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 28, 2017 12:20 PM

Next week, the Freedom of Information Act will be 51 years old. July 4th marks the birthday of the law that, for the first time in U.S. history, gave all persons a sweeping right to obtain government records. FOIA may be middle aged, but it is still very relevant. In fact, the advent of the Trump administration gives the law new immediacy. It can be used to open government records (potentially even memoranda to and from the White House) thus assisting citizens in understanding and acting on their lawfulness and policy implications.

This is important because President Donald Trump has, in the first five months of his administration, pushed the limits of executive power. He has used unilateral actions or executive orders to override national laws and policy in areas including immigration limitations, environmental protection and the enactment of updated consumer and worker safety rules. Continue...

June 27, 2017 2:23 PM

Florida lawmakers received a final grade on their support for public-records laws during this year’s legislative session in Tallahassee — a score given by Florida newspapers with information culled by the state’s premier open-government group, the First Amendment Foundation.

Unfortunately, lawmakers’ scores are nothing to boast about to their constituents back home. And South Florida legislators barely made a respectable grade.

For its Sunshine Week project, a nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government, members of the Florida Society of News Editors created a scoring system to grade legislators on their introduction of public-records bills, final votes, and overall support of the Sunshine Law, the oldest state-level open-government law in the country, giving citizens the right to public records. Continue...

June 27, 2017 11:59 AM

When Mayor Eric Garcetti was elected in 2013, one of his major goals was to make Los Angeles a smart city. That very year, he signed a landmark executive directive that established the city’s emphasis on data-driven policy and open data.

Since then, Los Angeles has delivered results on Garcetti’s smart city vision, including the creation of one of the most innovative government data portals and ever-increasing support for data-driven governance within city departments. Lilian Coral, who joined Garcetti’s team in 2015, first as Deputy Chief Data Officer until she was appointed Chief Data Officer last spring, has been integral to taking Los Angeles’ digital efforts to the next level.

Coral oversaw the implementation of the GeoHub, a map-based data portal that connects citywide location data and brings to life data previously stuck in spreadsheets. The portal is an ambitious attempt by the city to build on open data and develop more enterprise-wide solutions to manage the city’s wealth of data. The goal is to spur innovation and increase engagement, internally across city departments and externally with residents and entrepreneurs. Continue...

June 27, 2017 11:47 AM

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing parts of President Trump’s Muslim ban to go into effect, Amnesty International USA this evening filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents showing how federal agencies are planning to implement the ban. Amnesty International is asking the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to provide any information concerning the guidance provided to CBP agents at international airports regarding how arriving passengers will be processed. Agencies are legally obligated to respond to such requests in a timely fashion. Continue...

June 27, 2017 11:25 AM
A group of 31 activist organizations are urging lawmakers to take out language in the fiscal year 2018 defense policy bill that, if enacted, would exempt the Pentagon from releasing certain documents that until now were accessible under the Freedom of Information Act.
 
In a June 26 letter, the organizations call on the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, as well as those committees with jurisdiction over the Freedom of Information Act, to raise concerns that language in the FY-18 defense authorization bill would "undermine the FOIA, creating an unnecessary and overbroad secrecy provision at odds with FOIA's goal of transparency and accountability to the public." Continue...
June 19, 2017 10:18 AM

Score a significant victory for the Fort Smith law firm that's been fighting one battle after another to ensure and preserve freedom of information and transparency in that community.

I've written some lately about attorney Joey McCutchen and his law partner Chip Sexton in their lawsuits involving the Fort Smith School Board alleging Freedom of Information Act violations by holding what amounted to business sessions by email exchanges over several days. During those electronic back-and-forths members discussed who would be best to fill their slate of officers for the coming year. 

Circuit Judge Stephen Tabor in his order the other day found it was undisputed fact that the board unintentionally conducted what amounted to an extended meeting, all without legally required notice to the public.

Then the judge permanently enjoined the board from repeat performances.

I'm proud of McCutchen and Sexton for taking a stand to defend the Freedom of Information Act and what is clearly the right thing. If only all were so committed to important causes that affect all of us.

And they did it all without expectation of personal aggrandizement or enrichment. Although McCutchen is within his rights now to seek legal fees connected with this months-long battle, he was forgoing that option as long as the board agreed to accept the decision without appeal.

Up in Fayetteville, McCutchen and company continue to use the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to review relevant financial records maintained by Springdale's beleaguered Ecclesia College. Just how has that tiny college been spending the public money it's received courtesy of our elected lawmakers?

But the private college's attorneys say they won't permit a review because those records supposedly have been sealed in a protective order by a federal court in the ongoing public corruption criminal case against a former state legislator, a business consultant and Ecclesia's president, Oren Paris III. The other former legislator entangled in the case pleaded guilty in January. Read more...

Arkansas
June 19, 2017 10:08 AM

A public-private agency that promotes Florida’s tourism industry won full funding from the state legislature despite criticism that the state support amounts to corporate welfare.

But the $76 million approved for Visit Florida during a special session of the legislature last week came with stiffer reporting requirements aimed at making the agency’s activities more transparent.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has been critical of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, which doles out taxpayer-funded economic incentives designed to bring more jobs to the Sunshine State.

“As we’ve said, spending more taxpayer money on VISIT FL (or less) has not demonstrated a direct impact on tourism,” Corcoran said in a Twitter post in February.

An earlier version of the state budget that the legislature passed in May slashed funding for Visit Florida to $25 million. But Scott, a strong supporter of promoting tourism, called for a special session to restore full funding to the agency, along with other legislative matters.

“The speaker believes the oversight and accountability measures passed this session will ensure that Visit Florida spends taxpayer dollars appropriately and transparently,” Corcoran’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, told Watchdog.org.

The legislation passed in the special session contains a number of transparency provisions, including a requirement that all the agency’s contracts be placed on the corporation’s website for public viewing, as well as limitations on expenses and matching requirements between public and private contributions. Read more...

June 19, 2017 10:01 AM

How much faith do you have in government running things?

State Sen. John Eichelberger, a Blair County Republican, wants the government to handle publication of public notices, taking them away from media companies and putting them on a government-run website.

Eichelberger introduced Senate Bill 745, which essentially gives the government the power to control its own notices. The bill was referred to the Senate Local Government Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York.

Like many organizations, we think that’s bad policy and urge readers to tell their representatives to oppose it.

Legal notices are valuable sources information that lets the public know about tax increases, public meetings, government projects and zoning laws, among others. Under current state law, local governments must post public notices in newspapers. You’ll find them in most classified sections.

The Meadville Tribune charges for pubic notices, just like other companies do. However, moving notices to a government-run website will not eliminate costs or come free of charge. We think taxpayers still will be on the hook for the costs associated with gathering the information, writing the notices and posting them to a government site.

When we asked Republican state Sen. Michele Brooks, whose 50th District includes all of Crawford County, her stance on the bill, she declined to take a position on the bill in its current form, saying through a spokeswoman that the bill would likely be amended before a final version comes up for a vote. Read more...

Pennsylvania
June 15, 2017 2:01 PM

An unanimous decision from the state Supreme Court last week serves as a rebuke of the Port of Vancouver Commission and an affirmation that public agencies are, indeed, beholden to the public. In the process, the court defined a dereliction of duty by port commissioners and provided insight for this year’s election.

In a suit initially brought by conservation groups, the Supreme Court ruled that Port of Vancouver commissioners violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act in 2013 during discussions that led to a lease for an oil transfer terminal. The commission agreed to a deal with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. for the construction and operation of a terminal that could bring in up to 15 million gallons of crude each day and transfer the oil to marine vessels. The terminal, which would be the largest of its type in North America, is undergoing a state review that will be sent to the governor for approval or rejection.

Washington’s act governing public meetings dates to Watergate-era concern about government secrecy and has served the state well by holding elected officials accountable and reinforcing the public’s right to know what those officials are doing. As quoted by the Supreme Court, the preamble of the legislation says, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.” In chastising the Vancouver commissioners, Justice Charles Wiggins emphasized the damage done to “transparency and popular sovereignty by approving expansive discussion in executive session of matters squarely in the public interest.”

The commissioners held talks about the terminal behind closed doors, ignoring their duty to the public. It was an abdication of responsibility and was offensive to those who believe publicly funded organizations run by publicly elected officials must never ignore the “public” portion of their duties. When questions were raised about the secrecy of the negotiations, commissioners held a public meeting in which they doubled down on their mistake by rubber-stamping approval of the terminal for a second time. Read more...

June 15, 2017 1:55 PM

At one point during a Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council discussion about closed meetings of public bodies, a distinguished lobbyist for local government argued secrecy is necessary to, as he put it, keep the stupid in the room.

Turns out, we could tell him something about that.

The closed door session at which three Peninsula Airport Commissioners decided to guarantee a loan to People Express Airlines makes clear the appalling risks when public bodies make decisions in secret. That deal cost $4.5 million in public funds.

We never had a chance to understand the concerns of the only commissioner to express his opposition, behind those closed doors, because when it came time to vote all he felt he could do in public was abstain. Read more...

June 7, 2017 11:00 AM

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” state Rep. Weston Newton said.

Newton’s comments came this week after the state Legislature voted to amend South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act.

The Bluffton Republican said he is “delighted” that some much-needed changes have been made.

“We’ve been working on this for a number of years,” Newton said.

The act outlines how public bodies, such as state and local governments and school districts, comply with records requests from the public.

Newton said the law as it stood was missing some vital requirements.

“There was no deadline as to when documents had to be produced,” Newton said.

The time to respond to requests has been shortened from 15 to 10 days and there is now a deadline to produce requested information. Read more...

June 7, 2017 10:37 AM

In a world that is becoming increasingly communicative — where people often receive their news, share news, state their opinions and post pictures with their whereabouts via social media — the lines are perhaps a bit more blurry about how such information can be used.

Last month, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, released a map that details specific cities, counties and law enforcement agencies across the United States that have spent at least $10,000 on social media monitoring software.

All of the data — which comes from public reports, information from the government procurement database SmartProcure, public records requests via the ACLU of Northern California and the investigative news site MuckRock — found that nationwide, at least 151 police departments, cities and counties spent millions of dollars collectively on social media monitoring software. Read more...

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