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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July 9, 2014 12:14 PM

You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the issues on which there is bipartisan agreement in Congress. Fortunately, strengthening Freedom of Information (FOIA) is one of them.

Earlier this year, the House unanimously approved a FOIA reform bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (CA), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Democrats, Elijah Cummings (MD), the committee’s ranking member, and Mike Quigley (IL).

This June, another bipartisan team, Democrat and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (VT) and Republican Sen. John Cornyn (TX) introduced their FOIA reform bill. The Senate legislation has a good chance of passage, assuming it is not the victim of procedural fights about other issues. Nothing can be assumed in the Senate, fraught as it is with tussles over process. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 12:12 PM

The state Supreme Court issued a ruling Monday that restricts the amount of information police are required to release about arrests, prompting fears among advocates of open government that the public will not have access to important information about crimes.

The unanimous decision in Commissioner of Public Safety v. Freedom of Information Commission was authored by Justice Richard A. Robinson. The court ruled that police are required only to release basic “blotter” information about arrests, including the name and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest, the criminal charges and a news release or narrative of the arrest. Though police reports are considered public records, the police are not required to release them while a case is pending.

“It’s a great day for police departments who want to withhold information,” said attorney Daniel Klau, past president of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government and supervisor of Yale Law School interns who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:38 AM

Earlier this year, the U.S. Veterans Affairs Administration denied the Tampa Tribune’s Freedom of Information Act request for the names of VA hospitals where veterans died because of delays in medical screenings.

To hide this information, the VA used the “pre-decisional” exemption, simply stating that the requested documents were “preliminary” communications and could thus be withheld. This misapplication was not an isolated incident. Agency use of this catch-all exemption has skyrocketed to more than 12 percent of all FOIA requests, often to prevent embarrassment or hide errors and failures – ignoring President Barack Obama’s clear instructions to the contrary.

Fortunately, U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, working in one of Washington’s last bastions of bipartisanship, have introduced a bill that will stem this abuse. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 will make it easier for everyday Americans to use the law to request and receive documents, such as the Veterans Affairs records, in three key ways. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:36 AM

Open Data Roundtable meetings have begun, a step in the partnership of government agencies with industry to ensure that the data sets the government publishes directly benefit the economy.

In a GovLab Blog, Joel Gurin, senior advisor, explains, “The GovLab’s Open Data 500 study — the first comprehensive study of companies that use open government data as a key business resource — has given us the knowledge, context, and connections to serve as an effective convener for Roundtables like this. Our study, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has mapped the linkages between federal agencies and the companies that use their data for the first time. Most agencies don’t know who is using their data, beyond the companies that are their largest customers, and most companies don’t have the federal contacts to request data in more useful forms.”

Bruce Andrews, the Commerce Department’s acting deputy secretary, wrote in a blog, “"We know that only by listening to the business community, partnering with industry, and collaborating with fellow government agencies can we best serve our customers and unleash the full power and potential of open data.” Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:35 AM

According to the City of Ann Arbor’s log of FOIA requests submitted between January 2013 and May 2014 519 FOIA requests were submitted to the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s office. Thirty-three of the 519 requests came from The Ann Arbor News and the online news site AnnArborChronicle.com. The A2Indy, launched in October 2013, filed five requests. The Ann Arbor Observer filed no FOIA requests. Fewer than a dozen FOIA requests came from local bloggers. Former Annarbor.com lead blogger Ed Vielmetti is one of those local writers.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported in a September 2013 story about the shuttering of AnnArbor.com and the rebranding of The Ann Arbor News: “To fill that gap, a host of locals have themselves become self-styled news ‘organizations’—like Julie Weatherbee, who has become known for live-tweeting city council meetings twice a month, as well as other local events.

FOIA“Edward Vielmetti is a longtime Ann Arbor blogger and Arborwiki editor who, for about 18 months, was lead blogger for AnnArbor.com. (His position was cut during an earlier round of reorganization and shrinking.) Vielmetti, on his own initiative, leveraged his strong network and became a go-to source of local news. People ‘feed me information, either directly via email or via @ messages on Twitter,’ he wrote via email.” Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:27 AM

Every morning, the first waking task most humans perform is checking email or the latest updates on their social media accounts. For developers, that initial daily fix is GitHub, the social coding platform that has captured the hearts of millions of hackers and tech enthusiasts around the world.

The social network for professional developers and everyday hackers aims to bring distributed, open collaborations to the world, one repository at a time, and it's beginning to find its way into government. Founded in 2008 by P.J. Hyett, Chris Wanstrath and Tom Preston-Werner, the San Francisco-based company claims 6 million people have created more than 13 million repositories to date on its platform.

With an ever-growing population of users, an aggressive expansion of features and more than $100 million in venture capital funding, GitHub is going beyond just a tool for the tech elite and is poised to be Silicon Valley's next big public offering. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:25 AM

As part of its regular social media routine, the District of Columbia Council’s official Twitter feed periodically links to obscure or odd provisions of the D.C. Code, like rules governing jostling rights: “Jostle away, but only if a breach of the peace may NOT be occasioned,” the Council’s Twitter feed informed its followers in June.

It may not seem like a big milestone, but the fact that D.C. Council staffers — or anyone for that matter — can simply link to a specific section of the D.C. Code is cause for celebration in digital circles. Until relatively recently, permalinking, which has been a routine Internet function for years, had been out of reach for those working with the D.C. Code.

While information portals like Westlaw and LexisNexis — the latter of which hosts the District government’s law code — are paid to be repositories for local government information, their platforms routinely frustrate Web developers, public officials and open government advocates. In some cases, because of their contractual obligations, local governments are prohibited from releasing the raw data of their jurisdiction’s official law code, legislation and regulations, which can limit access to public information. Continue>>>
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July 7, 2014 5:58 AM

A friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago about my libertarian opinion on these committees that were recently passed by the Rio Rancho Governing Body. It was said that the committees were created in the name of open government between the city and the public, and they offer protection from rolling quorums. It was also said that these committees add a layer of bureaucracy while offering only the illusion of protection.

It is true that they offer only an illusion of protection, but only because the Open Meetings Act offers an illusion of transparency. Even the city attorney must admit to this as she herself stated that it takes a level of “self-policing” on the part of governing body members in order to avoid a rolling quorum.

If you happen to be a councilor’s ideological opposite, can you really trust them to “self-police?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken about how laws intended to curtail behavior are never effective for long, if at all. Those who truly desire to take advantage of their power will do so regardless of the law. These committees, if they work at all, will at some point fail when the loopholes are found out, and something new will need to be offered. Continue>>>
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July 7, 2014 5:54 AM

When the Carmel City Council voted to fire the director of its redevelopment commission last year, he simply kept on working. Why the longtime consultant, Les Olds, felt he had the authority to do so is unclear. Whatever the reason, months later he submitted a bill for $34,000 — and under the council’s direction, the city clerk-treasurer refused to pay.

But Carmel’s mayor, Jim Brainard, found a way to slip the money out of the redevelopment commission’s budget without council approval — by using a nonprofit operated by the city. Some council members were outraged, though probably not surprised. It wasn’t the first time Brainard had used a nonprofit agency to push his initiatives past them. Nonetheless, some saw the payout to Olds as a bridge too far. Councilors say the mayor is using a now-powerful nonprofit to “launder” public money. By skirting the government’s usual checks and balances, they say, Brainard is spending public money however he wants.

Brainard, a lawyer, says it’s all perfectly legit. And, while council leaders agree, they say they’ve had enough of it. “We are the poster child for bad behavior,” said Councilor Luci Snyder, head of the city’s finance committee. “And it’s because we have money and somebody says ‘figure out a way where I could get this money laundered.’ We are the poster child for stretching the limits of what is doable. We operate in the gray areas — and you have to save us from ourselves.” Continue>>>
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July 7, 2014 5:52 AM

One of the standard criticisms of Edward Snowden is that he should have tried harder to air his concerns via proper channels. This is fairly laughable on its face, since even now the NSA insists that all its programs were legal and it continues to fight efforts to change them or release any information about them. Still, maybe Snowden should have tried. What harm could it have done?

Today, Greg Miller of the Washington Post tells us the story of Jeffrey Scudder, who worked in the CIA’s Historical Collections Division. This is a division explicitly set up to look for old documents that can be safely released to the public. Scudder discovered thousands of documents he thought should be released, and he worked diligently through channels to make this happen. When that ran into repeated roadblocks, he eventually decided to try to force the CIA's hand—legally, openly—by filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act:

Scudder’s FOIA submissions fell into two categories: one seeking new digital copies of articles already designated for release and another aimed at articles yet to be cleared. He made spreadsheets that listed the titles of all 1,987 articles he wanted, he said, then had them scanned for classified content and got permission to take them home so he could assemble his FOIA request on personal time. Continue>>>
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CIA, Federal Government
July 7, 2014 5:51 AM

A St. Clair County judge dismissed part of a lawsuit seeking to remove East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks from office but could fine the city for allegedly violating state Sunshine laws.

The legal fight began in May 2013 when Matt Hawkins, president of watchdog group Civic Alliance of East St. Louis, filed a lawsuit against city leaders alleging violations of the state’s Freedom of Information Act and a state law dictating the administration of tax increment financing districts.

Earlier this week, St. Clair County Associate Judge Chris Kolker dismissed Hawkin’s attempt to remove Parks from office, and in a ruling found the city may be penalized for allegedly not following the state’s FOIA. Hawkins said the FOIA-related ruling was a “great victory” and he was pleased the court upheld the law. Continue>>>
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July 7, 2014 5:50 AM

Aaron Swartz was a programmer, a hacker, a freedom of information activist — and a casualty of suicide. Before he turned 20, Swartz had made a fortune for his work on the social news website Reddit. He also was instrumental in founding the nonprofit Creative Commons, and later worked on the successful campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act that was taken up by Congress in 2012.

Just a year later, when he was 26 years old, Swartz hanged himself in his apartment. At the time, he was fighting federal prosecution for illegally downloading millions of pages of articles from the academic database JSTOR. He faced charges of wire and computer fraud and possibly years in federal prison.

Aaron Swartz co-authored RSS and founded the company that later became the social media website Reddit. That case and Swartz's life are the subjects of a new documentary, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that the details of the federal case against Swartz are still hazy. Continue>>>
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Aaron Swartz, hacker, reddit
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