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 12, 2014 10:13 PM

A bill making the University of Delaware and Delaware State University subject to more public scrutiny has been released from a House committee, but with an amendment that guts the intent of the bill and may even weaken existing open-government provisions.

The bill discussed Thursday revises Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act to remove an exemption for the two schools, which receive millions of dollars in taxpayer money each year but are mostly exempt from open records and open meetings laws.

Previous efforts to end the FOIA exemption have failed. And an amendment to the current bill crafted by Democratic House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst adds new conditions to the current law that give the university more leeway in deciding whether to disclose information about spending state funds. Continue>>>
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June 12, 2014 10:12 PM

Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL-03) offered an amendment to a bill that was accepted by voice, which would prohibit any money to be used to mandate any type of government GPS location device on personal vehicles.

The amendment was to H.R. 4745 - Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2015 (THUD), in which Yoho voted in favor of. 


“My amendment protects individuals privacy and avoids the slippery slope of government knowing where you are at all times,” said Yoho. “Government surveillance has run rampant and this is just another check against any infringement on your personal liberties.
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June 9, 2014 7:09 AM

Two years ago government watchdog Judicial Watch submitted a Freedom of Information Act request surrounding materials about Operation Fast and Furious to the Department of Justice. At the time, DOJ officials failed to respond, so Judicial Watch sued. Because of the ongoing conflict between the House Oversight Committee and the Department of Justice, a judge granted a brief stay preventing a FOIA lawsuit from moving forward. That stay was issued 18 months ago.

Now, after two years of that "brief" stay, stonewalling and non-response, Judicial Watch has asked for the stay to be lifted. Further, Judicial Watch is asking the Department of Justice to provide documentation and explanation about why they're refusing to turn over documents outlined in the original FOIA request.

"Although the Department and the Court may have anticipated that the stay of proceedings would be temporary and brief, it has become anything but that. In three weeks, it will have been two years since Judicial Watch sent its FOIA request, more than 21 months since Judicial Watch filed its lawsuit, and 16 months since the Court stayed the proceedings," a submitted request states. "There is no dispute that Judicial Watch has a statutory right to request and receive all non-exempt records responsive to its FOIA request." Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 7:07 AM

Federal agencies should do more to cooperate with the government's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ombudsman, according to recommendations approved June 5 by the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS). The recommendations also called for the ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), to continue efforts to assist people who make FOIA requests. The recommendation is a positive step for helping people access public information under FOIA.

Created by the OPEN Government Act of 2007, OGIS serves two functions in the FOIA system. First, OGIS works to assist individuals with their FOIA requests, including offering non-binding mediation to resolve disputes about an agency's decision. In addition, OGIS reviews agencies' FOIA performance and compliance, a role that OGIS has so far only done in a limited fashion but is poised to expand.

In developing the recommendations, ACUS studied OGIS's dispute resolution and request facilitation work. ACUS generally backed the approach that OGIS has taken to date but also called for OGIS to consider issuing advisory opinions – a power granted to the office by the law, but which OGIS has yet to exercise. Such opinions could be a useful way to call attention to FOIA issues and steer agencies toward improved performance. Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 7:05 AM

All over the world, groups and individuals are using technology in a variety of innovative ways to increase government transparency, fight corruption, open data, hack on civic problems, strengthen economic development, address environmental problems, improve public health and education, and advance the conditions of women and children.

Our name for this trend is "We-government" or "WeGov" for short. Unlike the older practice of e-government, where public agencies are in the driver's seat and use tech to tell citizens what officials want them to know, allow them to upload required information, and invite input but only on government's terms, WeGov is what happens when citizens and NGOs take fuller advantage of tech's affordances to create (and sometimes co-create, with government's involvement) new and better approaches to providing and using vital public information and services.

techPresident's WeGov vertical is where we cover the people, projects, trends and ideas that are shaping this emerging space with a mix of in-depth feature reporting, daily news digests, and the development of a growing archive of articles, modules and pointers to other valuable resources. Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 7:03 AM

PDF14 Day Two

  • "We can’t build a democracy for the people, by the people without all the people," said Noel Hidalgo, founder of the country's largest open government and civic tech meetup, BetaNYC.
  • That includes government people. Matthew Burton, a long time civil servant, reinforced the view that government needs young talent. Burton challenged us with rethinking government -- not as an alien entity that works against us but as a public product: "You can’t expect a government to work for you unless you yourself do the work of government."
  • The UK government's executive director of digital Mike Bracken works on delivering world class digital services to British citizens. Why? Because "services underpin democracy," he said. When frustration builds over delayed phone lines and long lines, people lose trust in the government. Much like positive "microaffirmations" build up digital movements, as activist and artist An Xiao Mina pointed out yesterday, a cumulation of negative "microaffirmations" tears down trust. He pointed to President Barack Obama's disastrous HealthCare.gov launch as a case in point.
  • Our own Andrew Rasiej observed, it's an example of what happens when you "build government up instead of tearing it down." Check out more in our post.
  • While campaigns like "Reset the Net" show us how to save the Internet, how does the Internet Save? Continue>>>

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June 9, 2014 7:02 AM

In a win for government transparency, a slew of strong new appointments for a city government watchdog group cleared their first round of approvals yesterday.

Society of Professional Journalists appointees Mark Rumold and Ali Winston, League of Women Voters appointee Allyson Washburn, and Attorney Lee Hepner were confirmed by the rules committee as appointments to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. That recommendation is now headed to the full Board of Supervisors for approval. "Make no mistake, the people want open government," Thomas Peele, co-chair of SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee told city supervisors at the rules committee. "As Justice Brandeis said: 'Sunshine is the best disenfectant.'"

The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force was formed in the '90s, and tasked with policing transparency laws granting interested citizens (and journalists) access to government records. Emails, policy documents, and research are all openly accessible to the public under the city's Sunshine Ordinance -- but someone has to make sure city government plays by the rules. That's where the task force comes in. Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 7:00 AM

Last month, web designer Sean Wittmeyer and colleague Wojciech Magda walked away with a $25,000 prize from the state of Colorado for designing an online tool to help businesses decide where to locate in the state.

The tool, called "Beagle Score," is a widget that can be embedded in online commercial real estate listings. It can rate a location by taxes and incentives, zoning, even the location of possible competitors -- all derived from about 30 data sets posted publicly by the state of Colorado and its municipalities.

The creation of Beagle Score is an example of how states, cities, counties and the federal government are encouraging entrepreneurs to take raw government data posted on "open data" websites and turn the information into products the public will buy. Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 6:59 AM

Yesterday I filed a lawsuit against the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department. I intend to persuade the government to release records that will reveal how it dealt with the imprisonment of Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and myself in Iran from 2009 to 2011. The three of us were arrested near the Iranian border while on a hike in Iraq's Kurdish region, which we were visiting on a short trip from Sarah's and my home in Damascus. Sarah remained in prison for 13 months, and Josh and I for twice as long. For the two years that I was in prison, I wondered constantly what my government was doing to help us. I still want to know.

But my interest in these records is more than personal. Innocent Americans get kidnapped, imprisoned, or held hostage in other countries from time to time. When that happens, our government must take it very seriously. These situations cannot be divorced from politics; they are often extremist reactions to our foreign policy. Currently, Americans are being detained in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Cuba, and other countries.

What does our government do when civilians are held hostage? Sarah's, Josh's, and my family, like others in similar situations, were regularly assured by our leaders—all the way up to the Secretary of State and the President—that they were doing everything they could, but our families were rarely told what that meant. Why is this information so secret, even after the fact? It is important to know how the government deals with such crises. Is there a process by which the government decides whether or not to negotiate with another country or political group? How does it decide which citizens to negotiate for and which not to? Are the reassurances the government gives to grieving families genuine, or intended to appease them? Do branches of government cooperate with each other, or work in isolation? Continue>>>
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June 9, 2014 6:57 AM

A state watchdog group says Philadelphia City Council willfully ignored Pennsylvania’s open-meetings law this past week by gathering behind closed doors — not once, but twice.

On Wednesday, a majority of City Council members met behind a locked door in the office of City Council president Darrell Clarke (top photo). Clarke emerged later and admitted they were discussing city business — specifically, how to come up with more taxpayer dollars for the school district. But Clarke insisted the session did not violate the state Sunshine Act because council members broke up into smaller groups in separate areas within his office.

Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, says even if Clarke’s shuttling tactic didn’t violate the letter of the Sunshine Act, it violated the spirit of the law. Continue>>>
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June 5, 2014 12:32 PM

In its own polite, Midwestern fashion, The Des Moines Register is mad as heck and is not going to take it anymore. After Iowa officials refused to release records showing alleged abuses by state employees, the paper is pursuing dual lawsuits to force the records into public view. In one case, the Register is even suing the state’s new public information board, formed expressly to address years of complaints about records transparency.

The legal moves, coupled with related efforts at coalition-building, are part of an avowedly more assertive posture by the paper to shift the state’s political culture toward openness—a stance that is welcomed by open-government advocates in Iowa, even if its prospects for success are uncertain.

One of the suits, filed against the Iowa Department of Public Safety, seeks police records of an incident last fall in Worth County in which an inmate was Tasered multiple times and died while in custody—a death that the state medical examiner ruled a homicide. The other suit involves a 2012 video that shows an employee at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo slamming a female inmate’s head against a wall; the employee has been fired and the home has been closed, but the state has refused the Register’s requests to release the video on the grounds of protecting the alleged victim’s confidentiality, and the Iowa Public Information Board ruled in the state’s favor by a vote of 6-3 in February. Continue>>>
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June 4, 2014 8:39 AM

California voters handily approved ballot measures Tuesday requiring that local governments pay the cost of making their records and meetings public. Proposition 42, which amends the state constitution to require that governments pay for complying with state transparency laws, led with 60 percent of the vote after 1.8 million ballots counted. It was backed by the state Democratic and Republican parties, taxpayer advocates and labor unions.

Proposition 42 had its origins in a backlash against Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature after they approved a $96.3 billion state budget last year that loosened requirements for local governments to comply with the records and open meeting laws because the state would not reimburse them for the costs. They restored funding and rallied behind Proposition 42 to make sure the episode is never repeated.

Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat who authored the ballot measure, credited bipartisan support and newspaper editorials for the victory. "Apparently California voters greatly value open and transparent government and believe that local agencies do not need a financial incentive to provide it," he said. Continue>>>
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