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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August 18, 2014 12:31 PM

A conservative legal group on Monday plans to file a lawsuit alleging that the White House’s tight control over document requests has led to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) violations by 12 federal agencies.

Cause of Action said the agencies have not handed over documents that the organization asked for up to 14 months ago and that the requests appear to be under White House review, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by The Washington Post. The group plans to file its lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Cause of Action pointed to an April 2009 White House memo as the source of the delays, noting that Gregory Craig, former counsel to President Obama, instructed federal agencies to consult with his office on “all document requests that may involve documents with White House equities.” Continue>>>
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August 18, 2014 12:30 PM
Attorney Dioné Carroll filed a Freedom of Information Act request, also known as an FOIA, earlier this month on behalf of a group of residents seeking more explanation as to the cost and timeline of the possible Hitchcock Parkway expansion project.
 
The residents, who go by “Concerned Citizens,” retained Carroll in its long-term battle to shed more light on the project's cost, timeline and environmental impacts. The possible expansion has caused a rift between residents and local officials, with one resident saying they are being heard, just not listened to.
 
“These requests are really out of frustration,” Aiken resident Bob Gilbert, who heads the Concerned Citizens group, said. “This is for those seeking information about this project by the officials who are pursuing it. We really see a lack of transparency and intransigence. Then we resort to spending money to have legal counsel there to, I guess, increase the formality of our observations.” Continue>>>
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August 12, 2014 7:35 AM

Law-enforcement agencies wield great power and therefore must be accountable to the public for its use. This applies regardless of who is paying an officer’s salary, especially when that employer is an institution such as a university.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is weighing in on a legal fight to establish that arrest records and incident reports of Otterbein University and other private universities and hospitals are public documents. DeWine filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Ohio Supreme Court in support of a suit filed by a former Otterbein student journalist Anna Schiffbauer. In it, he asserts that since these private police departments are a creation of state law — granting them governmental police powers, including the authority to arrest — they are public officers required to turn over records.

Westerville-based Otterbein denies that it is required to disclose records and has asked the court to dismiss the suit. Universities, though, should recognize that parents, students and the community have an important interest in police activities. Continue>>>
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August 12, 2014 7:34 AM

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett should get off the fence and reappoint Monroe County native Terry Mutchler to a second term heading Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records. Mutchler's six-year term ended in April, and she and her busy staff have been in limbo ever since. The work the OOR does is vital. The office advocates for Pennsylvania citizens, helping to ensure access to government records and training public officials on how to comply with the law.

Interest in open government is keen and never-ending, as it should be in a democracy. Mutchler's office has handled more than 11,000 appeals of Right-to-Know request denials, answered more than 50,000 emails and phone calls and led some 1,400 training sessions for public officials, journalists and citizens.

Mutchler has strong backing for a second term, including letters of support from both Democratic and Republican state officials. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9, has praised her integrity, leadership and work ethic. Mutchler hopes to continue working with Pileggi to improve the Open Records Law, to strengthen her office's guidelines by turning them into formal regulations, and to continue training public officials. Continue>>>
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August 12, 2014 7:32 AM

The US wants transparency. It says governments that post all their data online are more prosperous and stable than their opaque, Kafkaesque counterparts. But after the stage lights in Washington DC's Foggy Bottom district are dimmed on the US-Africa summit this week, and African leaders have jetted back to their respective capitals, the question on everyone's mind might be: will African leaders really sit around a table with NGOs and heed their calls? One of Africa's thought-leaders says she isn't so sure and thinks African open‑government activists might need to adopt a new strategy.

"We need to learn from the gay rights movement," Ory Okolloh told me when we met on the sidelines of the Open Knowledge festival in Berlin last month.

A fixture of Africa's nascent open government movement, Okolloh's much-lauded website, Mzalendo, put her on the map by giving Kenyans the ability to track their once secretive parliament, earning her a place on Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. She blogs about data openness and once used her perch as Google's policy manager in Africa to push for transparency around the continent. But she worries that the global open government movement is "hitting a wall" in its efforts to hold politicians accountable to their citizens. Continue>>>
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Federal Government
August 12, 2014 7:31 AM

The recent state Senate investigative report into Caltrans and the Bay Bridge does more than deal with troubled decision-making and construction work. It also includes a strong push for greater public transparency throughout state government.

The report commissioned by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, and his Senate Transportation and Housing Committee ends with 16 conclusions and recommendations. The first among them is this: “Transparency in the affairs of the public is paramount and leads to accountability, which leads to better results.”

Caltrans itself, in a July 25 letter and report to DeSaulnier about lessons learned, said the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee that took responsibility for the bridge construction “should have been more transparent.” The committee meetings were closed, and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said in the letter that “this process could have been more effective had it occurred during regular public meetings.” Continue>>>
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August 12, 2014 7:29 AM

Women in state government make about 88 percent of what men do, a disparity that crosses seniority levels, union membership and fields of work, an analysis by the Statesman Journal found.

The gap is narrower than the one that exists statewide, but Gov. John Kitzhaber requested in a letter sent July 11 that the Department of Administrative Services make closing it a top priority. The agency is now conducting its own internal study of men's and women's pay.

"We're at a better place to start (than Oregon generally), but that doesn't mean there's not a gap," DAS Director Michael Jordan said. "We're trying to compare similar work on a gender basis and understand if there are any structural issues around how we pay for that work. The data will at least suggest some further questions for what we need to look at." Continue>>>
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August 12, 2014 7:26 AM

After more than 1,200 developers across Australia hacked away for 48 hours over the 11-13 July weekend, the GovHack 2014 winners have been announced.

Hackers used open government datasets to build innovative apps and tools for citizens. Digital humanities, science, data journalism, social inclusion and business were the main categories. The projects that won more than one award across the categories were What Is Gov (Baby Don’t Hurt Me), AussieMon: The Native Pokemon Game, The Hack Report, When the Heck am I?, Data-by-region comparator, Show the Gap and Languages of Sydney.

What Grows Here? won the people’s choice award; When the Heck am I? was the runner up. Brisbane-based River City Labs, which helps develop startups and early stage businesses, will run a workshop to coach finalists on the next steps for their projects.Continue>>>
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August 7, 2014 7:43 AM

Text messages sent on a private telephone between Maureen McDonnell, wife of Bob McDonnell, and businessman Johnnie Williams are key evidence in the corruption trial of the former Virginia governor, according to the Washington Post.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s aides also produced text messages in the “Bridgegate” investigation, again using private telephones.

Just like email, text messages can be preserved and produced. Federal employees are required to preserve text messages concerning official business. But it appears they often aren't. Will there be any consequences for this systematic lawbreaking?

As we recently learned in the IRS affair, federal agencies are destroying their text messages. Coincidentally, political appointees and political activists in career civil service positions in the federal government are increasingly turning to texting just as the watchdogs using the Freedom of Information Act and congressional investigators are more frequently exposing improper activity against the taxpayer. Continue>>>
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email, epa, IRS, text messages
August 7, 2014 7:42 AM

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 (S.2520) (“FIA”) sets out to make various tweaks to a key federal access to information statute, the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). Below, I overview some of the most significant changes the bill would make, and comment on just how dramatic those would be relative to existing law and practice.

By way of summary, the bill’s marquee innovation would be to import a new balancing test into a FOIA exemption for privileged executive branch memoranda and like materials—thereby making it theoretically a bit easier for more such information to get out into the world than before. And you probably like that, if you want to make it tougher for the executive branch to withhold things like, say, Justice Department legal analyses of controversial FBI investigative powers. Additionally, and among other things, the bill would codify some more disclosure-ish values and practices the Obama Administration adopted early on in its approach to information management, call for broader storage of information in electronic rather than paper form, and add on some more fulsome transparency features.

It remains to be seen whether FIA will become law—or just how the executive branch then would implement FIA’s directives. (All this seems to be a ways off: so far, the proposal has been introduced in the Senate, but seen no other action.) I count four significant alterations to FOIA, which FIA would make after passage by Congress and signing by the President. Continue>>>
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August 7, 2014 7:38 AM

Laws such as the federal Freedom of Information Act and the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act were designed as ways to keep the things government entities do in the sunlight. The idea is that people should have access to what their government is doing. Being able to see what government entities are doing is vital to maintaining a society that embraces democratic principles.

However, too often bureaucrats hide behind FIA and GRAMA as a way to put off, obfuscate or just not be bothered. A recent example is the United States Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration’s refusal to comment on an industrial accident in Richfield. One of the jobs of newspapers, is to dispel false rumors through finding accurate information from credible sources.

When MSHA refuses to comment on something, citing that it is an active investigation, it is adding fuel to a fire of possible false rumors. This is especially true when there is no timeline or even an estimate as to when an investigation will be concluded. Sometimes, governmental agencies use tactics like keeping an investigation open to outwait journalists and others in an effort to avoid giving out information. Continue>>>
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August 7, 2014 7:36 AM

Fulfilling a campaign promise by Mayor Betsy Price, Fort Worth is jumping on the open data government bandwagon. Last month, the city launched an online portal that provides direct access to a wellspring of public information.

Open data sites like the city’s new data.fortworthtexas.gov are based on the principle that government data is a public asset — like parks and roads — and should be made readily available to everyone.

Michele Gutt, the city’s director of communication and public engagement, told council members in April that improving access to public data will not only improve government accountability but will also increase efficiency.

For example, the city could post performance goals on the website and track their measurement for all to see. It could also free up staffers in departments that spend undue amounts of time tracking down data for constituents. Continue>>>

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