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 6, 2014 10:52 AM

A rare opportunity to affirm the spirit and intent of Michigan's Freedom of Information Act may be slipping away. House Bill 4001 would improve citizen access to public records by capping document copying costs, reducing fees when government agencies miss disclosure deadlines and increase financial penalties on agencies that improperly deny release of their documents. Those are simple, common-sense steps that don't impose any major burdens or restrictions on government agencies; rather, they reinforce the intent of Michigan's Freedom of Information Act to make the public's business public. That's how members of the state House saw it ó they approved HB 4001 by a whopping margin of 102-8 in March.

Alas, the bill has failed to advance in the Senate, languishing without action in the Senate Government Operations Committee. The bill's only hope for passage may lie in the post-election lame duck season, where it easily could be lost in the crush of last-minute action.

That would be a shame. HB 4001 would be a definite benefit for journalists investigating government operations; almost every journalist has experienced a case in which government employees try to deter their work by engaging in delaying tactics or charging disproportionate fees for accessing public records. Continue>>>
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October 6, 2014 10:51 AM

Whether Iowa's public records law should be amended to make public the reasons that government employees are fired sparked debate in a roundtable discussion Thursday at The Des Moines Register.

Advocates like Gov. Terry Branstad say citizens have a right to learn of a government worker's wrongdoing as a matter of public safety. Opponents like Sen. Matt McCoy worry changing the law would violate a person's privacy, unfairly jeopardize a fired worker's chances of future employment and potentially open the state to ongoing rounds of litigation.

Those two divergent views were on display at Thursday's roundtable, "Opening Doors, Opening Minds," an event sponsored by The Register and the Iowa Newspaper Association in light of recent public record and meeting controversies in which Iowans were denied access to government information. Continue>>>
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October 6, 2014 10:50 AM

Secrecy is the enemy of good government. Fortunately, here in Colorado, we have developed a strong tradition of transparency and open government so that citizens can see how their tax dollars are being used.

In the early 1970s, over the objections of many in government, we passed laws to make government records open for public review and required meetings to be open for all to see under the Open Meetings Law, which is part of the Colorado Sunshine Law.

We also passed bills in recent years that provide greater transparency and accountability in state government by highlighting state spending and making that information available for public praise or scrutiny. Continue>>>
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October 6, 2014 10:49 AM

Hang around the nation's capital long enough and inevitably even the most grizzled newsroom veteran reads something so utterly wrong that he is left speechless.

Such a moment arrived for this ink-stained wretch Thursday while reading a Washington Post op-ed by Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet. His piece included this declaration about post-Watergate reforms designed to bring government out from behind closed doors:

"But while openness is indeed key to a functioning democracy, there is a dark side to sunlight. Deliberation, collaboration and compromise rarely flourish in front of TV cameras or when monitored by special interests.

Most government staff now operate under the principle of 'don't write that down' and avoid raising concerns and challenging questions altogether for fear that they will be publicly revealed to embarrassing effect. Continue>>>
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October 3, 2014 11:22 AM

In a case involving a Freedom of Information Act request for information related to government policies and procedures for law enforcement use of cell phone tracking, a federal judge has ordered the release of records, which the Justice Department sought to keep secret by claiming they would 'alert law violators'- otherwise known as criminals- to how to evade detection.

The ACLU in Northern California and San Francisco Bay Guardian filed a lawsuit seeking documents on location tracking technology on July 31, 2012. The Justice Department has produced a few documents but has continued to insist that many of the documents requested are 'work product' so they are protected from disclosure. The agency has also refused to search for documents that were requested.

Relevant portions in something called USABook, a 'legal resource book and reference guide for federal prosecutors,' were identified, but the Justice Department claimed they could keep the sections secret because they contain details on 'investigatory techniques.' Continue>>>
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October 3, 2014 11:19 AM

After two painful losses before the South Carolina Supreme Court, there has been a small victory for the Freedom of Information Act in a case involving Greenville businessman and open-government activist Edward 'Ned' Sloan. The man who has sued a number of state and local agencies, often successfully, has been paid $18,000 in fees and costs related to a 2012 FOIA request that was handled improperly by the state Department of Revenue.

The victory does not create earth-shattering changes regarding open government but it does affirm part of the FOIA and protects the spirit of this important law. The effect of the court's ruling was negligible because it comes well after DOR produced documents that were being sought by Sloan, and as the court noted the 'request for injunctive relief was mooted by DOR's production' of the records.

Nevertheless, the state Supreme Court's opinion is welcome news. As Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, told Greenville News reporter Tim Smith, the ruling should be good news for the public. Some state agencies spend months producing records sought through a FOIA request, and the law tightly defines the process that an agency must follow. Continue>>>
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October 3, 2014 11:16 AM

Complying with the 1966 Freedom of Information Act these days is a hugely complex technological feat that goes far beyond filing cabinets, good judgment and black markers.

One trick to organizing and handling mind-boggling numbers of documents is keeping in mind the requesters' needs, according to experts looking to make this government service more effective.

Last year, federal agencies received a total of 704,394 FOIA requests, with more than 230,000 going to the Department of Homeland Security alone. Continue>>>
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October 3, 2014 11:15 AM

Gov. Christie and his administration have pulled plenty of shameless stunts to protect Christie's image. Few though, have been as blatant as the decision earlier this year to delete public information about town-by-town property-tax rebates and net property-tax growth from the state Department of Community Affairs website.

The goal was to try to prevent meaningful comparisons of the full impact of tax policies between Christie and his gubernatorial predecessor, Jon Corzine.

Democratic legislators are fighting to restore that information to the site and make it readily available to the public. This week, the Assembly approved a bill to mandate just that. But expect most Republicans to do Christie's bidding by continuing to oppose public access after the inevitable veto comes. GOP legislators have yet to show the courage to override the governor on anything. Continue>>>
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October 3, 2014 11:13 AM

he organization that represents registered nurses, nurse practitioners and nursing students in Ontario has issued a formal request to the provincial government for information related to medical tourism.

The Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO) is seeking all general records between 2009 to the present regarding the treatment of international patients (also known as medical tourists) not covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) in the province's hospitals. The request includes all letters, reports, briefings, agreements, hand-written notes, electronic documents and emails from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, Treasury Board, Finance, Cabinet Office and the Office of the Premier.

"Hospitals that are part of Toronto's University Health Network, and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre have made no secret that they are open for business when it comes to treating patients from abroad for a fee," says RNAO's Chief Executive Officer Doris Grinspun, adding that the CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital is also pursuing a partnership with Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit to formalize a 'medical free-trade zone' that he says will become the 'envy of the health-care world.' Continue>>>
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October 3, 2014 10:07 AM

It isn't uncommon for conflicts to arise between the news media and law enforcement agencies over the release of information.

Police are protective of their investigations and worry about showing too much of their hand. News reporters are hard-core advocates of the public's right to know and question anything that stands in the way of gathering information freely. As standoffish as the two groups can sometimes be, there's also a reliance on each other. There are times one can benefit from the other.

That's why there's always been an arm's-length but symbiotic relationship between the two. Every now and then there has to be a little saber-rattling from one side or the other, but both groups are fully aware the law is already set that determines what information must be made publicly available. Continue>>>
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October 2, 2014 1:01 PM

A group of government transparency advocates delivered a letter to the White House Monday calling on the Obama administration to do away with its policy of reviewing Freedom of Information Act requests determined by the executive to contain "White House equities." The policy has "caused significant confusion and delay among agencies in their compliance with the Freedom of Information Act."

In 2009, the Obama White House handed down an edict requiring agencies to present all FOIA requests, including 'documents and records, whether in oral, paper, or electronic form, that relate to communications to and from the White House, including preparations for such communications,' to the executive branch for review.

According to transparency advocates, the requirement creates confusion as federal agencies attempt to comply with FOIA requests because it was put into place without any official statute, rule making or other guidance. Furthermore, the group argues that the 2009 memo interferes with congressional oversight and contradicts FOIA's intended purpose of allowing public access to government records. Continue>>>
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October 2, 2014 1:00 PM

So how much of your dollars are being spent on providing free college educations for state workers? We don't know ó and that should outrage you. We know that in past budgets the state has spent $5 million on the program known as Upward Mobility.

But if you take a careful look at this year's state budget you'll find that the program has been 'zeroed out' meaning that it appears the state is no longer spending a dime on the program. But appearances can be deceptive, especially when it comes to Illinois state government.

A quick look at the department of Central Management Services website shows that the program is plugging right along ñ same as always. A call to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which operates the program with the state and you'll learn money is apparently pouring in this year. But how much of our money is being spent? State officials aren't saying. Continue>>>
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