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 26, 2014 8:28 AM

Many public officials have decided just saying no to requests for government documents is not the best way to keep them secret. Indirect assaults on the public's right to know are better, they believe. That way they cannot be accused of disobeying freedom of information laws.

As thoughtful Americans were pondering the observance of Sunshine Week last week, West Virginia Supreme Court members were considering an important freedom of information case. It goes to the heart of one method used to keep the public from obtaining documents to which it is entitled under state law.

Local and state officials have known for years that they are permitted to charge the public reasonable fees, usually a few cents per page, for providing copies of government documents. But in 2012, officials in Nitro, near Charleston, decided to up the ante. They told a couple who had filed a Freedom of Information Act request that the city would charge them $25 an hour for looking up the documents. Continue>>>
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March 26, 2014 8:27 AM

Sunshine Week. Open meetings. We’re all very familiar with these terms — but how much emphasis do we really place on the significance they have in our government?
Last week, March 16-22, was observed as Sunshine Week and, as we in the newspaper industry often say, shines a light on how important it is that our elected officials conduct themselves in being transparent in their roles.

We can’t take open meetings laws for granted. They were established with a goal in mind: To keep us, the people officeholders serve, informed.

Behind closed door shenanigans are nothing new in the political arena. But the laws governing open meetings ensure that those who serve are responsible and truly open.

The concept behind an open meeting is simple: Legislation was passed to direct how public meetings are conducted. Continue>>>
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March 26, 2014 8:25 AM

Santa Rosa's Open Government Task Force has finished selecting its members and set its first meeting for April 3.

Vice Mayor Robin Swinth and Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom are heading the 11-member task force, which is charged with producing a report about the city's commitment to open and transparent government.

“I think the panel represents a group of people with diverse backgrounds who are going to add a lot to this discussion,” Swinth said Tuesday.

The other members of the group include two members from other city boards and commissions and seven members of the public. The two city board members selected are planning commissioners Ashle Crocker, an environmental and land-use attorney, and Peter Stanley, a development consultant. Continue>>>
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March 26, 2014 8:24 AM

James Clapper, the Obama administration’s director of national intelligence, is winner of this year’s Rosemary Award, given out for the “Worst Open Government Performance of 2013″ by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

The award is named for Rosemary Woods, President Richard Nixon’s secretary, who took the rap — and posed for a famous stretching picture — for erasing 18 1/2 minutes from a key Watergate coverup tape.

Clapper won the prize for telling a whopper to a U.S. Senate hearing about National Security Agency evesdropping. “Does the National Security Agency collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds’ of millions of Americans’ telephone records?” asked Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, an NSA critic.

“No sir,” replied Clapper. A moment later, he added the qualification, “Not wittingly.” Continue>>>
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Federal Government, NSA
March 24, 2014 1:02 PM

The easiest and most common form of government communication is often the most expensive and difficult for the public to access.

Email has transformed government operations in ways that the state’s Freedom of Information Act never anticipated when it was last revised in 1999, said Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the state’s FOIA Council.

While the vast majority of simple requests for information such as accident or spending reports are routinely made public for free to anyone who asks, public bodies in the Richmond area sometimes quote prices of hundreds or thousands of dollars to produce sets of emails. Continue>>>
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email, FOIA
March 24, 2014 1:01 PM

Many public officials have decided just saying no to requests for government documents is not the best way to keep them secret. Indirect assaults on the public's right to know are better, they believe. That way they cannot be accused of disobeying freedom of information laws.

As thoughtful Americans were pondering the observance of Sunshine Week during the past few days, West Virginia Supreme Court members were considering an important freedom of information case. It goes to the heart of one method used to keep the public from obtaining documents to which it is entitled under state law.

Local and state officials have known for years that they are permitted to charge the public reasonable fees, usually a few cents per page, for providing copies of government documents. But in 2012, officials in Nitro, near Charleston, decided to up the ante. They told a couple who had filed a Freedom of Information Act request that the city would charge them $25 an hour for looking up the documents. Continue>>>
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West Virginia
March 24, 2014 1:00 PM

Let's leave aside whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's campaign should be barring the editor of LEO Weekly, or any reporter, from a press event and look at a broader issue.

Saturday marks the end of Sunshine Week, a time when open-government advocacy groups reinforce the importance of public access to information. And that reminded me of an assessment this year from GovTrack.us that showed congressional support for transparency in all things is relative.

GovTrack.us is a website run by a company called Civic Impulse LLC, and it is aimed at promoting more openness in the federal government. One of the many pieces of analysis GovTrack.us makes available to the public is the record of each member of Congress on legislation to make government more transparent. Continue>>>
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kentucky
March 24, 2014 12:59 PM

The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association and its leader, Robert Ambrogi, deserve our thanks for their fight to open more of our state and local government to public inspection ("Guest View: A ray of hope for the Public Records Law," March 18). Government works best when it's most transparent. I have been proud to have joined Bob and the MNPA, Common Cause, MASSPIRG and others in that fight. While we have won several important victories, there remains much to accomplish.

In 2009, the Legislature reformed the Open Meeting Law, adopting a proposal contained in legislation I had filed to centralize enforcement of that law with the attorney general. In that same year, I instituted the Capital Spending Transparency Project, as chairman of the Legislature's House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditure and State Assets, with the goal of making all state capital spending available online. In 2011, the Legislature created the state "Open Checkbook," a website that allows everyone with Internet access to see state expenditures. Each legislative session, my committee holds nearly a dozen public hearings where the heads of state executive offices and agencies and several of the largest state authorities, such as MassPort, detail their capital projects and plans for future capital spending.

While we've made progress, much work remains. I have filed several bills that would promote government transparency. As Bob noted, the Massachusetts Public Records Law needs updating in very basic ways: requiring that records that are already in electronic form be made available electronically when requested; making sure that fees charged reflect the actual cost of producing documents, not an inflated cost designed to discourage requests; and designating a person in each agency to be responsible for all public records requests. Continue>>>
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March 24, 2014 12:58 PM

Massachusetts takes pride in liberal politics and technological prowess. But when it comes to government transparency and using technology to connect citizens with government, Beacon Hill has nothing to be proud of.

The state has had terrible difficulty getting its new Heath Care Connector website working, despite years of experience operating an online health insurance exchange, but that’s a topic for another day.

Putting legislative bills and vote tallies online is a far simpler enterprise, so it’s hard to explain how the state Legislature has failed so miserably, especially as compared to other states.

Through its Open States project, the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for open government, recently put the legislative websites of all 50 states to the test. It evaluated them on completeness, timeliness, ease of access, machine readability, standards and permanence of records, then compiled the scores and gave each state a grade. Continue>>>
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March 24, 2014 12:56 PM

Sunshine Week, a push for transparency in government, is drawing to a close. And that's why we choose to highlight it at its end.

The demand for open government must not be reserved to a limited time frame. Indeed, it must be an all-day, every day effort — and not just on the part of media, though we are the ones who champion it.

Open government is a necessity for every citizen. In an age when government has been discovered to be spying on us for no good reason and using secretive methods in a weak attempt to justify it, a call for more eyes watching the doings of government is ever more a necessity, and at every level of government.

To that end, we offer a few thoughts from Susan Schwartz, the legislative committee chairwoman for the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, as well as the Project Sunshine chairwoman for the Society of Professional Journalists. Continue>>>
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March 21, 2014 10:06 AM

Gov. Terry Branstad’s work group in charge of investigating secret settlements to former state employees has already formed — and plans to meet behind closed doors, the governor’s spokesman said Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the formation of the work group Monday in response to a Des Moines Register investigation that found the Republican Branstad administration had paid more than $280,000 to six former employees, most who allege they were fired for their ties to Democrats.

The settlements were shuffled through state agencies, avoiding the typical process of being approved by and made public through the Iowa Appeal Board. Continue>>>
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March 21, 2014 10:05 AM

As we recently covered, a judge had ordered the CIA to explain its ridiculous FOIA response tactics. The CIA had, with a straight face, first claimed it could ONLY produce hard copies of digital files from an internal security journal. Then, it said the only way it could create digital files was by printing out the files and re-scanning them. The judge noted in her order that Congress recognized government agencies would be reluctant to hand over documents to the public, which is why it directed agencies to make every reasonable effort to accommodate requests. This, of course, was not what the legislators had in mind when they crafted the Freedom of Information Act.

Now, it's the FBI being asked by a judge to explain its overuse of FOIA exemptions to withhold documents. This time, it's the (in)famous Ryan Shapiro suing our government for access to information. Shapiro is well-known by the FBI, which has attempted to shut down the prolific requester by simply refusing his FOIA requests. It justifies this violation of the FOIA by claiming (somewhat accurately) that Shapiro is utilizing a "mosaic" method to gain access to information the FBI clearly wants to keep hidden. The theory is that with enough overlapping requests, responses will turn up either different documents or inconsistent redactions, thus revealing potentially sensitive information.

Shapiro currently has six open FOIA-related lawsuits (five vs. the DOJ and one vs. the CIA). This one, originally filed in April of last year, centers on Occupy Houston-related FBI documents. Continue>>>
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