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 18, 2014 10:17 AM

Openness in government is not a liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Independent, TEA party or Libertarian issue. The importance of transparency in local, state and federal government should transcend parties and political ideologies.

Checks and balances provide few checks and little balance when officials broker deals behind closed doors and conceal documents that contain important information that citizens have the right, and often the need, to know.

Local government has the biggest impact in the lives of citizens on a day-to-day basis. Whether it is in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, personal property taxes, business taxes, state-shared dollars or federal grants, loans and funding, local government is 100 percent taxpayer funded. The decisions being made, the monies being spent and the records being kept by city hall, the county commission, the board of education or the utility district all belong to liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, TEA party volunteers, Libertarians and even politically disinterested individuals. All stakeholders have a stake in open meetings and public records and should care about transparency issues. Continue>>>
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March 18, 2014 10:16 AM

This week is Sunshine Week, which makes it an ideal time to reiterate the importance of open government and why my office is diligently working to improve government transparency and accountability. Since taking office, I have been committed to building upon Florida’s Sunshine Law and seeking new ways to promote openness.

I am proud to be a citizen of a state that has a long history of holding transparency and accountability in the highest regard. Florida’s Public Records Law was created nearly 100 years ago, in 1909. Nearly 60 years later, Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was created, and it wasn’t long afterward that former Gov. Reubin Askew advocated for the Sunshine Amendment, a 1976 ethics law that required elected officials to disclose personal finances. But despite these steps and several others being taken to make Florida more transparent, there was no system in place to track our state’s contracts and grants when I became Chief Financial Officer. There was also no way to account for the number of contracts and grants or to know the role they played in the state budget.

I knew that if we were to run a state efficiently and at the lowest costs possible to Florida’s taxpayers, the lack of information and accountability for our contracts was unacceptable. Therefore, to close this loophole in Florida’s transparency, I created the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System (FACTS). As a result of FACTS, we are able to now know exactly how many contracts the state has and their impact on Florida’s budget. Continue>>>
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March 18, 2014 10:14 AM

A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage says the administration is reviewing state policies to determine whether to ban the use of secret messaging systems, which could enable state officials to circumvent public records law.

The scrutiny follows testimony Friday by a former employee of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who told the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee that supervisors had instructed her to conduct state business with an untraceable messaging feature on her state-issued BlackBerry.

Agency officials told the panel they were unaware of any such directive.

Some lawmakers expressed concern about transparency in state government. Continue>>>
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Maine
March 18, 2014 10:13 AM

The Legislature has passed two very important bills on to Gov. Phil Bryant for his consideration. Both Senate Bill 2507 and House Bill 928 make significant improvements to Mississippi's so-called "Sunshine laws." They're known that way because of their purpose to increase transparency in government.

The Senate bill gives limited power to the Mississippi Ethics Commission to enforce the state Public Records Act; the House measure puts in place limitations on what can be charged for labor and materials while accessing public records at your local courthouse, city hall or elsewhere.

Advocacy groups have been scrapping for these improvements for years. This session, both bills passed the Legislature by wide margins. They're now awaiting the governor's signature. Continue>>>
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Mississippi, Sunshine
March 18, 2014 10:11 AM

Among the journalism experts testifying before the U.S. Senate last week was David Cuillier, head of the UA journalism school and president of the Society of Professional Journalists, who spoke about the importance of open government and freedom of information in advance of Sunshine Week. Here is his statement, as prepared for delivery, made on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative:

I want to thank you for the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI) and as president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), founded in 1909 as the most broad-based journalism organization in the nation, currently representing 8,000 members...

But I'm afraid that today I must say FOIA is in desperate need of significant fixes. It is a broken shell of what it once was, and what it was intended to be. I have never seen journalists so frustrated, cynical, and angry when it comes to accessing federal records. And for good reason. Today I will lay out some of the research that demonstrates the increased secrecy in this nation and problems with FOIA. I don't think I am exaggerating when I say we are approaching a crisis when it comes to access to information. I cannot emphasize enough the urgency of the situation. I also will provide some suggestions for how we can turn this around. It is possible to find common solutions that serve requesters and agencies, and most importantly, help citizens build stronger government and stronger communities. Continue>>>
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March 18, 2014 10:09 AM

Despite widespread interest, efforts to make the North Carolina Legislature more transparent through better audio and video coverage have failed, panelists at an open government forum said on Monday.

Lawmakers conduct much of their work debating bills in public committee meetings, but only two of the many rooms where those sessions are held have microphones, said WRAL capitol bureau chief Laura Leslie. Those are needed to record, broadcast or stream audio.

Proceedings on the floor of the House and Senate are wired for sound, but efforts in recent years to capture video there or other areas have gone nowhere, Leslie and others said at the North Carolina Open Government Coalition’s annual Sunshine Day event at Elon University. Continue>>>
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North Carolina
March 18, 2014 10:08 AM

An Associated Press study Monday found that, despite promises of openness and transparency, the Obama administration is not proving itself to be the most transparent administration ever.

“More often than ever,” the study found, “the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.”

What’s more, and this will hardly come as a shock to most reporters who’ve tried to pry information from various agencies, most agencies took longer to answer requests for records under FOIA. Administration officials note the government has gotten record numbers of such requests to deal with. Continue>>>
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Federal Government
March 18, 2014 10:06 AM

The 2014 Legislature had several opportunities to make state government more open and accessible to the public. Sadly, it passed on most of them.

State lawmakers could have set an example for their congressional colleagues by approving a modest bill to improve campaign finance disclosure. Sen. Karen Fraser co-sponsored the bill, with strong bipartisan support, that would have better informed voters about who is funding the campaigns of elected officials and ballot measures.

Millions of dollars flowed into the state last year to fight statewide ballot initiatives and promote a higher minimum wage in the city of SeaTac, and it will again this fall. But voters don’t know who is behind this money, because it comes from nonprofit organizations that hide behind a social welfare faade that shields donors from public disclosure requirements. Continue>>>
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March 18, 2014 10:05 AM

In February, the Gloversville mayor and Common Council spent nearly 90 minutes behind closed doors in a meeting a state official later said appeared to violate the state's Open Meetings Law.

In January, members of the new Montgomery County Legislature met privately with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer in apparent violation of the law.

Also in January, the Johnstown Board of Education declined to immediately provide the public with details about administrative raises. A state official said the information should have been provided.

Those are just a few of the recent examples of local public officials violating the spirit of open-government laws. Continue>>>
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legislation, new york
March 16, 2014 4:55 AM

Break the state’s laws, and a citizen can expect anything from a speeding ticket to an arrest warrant.

But when an agency within New York’s $118 billion state government fails to follow a portion of the state’s own open-records law, it leads to a much different result: nothing.

A study by this newspaper of 86 state agencies found 79 were not in compliance with that part of the Freedom of Information Law. Two-thirds of the agencies had not posted a subject matter list online at all. Continue>>>
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March 16, 2014 3:44 AM

Carl Sagan was best known, and appropriately so, as a planetary scientist with a gift for explaining the workings of the universe to those of us who are nonscientists. In his book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark," he proved he knows us very well:

"One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back."

This is certainly in evidence across the landscape today. Masters of spin and subterfuge inside and outside government and inside and outside the media seem to practice their skills unchallenged. Continue>>>
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March 16, 2014 2:33 AM

Why do Florida's government-in-the-sunshine laws matter so much? Because when nobody watches government closely, bad things happen.

Because democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and it's impossible to know what's happening without access to records and meetings.

Because how else would we know about the dangers of speeding cops in South Florida, or the prevalence of bear attacks in a Central Florida town, or the enormous number of sexual predators who attack again after their release?

People know about these threats because of government records obtained by the Sun Sentinel — and our sister paper, the Orlando Sentinel — in the past year. Before our reporters combed the records and connected the dots, no one had grasped the magnitude of the problems. No one would know yet, but for Florida's famous open-government laws. Continue>>>
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