recognize the importance and continuing value of the late Florida Supreme Court Judge James Calhoun Adkins Jr. The award has been presented only twice since 2009 and is normally given to a Florida attorney who made a significant contribution to the cause of furthering open government through litigation.

“This is a tremendous honor because It recognizes contribution in what we consider the single-most important part of our mission,” said Kurt Caywood, Times-Union vice president of audience. “We’re committed to defending and exercising the public’s right to know what its elected officials are doing and how its tax dollars are being spent.” Continue>>>
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March 3, 2014 1:11 AM

The University of Connecticut Foundation, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from private donors, should be considered a public agency under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, advocates argued at a legislative hearing, according to the Hartford Courant.

The Courant story reports on a bill in the state house that would make the UConn Foundation subject to the same disclosure requirements as regular government agencies and require that its books be inspected by Connecticut’s Auditors of Public Accounts.

Like all private foundations, the UConn Foundation is exempt from the FOI Act, although, as a 501(c)(3), it files a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service, which is essentially a tax return that contains only general information about revenues and expenditures. Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 6:06 AM

The Tribune used state records and trial transcripts to show how an undercover FBI agent, using the alias Carlos Vargas, formed a political committee while posing as a strip club manager in the Chicago suburb of Harvey.

The records list Vargas as providing about $140,000 to the committee, named The Harvey Good Government Group 2007. Fliers tied to the committee promoted the re-election of the suburb's controversial mayor.Continue>>>

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chicago, FBI, FOIA, illinois
March 2, 2014 5:55 AM

Attorneys for the city of Nitro will argue Monday before the West Virginia Supreme Court that a circuit judge erred by not allowing the city to charge $25 an hour to look up information to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests.

In 2009, the Nitro City Council approved an ordinance charging citizens $25 an hour if it took city officials more than 10 minutes to look up information to comply with FOIA requests. The fee was supposed to compensate the city for the time it took to collect the requested information.

In June 2012, Richard and Lorinda Nease filed a FOIA request asking for copies of a city ordinance, minutes of meetings concerning the ordinance and complaints to the city about storm drainage, according to court documents on file in Kanawha Circuit Court. Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 4:44 AM

The charge that South Burlington failed to publicly announce a gathering of a quorum of city councilors underscores the need for public officials to be far more aware of appearances.

The open meeting controversy brewing in the City Council also offers a cautionary tale for local politicians who must operate in a hyper-partisan environment.

Three city councilors — Pam McKenzie, Chris Shaw, and Pat Nowak — have been accused of violating the state’s open meetings law by attending the launch party for South Burlington’s Energy Committee. Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 3:33 AM

Two Ohio Supreme Court decisions denying attorney fees to a woman who fought the city of South Euclid for public records represent major setbacks to the cause of open government in Ohio, according to the Ohio Newspaper Association.

“This is an egregious case,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the ONA. “The city stonewalled the citizen requesting the information for months, and she even had to get an accountant to show that records the city claimed it didn’t have really existed.”

The court ruled on Feb. 18 in two separate cases brought by Emilie DeFranco against South Euclid that while she was entitled to damages up to a maximum of $1,000 because of the city’s unresponsiveness, state statutes meant she wasn’t entitled to recover legal fees. Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 2:22 AM

Chances are a new initiative by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon won’t make tax time any easier, but it will be more interesting. Starting now, those who file state taxes online will have the chance to see where those tax dollars are going. A receipt will break down how much money is going to which state programs.


Concerned about public safety? You’ll find about $41.07 of every $1,000 in taxes goes toward that purpose. From pensions ($145.02) to schools ($237.44) and beyond, expenditures are detailed in both a chart and table.


“This is about transparency, openness and accountability,” Simon said. “If you receive a receipt for a $5 purchase at a gas station, you should be able to get one for your income taxes. The people of Illinois deserve to know where there money is going and how it’s being spent.” Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 1:11 AM

What’s Sunshine Week, you ask?

The journalism associations behind the mid-March event describe Sunshine Week as “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” Sunshine is shorthand for the open-meetings and open-records laws that guarantee a governing body is operating in the open.

Last week the Alabama Senate did its part, passing a strengthened version of the state’s Open Meetings Act. Why was it necessary? Because in recent rulings the state Supreme Court weakened the act in key provisions. The bill would reinstate provisions that (a.) make sure open-meeting rules apply to the Legislature, (b.) allow residents to sue governments for violations of the law, and (c.) deny a few members of elected bodies to meet secretly to discuss the public’s business, a technique known as “serial meetings.”

A news release from the Alabama Press Association singled out sponsor Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, “for their leadership in getting this through the Senate.” Continue>>>
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March 1, 2014 4:44 AM

The Saratoga Springs Housing Authority may have hit on a novel way to get back at its critics — a hit in their wallets.

John Kaufmann, one of the housing authority’s most persistent critics, was recently hit with a bill for $394.25, after the SSHA responded voluminously to what he thought was a reasonable Freedom of Information Law request for documents.

Kaufmann, who began dogging the authority after questions arose in 2011 about the handling of a bedbug infestation, wanted copies of contracts for the authority’s legal and auditing services. As a citizen, he’s entitled to them, just like you and I are.

Kaufmann filed a FOIL request last September; the authority didn’t get back to him until February, and did so with enough loose material for two Russian novels or maybe three campaign-specific Civil War histories — a total of 1,577 pages. Along with them came a bill for $394.25, based on 40-year-old state law allowing the authority to charge 25 cents per copied page for FOIL requests. Continue>>>
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March 1, 2014 3:33 AM

In recent years, the central government in the UK has been involved in pushing an open data agenda, not only on its home turf, but also globally through the Open Government Partnership of which it was one of the eight founding members. The idea is to create governments that are more open, accessible and accountable by giving the public access to a vast array of datasets that are downloadable and reusable.

The UK has had varying degrees of success with this at a central government level – it is working to fulfil its commitments and has released thousands of datasets, which can be found at data.gov.uk, but has also been struggling with unleashing information from complex legacy systems.

However, in the pipeline there are plans to create a National Information Infrastructure, which will ultimately contain all public data in a way that can be accessed by anyone, in real time. Recent efforts have also been championed by inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who heads up the government’s Open Data Institute – which aims to nurture innovative data driven start-ups and support organisations in working effectively with open data. Continue>>>
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