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 23, 2014 7:05 AM

Entrepreneurs and innovators can now access machine-readable research data in the areas of energy, healthcare, and space from more than 700 federal research and development facilities to assist them in researching, building, and testing new technologies through a major enhancement to the Research.Data.gov portal.

The open data, from facilities belonging to the Energy Department, National Institutes of Health, and NASA, includes advanced research tools and represents billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded investment, said Doug Rand, assistant director for entrepreneurship at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a Data.gov announcement posted this week.

Such activities can have a dramatic influence on US technology in key areas such as pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and clean energy, to name a few. Continue>>>
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June 23, 2014 7:04 AM

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: A liberal, a conservative, a lawyer and a legislator walk into a bar, well … into a legislative hearing. Oh never mind, we’re going to cut right to the punchline: They agreed on something.

The occasion was last week’s meeting of the Arkansas House and Senate’s committees on state agencies and governmental affairs. The subject on which they agreed was expanding the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. To be sure, they didn’t necessarily agree on the details, just on the continuing need to conduct the public’s business in the sunlight.

The meeting grew out of a request by Rep. Jim Nickles, D-Sherwood, for an interim study on the possibility of expanding the state’s FOI law, which requires most governmental meetings to be open and the papers of most state agencies to be available to the public. Continue>>>
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June 23, 2014 7:02 AM

The S.C. Supreme Court decided last week that government bodies don’t have to let you know what they’re planning to do. The court ruled that bodies like school boards, county councils and city councils can hold regular meetings without ever issuing an agenda, and if they do issue an agenda, they can change it on the fly and depart from it at will.

What that means is that if the members of such a body want to take up an important, controversial issue, such as an unpopular tax increase, they never have to let anyone know that they’re going to discuss it. They can simply bring it up at a regular meeting and deal with it. Pesky citizens, who may have wanted to be heard on the issue, won’t find out about it until it’s too late.

The court ruled this way on a suit from Saluda County. The Saluda County Council had been departing from its posted agenda at meetings, and a citizen filed suit, claiming the state Freedom of Information Act doesn’t allow the body to take up issues that it hadn’t given the public notice it would discuss through the agenda. Continue>>>
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June 23, 2014 7:00 AM

A bill rushed through the closing days of the General Assembly's spring session is drawing the ire of a good-government group that contends it will restrict the ability of citizens to get information about their governments.
Supporters, though, said the bill is a way to help municipalities deal with a comparative handful of people who file excessive requests under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, tying up employees who could better be used doing other work.
“It was intended to fix maybe an unintended consequence of people abusing the FOIA,” said Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, who drafted the bill. “It's not intended to hide information from people.” Continue>>>
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June 19, 2014 11:09 AM

An ethics watchdog group called for the resignation of the state ethics commission director Tuesday, citing her involvement in recent whistleblower payouts.

The organization, Common Cause Georgia, said Executive Secretary Holly LaBerge gained her position as the head of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission as a result of the wrongful termination of other employees. “She’s played a large role in $3 million of taxpayer money getting paid out to people who were fired for doing their job,” said Common Cause Georgia’s Executive Director William Perry.

The nearly $3 million payout resulted from settlements in lawsuits from four former employees who claimed they were wrongfully terminated after investigating complaints about Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign. Earlier this week, settlements were reached with former deputy Sherry Streicker, former information technology specialist John Hair and former staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein, totaling to more than $1.8 million. That is in addition to an April settlement which awarded $700,000 plus attorney’s fees to former Executive Secretary Stacy Kalberman. Continue>>>
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June 19, 2014 11:07 AM

The open records law has been viewed by most as a step toward transparency and accountability. But it has its problems. That’s why state Sen. Lloyd Smucker and other lawmakers in the Senate State Government Committee are proposing some changes.

The first area to be updated deals with how the law applied to the four state-related universities — Penn State, Temple, Pittsburgh and Lincoln. The committee unanimously agreed Wednesday that those schools will be required to create searchable and downloadable databases on their freely accessible public websites.

The databases will include extensive budget, revenue and expenditure data; the number of employees and aggregated, non-personal employee data; and the number of students and aggregated, non-personal student data. Continue>>>
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June 19, 2014 11:05 AM

A police chief, a state senator, an FOI Commission employee and two journalists have won the annual open government awards from the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, which has been advocating for freedom of information for six decades.

Blogger and Digital First Media columnist Andy Thibault received the Stephen A. Collins Award for his dogged pursuit on virtually every FOI battlefront in the past year. Thibault was instrumental in ensuring that the clemency hearing of convicted murderer Bonnie Foreshaw proceeded in public, according to the CCFOI.

“He unearthed a 25-year-old letter from a public defender stating that she had not received a fair trial,” the CCFOI wrote in a release. “When she was released last November, one of her first questions was ‘Where’s Andy?’” Continue>>>
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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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