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 13, 2017 10:30 PM

The New England First Amendment Coalition will join open government advocates throughout the country to celebrate this 12th annual Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week, from March 12-18, is a national campaign to promote dialogue about the importance of transparency and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

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March 13, 2017 8:35 AM

By Daniel Bevarly, Executive Director, NFOIC

Last month, Martin County Florida (pop. 156,000) agreed to pay a private company $371,800 in fines for attorney fees based on the findings of a non-binding arbitrator who decided that the county and its commissioners “engaged in a pattern of violating the public records act” in an attempt to shield that they were using private email accounts to communicate. The county also agreed to establish a new policy for how to handle public business.

Martin County’s annual operating budget is $399 million. The fines equate to eight police cars, or the salaries of four new police officers for three years. It’s more than $100K Martin County budgets annually for economic development.  

Unfortunately, Martin County is not alone. Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott last year agreed to spend $700,000 in taxpayer money to settle seven public records lawsuits alleging he and several members of his staff violated state Sunshine laws when they created email accounts to shield their communications from state public records laws, and then withheld the documents. The $700,000 included external payments to private attorneys the governor hired.

The digital revolution has left many governments and other public institutions in a reactionary mode.  The use of new technologies (hardware and software) has slowed their response to the growing volume of public records being generated by their agencies. Internally, the incremental nature of bureaucratic culture, concerns about privacy, and an overshadowing of political and legal implications have resulted in a “circle the wagons” reply from many government agencies.  External pressure from journalists and citizens who have been empowered and enabled through the new technologies have created an overwhelming backlog on agencies that find it difficult to fulfill the numbers of public record petitions or even assembling the data that is being requested.

Each time an agency deploys a new technology, data is generated that may fall under that state’s open government laws. And for employees, as the cases above demonstrate, more states are requiring any public business conducted by officials using personal email addresses or cell phones falls under that state’s public records laws meaning those correspondences must be compiled and made available if requested.

Martin County epitomizes the high political and punitive financial costs to knowingly violate these laws. However, many local and state governments do not realize their own financial costs to fulfill their responsibility as stewards and providers of public records. One study conducted by Washington state’s Auditor’s office determined their state and local governments statewide spent more than $60 million fulfilling 114,000 records requests last year.

How can public institutions get a handle on an administrative task that is repeated daily across its agencies, incurs real costs to manage, and possible legal costs if done poorly?  Like any specialized challenge facing a public or private organization it begins by developing professional standards to address it. And with any professional practice, there are a number of steps that must be taken to determine the costs and inefficiencies surrounding that activity.

Circling the wagons is not a bad idea. However, it should be done around the inadequate laws, policies and practices, and not around the content in which the public has a right to access.

March 12, 2017 10:28 PM

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear will intervene in a lawsuit between Western Kentucky University and its student newspaper, the College Heights Herald, over an open records request into the university’s sexual misconduct investigations.

“We are seeing an all too familiar pattern by our public universities to stifle transparency related to public records of faculty potential involvement in cases of sexual assault,” Beshear said in a news release Wednesday.

The announcement follows a lawsuit recently filed by WKU against the Herald after a student reporter asked for investigative records into all sexual misconduct allegations over a five-year period.

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March 12, 2017 10:25 PM

The House Competitiveness Committee is expected to act Thursday on bills expanding public records acts to the governor's office and legislature under new, tightened language.

Michigan is one of two states that currently does not subject the legislature or governor to its open records laws, which helped the it earn the bottom spot on a 2015 ranking of transparency among the states.

House Bills 4149 through 4157 would subject the Governor to the existing Freedom of Information Act and establish a separate Legislative Open Records Act that covered the legislative branch.

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March 12, 2017 10:19 PM

Celebrating Sunshine Week 2017, the National Press Club Journalism Institute’s Freedom of the Press Committee will join with the D.C. Open Government Coalition to present the sixth annual D.C. Open Government Summit on March 14 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The 2017 D.C. Open Government Summit will focus on the state of government transparency in the District of Columbia. We will once again look at omnibus legislation designed to improve the D.C. Freedom of Information and Strengthening Transparency and Open Access to Government Amendment Act and improve access to government data, hearing directly from the legislation’s primary sponsor, Councilmember David Grosso. There will also be a series of “lightning talks” on topics including body camera legislation, access to government officials’ text messages and open data.

American University School of Communication and the DC SPJ Chapter are co-sponsors of the event.

For more information, click here.

March 9, 2017 11:23 PM

Data from the Prince George’s County government became easier to access this week after the county relaunched a website that gives the public the power to probe, download and search data sets about everything from building permits to crime.

The county rolled out a major upgrade of Data Prince George’s, an open-source website, during a conference at the Gaylord National Resort sponsored by the tech company Socrata, which created the software that allows users to visualize and filter public data on the websites of Prince George’s County and other local governments.

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March 9, 2017 11:16 PM

A bill that attempts to flush out serial abusers of Florida’s public records law was tightened Monday to appeal to Sunshine Law advocates, but the groups said the changes don’t go far enough to protect the public.

The bill, SB 80 by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would give judges more discretion in deciding whether or not to award attorneys fees in public-records lawsuits.

“What I’m trying to do here is reach some kind of compromise,” he said.

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March 9, 2017 1:46 AM

President Donald Trump's repeal of an anti-corruption rule that required extractive industries — like mining, oil drilling and quarrying — to disclose payments to foreign governments has caused dismay among people who advocate for the poor and for transparency in government.

The repealed rule was written under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The newly empowered Republican Congress overturned it through the Congressional Review Act, a legislative tactic used successfully just once since 1996, when it was first created by Newt Gingrich. The repeal of the Securities and Exchange Commission rule was the first bill signed by Trump when he took office.

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March 9, 2017 1:39 AM

Peggy Scott held up a bankers box that can hold about 2,750 sheets of paper. Then she held up a small 512-gigabyte flash drive that costs about $20 and holds nearly 10,000 pages of documents, and a picture of a 5 terabyte external hard drive, which costs about $120.

“Government agencies used to have to stores these [boxes] in basements and rent out spaces,” Scott said. “[The hard drive] would hold half the print collection of the Library of Congress.”

The Republican state representative from Andover was trying to show how modern technology has both increased the number of electronic records created every day, but also how it has made it much simpler and cheaper to store those records.

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March 9, 2017 1:28 AM

The city of Tacoma will pay a $50,000 fine and legal fees for violating the Public Records Act by withholding most of a nondisclosure agreement it signed to obtain cellphone surveillance equipment known as Stingray.

The News Tribune reports The Center for Open Policing sued the city for blacking out large portions of the document after the organization requested it in 2014.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson on Friday ordered Tacoma to pay $100 a day for each day the city “wrongfully withheld the unredacted NDA from June 21, 2014, until November 3, 2015.

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March 8, 2017 12:41 AM

At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Tennessee Press Association, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell said they would be open to reviewing the hundreds of exemptions to the state’s public records law.

During the interaction, the leaders were pressed on the possibility of including a sunset provision on any new exemptions that are added to the public records law.

“I think that’s an idea that we need to probably pursue,” McNally said.

While the discussion on open records was relatively brief, it provided insight and hope for open records advocates who worry about the continuing effort to limit access to public records in Tennessee.

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March 8, 2017 12:38 AM

Because of Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law, the state's records and meetings are more accessible than in most states. But the Legislature has, year in and year out, instituted, or considered instituting, numerous exemptions. The body, on average, imposes up to a dozen a year; the grand total, as of early February, was 1,119.

Keeping an eye on those efforts is Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee nonprofit open-government advocacy group. It's supported by newspapers and broadcasters as well as numerous lawyers and just plain citizens. Its mission is to help all of the above. Whether it's a powerful news outlet or a property owner wanting to see the paperwork for the road that was rerouted in front of his house.

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