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 19, 2014 11:04 AM

Some concepts are just hard to grasp. Other ideas are easier to absorb. Or at least, they should be. It is apparent after Tuesday's city council meeting our elected leaders struggle to understand a fundamental aspect of the democratic process -- the idea of open government.

The council voted, 4-2, Tuesday to amend its citizens input policy, placing repressive, even ridiculous, restrictions on residents' ability to address the council during its meetings. Under the new proposal, anyone wishing to address the council must fill out a form that explains what subject they want to address on the Wednesday before the Tuesday meeting. Citizens are only permitted to address the council three times each year.

The council defended these changes saying that on many occasions, citizens address publicly matters that could be easily resolved by talking to a city department head privately. They also say some citizens abuse the citizens-input portion of the council meetings by addressing the board at almost every meeting, often on topics that have little or nothing to do with city government. Continue>>>
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June 19, 2014 11:03 AM

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has championed greater transparency for government and groups in his cross-hairs during his three-plus years as the state's top law enforcement official. But when it comes to his own dealings with a powerful political consultant and close adviser, Mr. Schneiderman is shielding them from public view—under legal reasoning some leading experts say is clearly wrong.

In March, Crain's filed an open-records request with the state attorney general seeking any emails since 2011 between any employee of his office (including Mr. Schneiderman himself) and Jennifer Cunningham. Ms. Cunningham is one of the state's top political consultants and is also Mr. Schneiderman’s former wife. The two divorced in 1996, but the relationship remained amicable enough that she served as the media and advertising director for his successful 2010 attorney general campaign.

In rejecting the request, Mr. Schneiderman's office cited an advisory opinion from 2010 by the State Committee on Open Government, a governmental office that monitors open-records requests. Yet the author of that very opinion told Crain's Tuesday that Mr. Schneiderman’s legal interpretation of it is incorrect—and that the 2010 advisory opinion does not apply to Ms. Cunningham’s situation. Continue>>>
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June 19, 2014 11:01 AM

Public employees asked to provide common records during a statewide test of Ohio's open records laws in April followed the law in nine of every 10 requests, according to audit results that found much higher compliance than a similar survey a decade ago.

Records requested included meeting minutes, restaurant inspections, birth records, a mayor's expense report, school superintendents' pay, police chief pay, and police incident reports. "It's a meaningful improvement over what was found 10 years ago," said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.

The audit was sponsored by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government of ONA. It began April 21, and, in most counties, was completed within days. Newspaper, television and radio reporters served as auditors in all 88 Ohio counties. Auditors didn't identify themselves as reporters when making requests to ensure the same experience as a typical citizen seeking public records. Continue>>>
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June 19, 2014 11:00 AM

The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council voted Monday to strengthen its Freedom of Information and Government Records acts and passed a resolution to initiate a dental crown program at all tribal health centers.

To ensure citizens have better access to important information about their government, the council voted to hire an independent information officer and extend response time. To better manage requests, FOIA response time has been increased from 15 to 20 days, and response time for GRA requests has been increased from six to 10 days.

The rules committee voted for the amendments in May. The legislative acts then moved to the full Tribal Council for consideration at the regular council meeting June 16, where both the GRA and the FOIA passed. The FOIA and GRA amendments also better protect sensitive personal information. Changes to the law now keep a citizen’s date of birth, social security number and other personal information confidential. Continue>>>
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June 16, 2014 8:08 AM

The good news for Ohioans is that public officials seem to be following the state's open records law much better than was the case several years ago.

But the bad news is that sometimes, Buckeye State residents still are refused access to documents. That is unacceptable.

Journalists fanned out throughout Ohio this spring, in an open records "audit" conducted through the state Coalition for Open Government. Public officials were asked in all 88 counties to provide documents and information covered under the state open records law.

Ninety percent of the requests were filled. That is a dramatic improvement from 10 years ago, when a similar audit found just 70 percent compliance. Continue>>>
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June 16, 2014 7:43 AM

The Open Government movement has captured the imagination of many around the world as a way of increasing transparency, participation, and accountability. In the US, many of the federal, state, and local Open Government initiatives have been demonstrated to achieve positive results for citizens here and abroad. In fact, the White House’s science advisors released a refreshed Open Government plan in early June.

However, a recent study in Sweden says the benefits of transparency may vary, and may have little impact on citizens’ perception of legitimacy and trust in government. This research suggests important lessons on how public managers should approach the design of transparency strategies, and how they work in various conditions.

Jenny de Fine Licht, a scholar at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, offers a more nuanced view of the influence of transparency in political decision making on public legitimacy and trust, in a paper that appears in the current issue of “Public Administration Review.” Her research challenges the assumption of many in the Open Government movement that greater transparency necessarily leads to greater citizen trust in government. Continue>>>
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June 16, 2014 7:42 AM

As an attorney, you have a duty to do an adequate investigation before asserting any claim, but your investigation can’t intrude on others’ privacy rights. Getting public record information is one way to get what you need without a privacy problem. But what if the information isn’t available online or through a visit to a federal agency? Make a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 USC §552) generally provides that any person has a right of access to federal agency records. Virtually every document generated by a federal agency is available to the public in one form or another unless specifically exempted from disclosure.

Getting information you need under the FOIA is a relatively straightforward process: Continue>>>
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FOIA request
June 16, 2014 7:39 AM

Imagine that the governor is holding a series of secret closed-door negotiations with a company that could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer expenses. Now imagine that the same company secretly meeting with the governor is also a campaign contributor. Also imagine that the Legislature is barred from changing the details of an agreement negotiated in secret with the governor and can only vote up or down on funding the final proposal.

Sounds outrageous? You bet! Yet that is exactly what happens each time state and local officials in Washington negotiate pay and benefits with public-employee unions. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Several states ensure that the public is not shut out of the collective-bargaining process with government unions. Some states open the entire negotiation process to the public, while others include an exemption when government officials are strategizing among themselves. Once public officials meet with union negotiators, however, the public is allowed to monitor the process. Continue>>>

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June 16, 2014 7:38 AM

When it comes to open and transparent government aimed at serving the people, East Earl Township supervisors must not have gotten the memo.

Supervisors Earl Kreider, Joe Shriver and David Zimmerman have been running the government based on the idea that the less the citizens know about what is going on, the better. They have been good, in fact far too good, at operating behind closed doors.

That might be in the best interest of the three supervisors but it is certainly not in the best interest of East Earl residents. Theirs is a world of cryptic agendas made available the night of the meeting with nothing in advance or posted online. There are no board packets, no documents to help residents understand what the supervisors are discussing. In their world, there are not even board minutes for the citizens to review. Notice of future meetings include ones that might be held “as needed.” Continue>>>
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June 16, 2014 7:36 AM

A federal judge today ordered the Department of Justice to hand over key opinions by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the “FISA court”) so the judge can directly review whether information about mass surveillance was improperly withheld from the public.

The order is another victory in EFF’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the DOJ, which sought to reveal how the government uses Section 215 of the Patriot Act to secretly gather communications records from millions of American citizens. The suit has already forced the government to release thousands of pages of FISA court opinions, internal executive branch reports, congressional briefings, and other documents concerning Section 215. Documents released as part of the suit have shown the NSA repeatedly misled the FISA court concerning the operation of the bulk call records program, nearly leading the court to terminate the program altogether. Continue>>>
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June 12, 2014 10:16 PM

Nearly every federal government agency uses geographic information system (GIS) technology to meet various mission goals. Agencies rely on GIS for asset management, citizen engagement, public policy, planning and analysis, disaster response, and much more.

"GIS brings transparency and accountability to federal government by engaging citizens through dynamic, interactive maps," Christopher Thomas, director of federal government solutions for Esri, told InformationWeek Government. Esri offers GIS software and geodatabase management applications that address key federal initiatives and mandates.

Earlier this year, Esri launched an open data initiative centered on helping federal agencies create custom websites to easily share data. Esri made enhancements to ArcGIS Online, a geospatial platform that allows users to create interactive Web maps and apps. The new ArcGIS Online allows organizations -- in this case, government agencies -- to build custom, open data websites in minutes. The public can then search ArcGIS Online and download data by topic or location, filter the information, and see it on an interactive map. Continue>>>
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June 12, 2014 10:14 PM

Good government groups are lambasting current regulations that govern the Freedom of Information Act and want the Justice Department to consider major changes.

The groups say agencies lack penalties for withholding information, overuse exemptions provided within FOIA and deal inconsistently and unfairly toward requesters, said Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The 2013 National Action Plan tasked the Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy with creating updated FOIA regulations. OIP began this process in late May.

The good government groups offered their suggestions to DoJ as part of the government's effort to receive input from experts and other interested parties. "The most recent FOIA regulations that they have proposed were actually very, very bad," McCall said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. Continue>>>
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