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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April 24, 2014 7:46 AM

A Charleston attorney predicts the state Supreme Court’s ruling will have a “chilling effect” on West Virginia’s residents seeking public documents through FOIA requests.

The 4-1 ruling, issued April 10, effectively clears the way for government organizations to charge hourly fees to fulfill requests for public documents filed through the Freedom of Information Act.

It began with a $25 hourly fee the City of Nitro started charging business owners Richard and Lorinda Nease for the retrieval of five years’ worth of records as part of a storm drainage dispute. The Neases challenged that fee.

The state’s FOIA law does allow government organizations to establish fees for the “actual cost in making reproductions,” which Kanawha County Circuit Judge Charles King took to mean the cost of copying the documents. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:44 AM

After deliberating for months, late last week the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of climate scientist Michael Mann in his quest to maintain the privacy of his emails against a Virginia legislator and conservative think tank that sought to access his records using Virginia’s freedom of information laws.

As I wrote last month, the trial and the court’s verdict, has bigger ramifications than the privacy of Mann, who is perhaps best known for charting the “hockey stick graph,” a plot of temperatures demonstrating an uptick in warming. Organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 17 news organizations, including National Public Radio, Dow Jones, and The Washington Post, submitted an amicus brief in November, supporting the group’s rights to Mann’s emails, on the grounds that such a verdict would protect broad freedom of information laws.

Instead, the high court ruled that while Mann’s business emails are a matter of public record, personal emails—including correspondence with other scientists—constituted proprietary information, therefore exempt from FOIA laws. It’s a win for both Mann and fellow scientists employed by public universities—who say they have increasingly faced public information requests that can be cherry picked to discredit their research and interrupt their studies. Peter Fontaine, Mann’s lawyer, called the verdict “a strong affirmation of science and those who conduct it,” while Michael Halpern, a program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organization designed to help researchers deal with paper trail blockades to their research, welcomed the verdict as a shield against undue inquiries that might impede scientists. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:43 AM

A bill that would bring greater transparency to California’s century-old ballot initiative system was approved on Tuesday, April 22, by lawmakers on the State Senate’s Elections Committee. The Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, SB1253, authored by Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D – Sacramento) was approved on a 4-to-1 vote and moves forward to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

“California’s commitment to direct democracy through its illustrious initiative process has given citizens a powerful voice in state governance and has enabled the people of California to outflank the corporate self-interests of billion-dollar industries like Big Tobacco” said Senator Steinberg. “This bill offers the system greater transparency and greater collaboration, strengthening our direct democracy for another century to come.”

The measure would give voters more comprehensive information on ballot initiatives, requiring the Secretary of State to post on a website an easy-to-understand summary of the initiative, as well as a regularly updated listing of the ten donors who have contributed the most money to campaigns in support and opposition of the initiative. In addition, once the proponents have collected 25 percent of the necessary signatures to place a measure on the ballot, Senate and Assembly committees will hold public hearings on the proposed initiative at least 131 days prior to the election. Proponents will also be allowed to withdraw a proposed initiative from the ballot at any time before it qualifies for the ballot, even if that occurs after signatures have been submitted for certification. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:42 AM

When it comes to having an open-and-transparent government that is accountable to the people, Florida truly leads the nation. Since the Florida Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was enacted in 1967, Florida has served as a model for other states.

In a world where technological advancements have introduced even more material into the public record, we continue to be on the cutting edge of reforms.

As president of the Florida League of Cities — an organization that serves as a united voice for Florida’s municipal governments — I understand that all levels of government are accountable to the people. That’s why I was pleased to learn that improving government accountability and efficiency was part of the 2014 joint legislative agenda established by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:41 AM

A big data transformation is evolving apace in government agencies across the United States, and federal organizations will soon join the movement as the historic Data Act has just cleared a major milestone. Teradata Corp. (NYSE: TDC), the analytic data platforms, marketing applications and services company, announced today that supporters of the legislation will gather one week from today, April 29, for the inaugural Data Transparency Summit at Union Market in Washington, sponsored by the Data Transparency Coalition.

The legislation, passed by the U.S. Senate Thursday, April 10, is expected to help provide detailed data visibility to government agencies, lawmakers and U.S. citizens. Those attending the summit will hear presentations that showcase the valuable insights possible with integrated, centralized data and analytics. The event will feature key legislators and executive branch officials, including U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

"During a time of record $17 trillion debt, our bipartisan bill will help identify and eliminate wasteful spending by better tracking federal spending. I am pleased that our bill to improve federal financial transparency and empower taxpayers to see how their money is spent has passed the Senate, and I urge swift passage in the House of Representatives," Senator Portman said. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:39 AM

Open Government is a process, not a product, and continuous improvement calls on government agencies to innovate in all areas, not just technology. This was the core message of my presentation to the Federal Intranet Content Managers on the topic of Open Government at NASA. What I meant at the time was that open policy making should be a core aspect of any strong Open Government plan, but apparently that message was lost in the translation. So I will reiterate this message again, with a stronger emphasis on legislative reform and ensuring that internal government and business policies are inclusive, and allow for an open process whereby contributors can comment, edit and review policy before it goes into effect.

Why is this so important, and why is open policy making a key part of “continuous improvement” of Open Government? History has not been kind to the average citizen, to civil society as a whole, or to the average worker. So, we are faced with daunting challenges that include growing income/wealth gaps all over the world, extreme poverty in many nations, worldwide long term unemployment, and government structures that favor the well-connected few at the expense of the many.

In many parts of the world we have seen some small changes to the legislative process in the form of wiki-based law-making and the ability to vote and comment on legislation before it gets into the hands of the legislators. But for the most part, parliamentary and congressional process is an obstruction to legislative reform, and the individual states have been left to try to close the wealth gap on their own and to work around a divided and divisive legislative process at the national levels. Continue>>>
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international
April 24, 2014 7:38 AM

A new training video is available to help Virginia's more than 4,000 public board and commission members understand the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The eight-minute video was put together by the State Council of Higher Education, the Attorney General's Office and the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

The council's Maria Everett says professionals in the private sector aren't always familiar with laws about open meetings and open records when they become public servants. The video gives those board members basic information about the law and explains where to go for additional guidance. Continue>>>
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April 21, 2014 8:00 AM

For decades, Florida’s best leaders have embraced open, accountable, ethical government as a fundamental right of the state’s residents.

But others aren’t so sure. Open-government rules are seen as stumbling blocks to efficient action, and inquisitive members of the public cast as annoying gadflies. Trust us, these officials say. We know what’s best. These warring points of view play out in nearly every session of the Legislature.

Last year, proponents of good government scored significant victories, pushing back against attempts to increase secrecy in government and making substantial progress in reforming the state’s patchy ethics codes. And when the state’s annual legislative session started in March, it looked like another good year for Florida’s residents. But with just two weeks left in the session, things aren’t looking so rosy. Continue>>>
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April 21, 2014 7:58 AM

The Queens Library trustees have joined President Tom Galante in stonewalling scrutiny of the system’s financial records. The whole lot of them must be scared.

Controller Scott Stringer has sought, so far without success, access to the library’s ledgers. In denying him, the trustees and Galante have once more asserted that, as a nonprofit organization, the library is beyond public accountability.
Guided by this preposterous notion, the trustees awarded Galante a $392,000 annual contract, permitted him to collect $143,000 working long hours on the side for the Elmont, L.I., school district and kept him on the job despite a joint FBI and Department of Investigation probe.

The trustees are full of themselves — and of it. Continue>>>
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Library, new york
April 21, 2014 7:57 AM

IRS scandal update: Emails recently released through a Freedom of Information request seem to indicate that former IRS official Lois Lerner improperly contacted the US Department of Justice about whether Tea Party groups could be criminally prosecuted for “lying” on their applications about the scope of their political activities.

Although the details can understandably be confusing to the average American, the Internal Revenue Service stands accused of using a Nixon-style enemies list to go after political opponents of the Obama administration. Over the past year, the agency has been less than forthcoming if not stonewalling in producing documents related to the scandal.

The House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee has already voted to hold Lerner in contempt over her prior refusal to answer questions posed in two separate hearing about targeting of conservative political groups. Continue>>>
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IRS, non-profit, TEA Party
April 21, 2014 7:56 AM

Maryland was recently ranked 46th in the nation for transparency, but a new law could put the state ahead with a policy requiring that data be made more easily accessible to the public.
Though officials post a good deal of public information on Maryland's StateStat database, advocates of open government say that data can be hard to evaluate, search and use because it is not formatted in a way that computers can easily scan.
The Maryland Open Data Policy, passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley this month, requires the state to make much of its public information machine-readable and searchable.
"This is the first step of this new pillar of governmental transparency and open data," said Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government. Continue>>>
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Maryland, open data
April 21, 2014 7:55 AM

We believe: Cheyenne's downtown group should obey the state's transparency laws. Meanwhile, we like that the Legislature may be more open in the future. Tell us what you think: Contact us via email at opinion@wyomingnews.com.

Down: To Cheyenne’s Downtown Development Authority for its insistence on skirting state statutes on government transparency. Recently, the board met behind closed doors, allegedly to discuss issues related to attorney-client privilege. But when it came out, members voted to delay action on a policy regarding that issue. When challenged on the legality of that, the board’s attorney insisted that it was a legal closed session.

No, it was not. The state’s law on closed meetings says bodies may gather in executive session to discuss “matters concerning litigation to which the body is a party.” This was not that. Discussions of policy must be done in the open so the public can understand what the final decision is n and how it was reached. Continue>>>

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