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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October 14, 2014 2:45 PM

Transparency is coming, whether the government likes it or not. The only question is whether they decide to bring it to the public before whistleblowers do it for them.

That's the underlying message of Laura Poitras' mesmerizing new documentary, Citizenfour about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency that debuted at the New York Film Festival on Friday night.

Others have hinted in the past that the government better act fast to stem the tide of unnecessary secrecy or have a revolt on its hands. Shortly after the first Snowden leaks (which are chronicled in real-time in the film), journalist Glenn Greenwald told Newsweek: Continue>>>
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October 14, 2014 2:44 PM

One of the big misunderstandings about Missouriís Sunshine Law is that somehow this testimony to transparency is a tool reserved solely to advance the interests of the media. Journalists do turn to the law regularly to uncover documents and to discover what goes on behind closed doors. But you can bet lawmakers were thinking more broadly about the interests of the public when this landmark measure was introduced in the General Assembly as Senate Bill 1 in 1973. This, after all, was the year of the Watergate hearings.

This fact ó that the law exists to serve the public ó is the best reason we know to expect more of our government officials who are subject to its requirements. State Auditor Tom Schweich reported this week that audits of state and local governments over two decades have turned up numerous violations of the Sunshine Law. In the same breath, he cuts officials some slack ó stating ìthe vast majorityî of violations appear to result from confusion or misunderstandings of the law.

The frustration for interested citizens is this is not a problem of their making, but it directly impacts them when they are rebuffed in attempts to keep meetings open and records available for public scrutiny. Continue>>>
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October 14, 2014 2:33 PM

The three Democratic Lucas County commissioners skated on the edge of Ohio's open-meetings law recently when they prearranged and attended a last-minute meeting with Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins.

Commissioners Carol Contrada, Pete Gerken, and Tina Skeldon Wozniak, along with Lucas County Administrator Laura Lloyd-Jenkins, asked to see Mayor Collins after receiving a letter from him about his decision to order police to charge most criminals under state laws rather than city ordinances. The move could save the city $4 million to $9 million but leave the county short that money.

The four took the elevator from the county's eighth-floor office in One Government Center to the mayor's 22nd-floor suite. Mrs. Contrada, president of the commissioners, said it was not a public meeting and not a violation of the law because the three did not deliberate. Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:58 PM

The state's first Open Government Symposium will be held in Macon Friday. The free event kicks off a series of symposiums to be held around the state of Georgia in an effort to incubate a culture of government transparency, according to organizers.

Valdosta Daily Times Editor Jim Zachary, who is director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, and colleague Holly Manheimer, who is the director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, have organized the symposium and will provide the training while sharing their experiences in open government advocacy.

Valdosta State University Professor Dr. Patricia Miller, journalism advisor, will join Zachary and Manheimer, along with investigative reporter Oby Brown, of the Telegraph in Macon, for an open forum and roundtable discussion at the symposium. Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:51 PM

It's election season, and many candidates are on a "listening campaign" and kissing babies all over in the run-up to voting day in November (and let's not forget early voting). Although not a "sexy" topic, and although the operations of a procurement department may not be a hot talking point during in a follow-up to a stump speech, how your school district, local government or state agencies operate reflects the policies of the politicians who were elected to run those agencies. My colleague Erica Harrison and I have worked with federal, state and local government agencies, and the sophistication and transparency vary widely among and within all levels of government. Whether the agencies are open and transparent, or secretive and closed, goes a long way in showing whether you elected someone representing the people or special interests.

Procurement departments are responsible for seeking out, selecting and purchasing large quantities of goods and services for public consumption. Companies of various sizes submit bids on public contract opportunities by offering competitive prices, unique qualities or innovative approaches to meeting a department's needs. The estimated values of these procurements (e.g., fiber optic equipment, teacher professional development and student textbooks, restaurants in government buildings) can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars and are likely procured through some public proposal process--a process that, obviously, requires taxpayer dollars to administer and could put taxpayer dollars at risk if not done properly. The best procurement departments have protocols for public contracting to ensure that businesses offering their goods or services can find opportunities, fully participate in the request for proposal processes and be heard in cases of dispute. Here is a short and high-level accountability checklist to arm you with questions to see if your local or state procurement departments are high-functioning and poised to make the most of taxpayer dollars.

1. Is information about the procurement department easily accessible? Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:49 PM

The League of Women Voters of Calvert County released a nearly 80-page report on its findings regarding the transparency of the Calvert County government, using three 'case studies' in the group's analysis: the expansion of the Dominion Cove Point facility in Lusby, development surrounding the former Calvert Middle School property and the preparation of the annual county budget and Capital Improvement Plan.

The report lists areas of improvement the county can make for public participation and transparency. Roberta Safer, the league's first vice president and editor of the study, said the purpose of the report is not to take a stance on issues but, rather, to encourage dialogues with the county government about transparency.

ìWhat we want is a dialogue with the commissioners,î Safer said in an interview Wednesday. ìÖ We have no beef with anybody or anything.' The study is the result of months of work by the 'eague's observer corps and other members and was given to the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners at its regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 7. The league was expected to hold a town hall meeting on the study on Thursday, Oct. 9, after time of press. Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:46 PM

Rhode Island's quasi-public agencies, such as the RI Airport Corporation, RI Resource Recovery Corporation, RIPTA, the RI Turnpike and Bridge Authority and more than a dozen more, perform essential government functions and provide essential services. Equally important as the work they do is their accountability to the public.

These agencies are empowered to collect fees and generate revenue and to manage significant public resources, yet most of them are exempt from many kinds of public oversight, such as executive and legislative budgetary review required of other state departments. Consequently, these agencies need to be more transparent, not less, because while they operate independently, they would not exist but for their relationship with state government. Like all other state departments, they need to demonstrate a commitment to protecting the interests of Rhode Island taxpayers by achieving the highest standards of open, effective and ethical operations.

Approved by the General Assembly this year and signed into law by the governor was legislation I sponsored, 2014-S 2585Aaa (and its companion House bill, 2014-H 7138A), ìThe Quasi-Public Corporations Accountability and Transparency Act.î This legislation requires the agencies to carry out their government missions effectively, and exemplify a commitment to transparent, accountable and effective government. The new law ñ which applies to more than a dozen-and-a-half agencies and several agency subsidiaries ñ codifies the role and responsibilities of the agency board members, establishes specific transparency and accountability requirements and calls for a performance audit every five years, beginning in 2015. Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:44 PM

The Pennsylvania Senateís passage last month of SB 444, amending the stateís Right to Know law, was far from a shining example of representative government working in the peopleís best interest.

The vote ó 50-0 ó was instead an inexcusable exercise favoring the government's interest over that of citizens' right to know, proving again that public transparency is the last thing on lawmakers'minds.

There are a few streamlining sops in the legislation ó which now goes to a House committee ó but they fail to ameliorate the bill's appalling downsides, among them eliminating the public's ability to hold government accountable when functions are outsourced ó in essence letting official agencies contract away your right to know. Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:43 PM

Gov. Terry Branstad on Thursday proposed creating a Government Accountability Portal to make state government more open, transparent and accountable to Iowa citizens. Branstad said the new entity would be a 'one-stop shop' housed within the Iowa Public Information Board for Iowans to register comments, concerns, questions or suggestions regarding state government and its operations.

The new approach would require a response to an 'input' from Iowa citizens within 24 hours and would require acknowledgment from the appropriate state agency within 48 hours, so that the citizen knows with whom the discussion will continue, according to a news release from the Branstad-Reynolds campaign.

Branstad said he and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds have made transparency a hallmark of their administration, beginning with the resumption of weekly news conference to directly respond to questions from the media and naming former Iowa Newspaper Association executive Bill Monroe as the state's first transparency adviser to the governor. Continue>>>
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October 13, 2014 1:41 PM

The NSA doesn't like leaks that much. But it does like leaks when it chooses to leak, as then it gets to exert influence over the media, and thus potentially shape the public narrative. And as we have variously learned, not everything initially marked TOP SECRET//COMINT//NO FORN needs to stay that way.

But that doesn't mean to say that the NSA, which has a requirement to inform Congress when it leaks certain information, wants you to know what it has leaked, and what has otherwise managed to find its way out on its own.

A request for the government to disclose precisely what it had leaked was rebuffed through what might be my new favorite use of the English language yet: Continue>>>
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Congress, leaks, NSA
October 9, 2014 1:49 AM

Too many public entities are violating Missouriís open-government laws by meeting in closed sessions without giving a good reason or by discussing things behind closed doors that they shouldnít be, the state auditor said Tuesday.

Auditor Tom Schweich said about 15 percent of the nearly 300 audits he conducted over the previous two years found some sort of violation of Missouri's open-meetings-and-records laws. Thatís an improvement from the 19 percent problem rate for Sunshine law compliance during audits conducted in 2010 and 2011, he said.

'Maybe things are getting a little better,' Schweich said. But he added: 'Thatís not to say I'm happy with the fact that so many entities are still not complying.' Continue>>>
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October 9, 2014 1:47 AM

Well before Edward Snowden leaked documents about the National Security Administration's massive domestic-surveillance program, the American Civil Liberties Union sought clues through the Freedom of Information Act about how government interpreted its spying powers.

The ACLU's lawsuit, filed three years ago, demanded that the government produce documents describing its interpretation of section 215 of the Patriot Act. The statute empowers the government to cull "any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."

Snowden eliminated much of the mystery surrounding what this meant last year with unprecedented leaks of top-secret documents, starting with an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that forced Verizon to give the government its customers' telephone metadata. Continue>>>
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