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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June 5, 2014 12:32 PM

In its own polite, Midwestern fashion, The Des Moines Register is mad as heck and is not going to take it anymore. After Iowa officials refused to release records showing alleged abuses by state employees, the paper is pursuing dual lawsuits to force the records into public view. In one case, the Register is even suing the state’s new public information board, formed expressly to address years of complaints about records transparency.

The legal moves, coupled with related efforts at coalition-building, are part of an avowedly more assertive posture by the paper to shift the state’s political culture toward openness—a stance that is welcomed by open-government advocates in Iowa, even if its prospects for success are uncertain.

One of the suits, filed against the Iowa Department of Public Safety, seeks police records of an incident last fall in Worth County in which an inmate was Tasered multiple times and died while in custody—a death that the state medical examiner ruled a homicide. The other suit involves a 2012 video that shows an employee at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo slamming a female inmate’s head against a wall; the employee has been fired and the home has been closed, but the state has refused the Register’s requests to release the video on the grounds of protecting the alleged victim’s confidentiality, and the Iowa Public Information Board ruled in the state’s favor by a vote of 6-3 in February. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:39 AM

California voters handily approved ballot measures Tuesday requiring that local governments pay the cost of making their records and meetings public. Proposition 42, which amends the state constitution to require that governments pay for complying with state transparency laws, led with 60 percent of the vote after 1.8 million ballots counted. It was backed by the state Democratic and Republican parties, taxpayer advocates and labor unions.

Proposition 42 had its origins in a backlash against Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature after they approved a $96.3 billion state budget last year that loosened requirements for local governments to comply with the records and open meeting laws because the state would not reimburse them for the costs. They restored funding and rallied behind Proposition 42 to make sure the episode is never repeated.

Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat who authored the ballot measure, credited bipartisan support and newspaper editorials for the victory. "Apparently California voters greatly value open and transparent government and believe that local agencies do not need a financial incentive to provide it," he said. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:38 AM

While many of our nation’s problems are quite clear, the way our government addresses them is too often a black box—opaque and closed to all but insiders and lobbyists.

But the White House has taken a remarkable–if small–step toward bringing greater transparency to the legislative process. For the first time, it has used the GitHub social coding website as a forum for discussing and ultimately changing government policy. With one GitHub “pull request,” it modified the Project Open Data policy document, which spells out how government agencies are supposed to open up access to their data. This represents the fusion of open source software and government policy that open-government advocates have long predicted. And it might be a sign of things to come as others—the city of San Francisco, and the New York state senate, to name a couple—bring collaborative government into the light.

Late last week, Haley Van Dyck at the Office of Management and Budget submitted a pull request that suggested small changes to Project Open data that clarify how agencies think about open source and public domain software. Pull requests are a Silicon Valley innovation. They’re typically used by software developers on GitHub to suggest and discuss changes to code. But they’re also a good tool for tracking changes to complex legal documents, even government regulations. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:36 AM

The publication of a new report from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) prompts a quick look at the progress of the Obama administration’s US Open Data Action Plan.

That has its roots in the June 2013 pledge made at the Open Data Charter meeting of G7 leaders to publish a roadmap for improving use of open data as well as Obama’s executive order requiring federal agencies to make government data open and machine readable by default.

The NASCIO report, States and Open Data: From Museum to Market Place – What’s next?, looks at what has occurred across the US and offers some recommendations on how to advance state government open data initiatives and begin moving to a next level of maturity, which it calls the strategic stage. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:35 AM

Senate File 1770 had already received unanimous support in the House and the Senate. Known as the Timberjay bill, it would require that all government contracts with private business be subject to the Minnesota Data Practices Act, even if that open access is not specifically identified in the contract.

Last week Gov. Mark Dayton signed that bill, demonstrating that he understands and agrees with the public’s right to open access to government data.

Dayton did veto a portion of the bill that would fund a study by the Office of the Legislative Auditor to learn how secure state systems are at protecting and transmitting data. He said it’s not fiscally responsible to appropriate an ongoing amount of money without articulating the cost to perform the new duties outlined in the law. Also excluded from the notice requirement until June 30, 2015, are health plan companies, managed care organizations and county-based purchasing plans. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:34 AM

Mount Pleasant city officials announced last week that commissioners will interview finalists for the vacant city manager position on June 24. City officials still have not released the names of the finalists, even after receiving a formal request under Michigan’s public records law by Central Michigan Life.

Interim City Manager Nancy Ridley is the only finalist who has been publicly named. Ridley and City Clerk Jeremy Howard said the other finalists have asked that their names remain confidential until just prior to the interviews. “It is in the public’s interest to know who the finalists are – one of them will be running the city,” said Central Michigan Life Editor In Chief Ben Solis. “It is impossible for us, or city residents, to investigate their backgrounds, previous work history and what they can offer to Mount Pleasant if we don’t even know their names.”

CM Life made a formal request for the names of the finalists using the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a state law that allows citizens access to public records. A FOIA request asking for the applications of the finalists was delivered to Ridley on May 27 following a city commission meeting. Ridley declined to provide the information and stated to Solis at the meeting that the city would deny the newspaper’s request. On May 28, Howard stated in the formal request denial that the information is exempt from FOIA. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:33 AM

Sometimes it takes a simple redistricting lawsuit to show us the funny side of the state Capitol. Redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries, isn’t something that’s the stuff of big laughs.

But the lawsuit accusing legislative leaders of improperly drawing some congressional districts — chiefly for Republican gain — has dug up enough evidence to show that politicians’ talk about government in the sunshine is a big joke. “It was an extremely open and transparent process,” Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, after giving testimony in the redistricting lawsuit, deadpanned to reporters.

Too bad he wasn’t intentionally self-mocking. Legislative leaders are essentially incapable of being “extremely open.” They make a show of sunlight. But time and again they cut deals in shadow that result in fait-accompli votes on major items like, say, the $77.1 billion budget. Continue>>>
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June 2, 2014 12:30 PM

Proposition 42, on the ballot June 4, will amend the state Constitution to assure local governments — cities, counties, school boards, etc. — are legally bound to observe open-government requirements. If you prefer transparency to secrecy in your city or county government, the choice is clear: Vote for Prop 42.

Prop. 42 solves a problem that has repeatedly undercut enforcement of California's open meetings law (the Brown Act) and open records law (the Public Records Act). Because these laws are "mandated" by the Legislature, the state must reimburse local governments for their costs. Although the costs are small, local governments and the state inevitably disagree on the amount of reimbursement, and those disagreements, in turn, provide legal cover for local governments to suspend their compliance with parts or all of the acts.

Prop. 42 solves this problem by converting the existing legislative mandate (which has to be reimbursed by the state) into a constitutional mandate (which does not). Prop 42, in other words, unequivocally reallocates these costs to local governments. Continue>>>
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June 2, 2014 10:30 AM

As he signed a new open meetings bill into law, Gov. Peter Shumlin expressed "serious concern" about parts of it, including a do-over provision that allows government bodies a chance to fix violations without penalty.

Now some open government advocates are asking for a do-over on the entire law, and a key legislator says lawmakers will likely revisit some aspects of it next year.

Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor and chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee, said she was surprised during committee hearings on that bill that she didn't hear much from the Vermont Press Association, a traditional key advocate in legislation relating to access to government records and meetings. Continue>>>
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open meetings, Vermont
June 2, 2014 9:30 AM

After two days of hearing secret testimony about a school board member’s alleged misconduct, the Hamburg Central School District’s lawyer said the sessions must be kept confidential because the proceedings are quasi-judicial.

But if the closed-door hearings are quasi-judicial, then they should be as open as a trial in a courtroom because they would not be covered by the state’s Open Meetings Law, according to the state’s expert on open government. Nonetheless, school district attorney Andrew J. Freedman said the hearings, which are to resume this week, will remain closed.

And so it goes in Hamburg, where voters last month cast ballots in hopes that the notoriety their district has acquired in recent years would settle down. Then last week, the public was told to leave a school building during the hearing concerning the board member and the doors were locked behind them, raising more questions about the process. Continue>>>
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June 2, 2014 8:36 AM

Google and other internet companies find themselves in a quandary over how to strike a balance between privacy and freedom of information as the top world search engine took a first step towards upholding an EU privacy ruling.

Google moved overnight to put up an online form that will allow European citizens to request that links to obsolete information be taken down — its first response to the ruling by Europe's top court on "the right to be forgotten".

The ruling on May 13 upheld a 1995 European law on data protection and ordered Google to remove links to a 1998 newspaper article about the repossession of a Spanish man's home. Continue>>>
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June 2, 2014 8:35 AM

Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission was asked Friday to reconsider how poor a prison inmate must be to obtain public documents for free.

Derrick Taylor, a 43-year-old inmate serving an 80-year sentence for a 1992 murder outside a Hartford bar, is requesting several thousand pages of documents from the state Department of Correction related to operations of Northern Correctional Institution, where he is housed. The documents include commissary contracts and details about the prison's ventilation and television systems.

The department allowed him to review the documents, but it says he can't have copies unless he pays $200 for processing. They said Taylor doesn't qualify for a fee waiver, because he had more than $5 in his commissary account in the three months before and after his request. In an appeal heard Friday, Taylor, who testified via telephone from the prison, called that definition of indigent ridiculous and discriminatory. Continue>>>
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