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 16, 2014 1:22 AM

It was a chilling crime and, even with a quick arrest, disturbing questions lingered.

Derrick Thompson called 911 in the coastal Maine city of Biddeford to report that he was being threatened. Police checked out the complaint, decided it was a civil matter and left the scene. Three minutes later, the teenager and his girlfriend were shot dead.

In a state averaging 25 murders a year, the case was clearly of public interest and the police officers were doing the public's business. But answering questions about their handling of the call took a lawsuit, an appeal and 11 months after state prosecutors turned down the Portland Press Herald's request for 911 transcripts. Continue>>>
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March 16, 2014 12:11 AM

As stated in the preamble to the Brown Act, our state’s open government law: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

In the last few weeks, the city of San Diego has experienced two major failures in providing the public with open and transparent government.

First, the Balboa Park Celebration Inc. committee was given city tax dollars to put together a 2015 centennial celebration. It received $450,000 in 2011 and another $2.3 million in 2013 to stage the event, but there is nothing to celebrate. The committee has nothing to show for all the money spent and is closing its doors and leaving behind a big mess. Worse, when originally asked by the public and media to provide records, they argued they did not have to because they were a private organization. The arrogance of this response was not lost on the public, and litigation was threatened to gain access. The committee finally began providing some records, but only after the threat of litigation. Continue>>>
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March 16, 2014 12:11 AM

As stated in the preamble to the Brown Act, our state’s open government law: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

In the last few weeks, the city of San Diego has experienced two major failures in providing the public with open and transparent government.

First, the Balboa Park Celebration Inc. committee was given city tax dollars to put together a 2015 centennial celebration. It received $450,000 in 2011 and another $2.3 million in 2013 to stage the event, but there is nothing to celebrate. The committee has nothing to show for all the money spent and is closing its doors and leaving behind a big mess. Worse, when originally asked by the public and media to provide records, they argued they did not have to because they were a private organization. The arrogance of this response was not lost on the public, and litigation was threatened to gain access. The committee finally began providing some records, but only after the threat of litigation. Continue>>>
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March 13, 2014 4:55 AM

While former NSA-er Edward Snowden has demonstrated his own particular method to fostering greater government transparency, there are alternate ways that won't require you to seek asylum in a foreign country. One officially sanctioned avenue is by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
FOIA was a 1966 federal law that grants the public and the press access to previously unreleased government information and documents (several states have since enacted their own state-specific Freedom of Information acts).
Annoyingly, given the rapid development of information technology since the 1960s, the process for attaining once-secret documents is not as simplified as it should be. As it stands now, FOIA requests can take several weeks or months to process and each federal department has their own individual (and occasionally labyrinthine) FOIA process. So, there's currently unique and separate processes to find information from agencies like the NSA, the CIA, and the Air Force. Continue>>>
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March 13, 2014 3:44 AM

Just in time for Sunshine Week, the must read document of the week, month, year is out. It’s the “high-altitude electromagnetic pulse” which Senator Dianne Feinstein (previously no foe of the Security State) has just launched at the Central Intelligence Agency. In a Senate floor speech, she accused the Agency of concealing –then deleting– documents that the Senate Intelligence Committee was reviewing about the CIA torture program. Her statement is a must read. Even the Times’ headline “Feinstein Publicly Accuses C.I.A. of Spying on Congress,” is too soft. Read the full statement here.

According to Feinstein, the Agency initially denied that it had removed the torture documents, then blamed the removal on IT staff, and subsequently and untruthfully stated that the removal of some torture documents “was ordered by the White House.”

Additionally, according to Feinstein, the CIA has attempted and failed to suppress the Senate Intelligence Committee’s access to a document she calls the “Panetta Review” of the torture program that largely (and as opposed to Director Brennan) agrees with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings. Continue>>>
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March 13, 2014 2:33 AM

Shortly after his election in 2008, President Obama launched the Open Government Initiative, an effort to increase transparency, participation and collaboration in the federal government. The White House website noted that government data had traditionally been inaccessible to the public:

“For too long, the American people have experienced a culture of secrecy in Washington, where information is locked up, taxpayer dollars disappear without a trace, and lobbyists wield undue influence. For Americans, business as usual in Washington has reinforced the belief that the government benefits the special interests and the well-connected at the expense of the American people.”

The initiative introduced a number of websites to offer raw government data directly to the public. On Data.gov, citizens can access government datasets from a variety of disciplines — from National Science Foundation research grants to the FDIC failed bank list. On USASpending.gov, citizens can download federal spending data by location, year, agency or category — for example, all spending on Department of Defense contracts in 2010. Continue>>>
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March 13, 2014 1:22 AM

Ever wonder what local government does behind closed doors at open meetings? If so, a bill currently being reviewed by state representatives aims to bring more transparency to executive sessions.

The bill was introduced by state Rep. Rick Saccone, a Republican representing Allegheny and Washington counties.
“I talked to people around the state and there’s great support,” Saccone said Wednesday during a public hearing before the House State Government Committee. “Everyone seems to see the need to reform executive session.”

If House Bill 1671 is signed into law, it would amend the Sunshine Act, a law designed to guarantee public access to governmental agency meetings and deliberations. The bill is meant to deter local governmental bodies from holding executive sessions, or closed-door meetings, that don’t fall within the criteria of the Sunshine Act, according to Saccone. Continue>>>
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March 13, 2014 12:11 AM

Legislators in California and Illinois are working on transparency measures that would bring more of the public’s business out in the open. Yesterday, both houses of the Illinois statehouse passed a measure that will require state agencies to ensure that more information gets on to the state transparency portal faster. In California, a package of bills, known as the California Accountability in Public Service, or CAPS Act were proposed.

The Illinois bill currently on the Governor’s desk will not only compel state agencies to release updated information more quickly, it also establishes a position in the governor’s office to go out and collect data from agencies.

The bill is the result of existing open data practices at state agencies which leave a little to be desired. The state has a Transparency and Accountability Portal, but information on there isn’t updated all that frequently even though both parties support greater government transparency. The governor is expected to sign the bill into law shortly. Continue>>>
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March 12, 2014 4:55 AM

The Chicago Police Department can no longer keep misconduct records secret, a state appeals court has ruled.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act doesn’t exempt “CR files,” which consist of misconduct complaints against officers and documents created during the investigations, the court found Monday.

The appeals court also found that “RL” files are open to the public. Those files identify police officers who have accumulated the most misconduct complaints. At issue were two RL files that named officers with the most complaints between 2001-2006 and 2002-2008.

University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman hailed the ruling, saying: “I really do think this is a watershed moment in Illinois in terms of police transparency and accountability.” Continue>>>
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March 12, 2014 3:44 AM

Half of the federal agencies handling the bulk of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are failing at their transparency obligations, a government watchdog group reported Monday.

The Center for Effective Government surveyed the 15 federal agencies handling 90 percent of FOIA requests and found none of them were performing well. No agency earned an overall “A” grade, and seven received failing grades.

“The fact that no agency achieved a top grade across all three areas illustrates the difficulty agencies are having with implementation overall,” Katherine McFate, president of the Center for Effective Government, told McClatchyDC. “Agencies face a variety of challenges, depending on their request loads, the kind of information they manage, and the manpower they have available to do the job. But there is clearly much room for improvement." Continue>>>
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March 12, 2014 2:33 AM

Democracy depends on the informed and active participation of citizens at all levels of government. Democratic governmental bodies must protect a citizen's right to know by giving adequate notice of proposed actions, holding open meetings and making public records accessible. When our right to know is violated, democracy suffers.

The Colorado Sunshine Law provides for the transparent operation of state, county, and local governmental bodies in order to prevent private or secret deliberations and/or voting on matters that are within the public's jurisdiction. In the spirit of open government, the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requires that most public records be available to the public. Both of these laws help to protect our right to know in a democracy.

On Monday, March 24, the League of Women Voters of Larimer County will host a panel discussion on "Transparency in Local Government: Why it is Essential to Democracy." The discussion will be from 7 to 9 p.m. at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Loveland, 3448 N. Taft Ave., and is scheduled to be held in conjunction with National Sunshine Week when communities throughout the country discuss the importance of an open government in a democracy. Continue>>>
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March 12, 2014 1:22 AM

Live, open government data – collated on third-party platforms – can change peoples’ lives profoundly in a wide variety of ways.

According to the UK’s Data.gov website: "The government has made releasing open data a priority because: it makes the government more accountable to citizens and strengthens our democracy (for example, the Department for International Development’s Aid Tracker); it brings us better public services (for example, The Guardian’s GCSE Schools Guide); and it feeds economic and social growth (for example, transport data intermediary Placr)."

The government says it leads the world in open data – but just what does this really mean? As it backtracks to explain its recent move to gather NHS patient data from primary care sources, it is a timely question. Continue>>>
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