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 29, 2017 12:45 PM

Nearly two months have passed since the state of Michigan received a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the school pension system. Yet the law requires public entities to take no longer than 15 business days to respond to a request.

That delay doesn't break the law because there is a loophole with FOIA: The law does not specify when documents responsive to a request must actually be released.

The public school pension FOIA was submitted by Mackinac Center for Public Policy on May 26. It asked for the ages of school employees who had been enrolled in the system over a five year period. State officials exercised their option to trigger the 5 and 10 day extensions. On June 13, which was 12 business days after receiving the FOIA request, the state asked for a payment equal to half the estimated cost of searching out these records, which was $219. Continue...

June 29, 2017 12:28 PM

The Library of Congress wants to "rewire" how Americans tap into legislative data.

Library of Congress CIO Bud Barton called for citizen developers to unpack the linear legislative process and remake it in ways that improve  access to and understanding of legislation. Speaking at the  June 27 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, Barton said  that the legislative data application challenge aims to  provide innovation solutions that marry centuries-old data with 21st century technology.

The challenge may result in apps that  change the way legislators do business and provide the public with greater transparency into the legislative process, he said. "It may even provide insights for the people doing the work around the clock, both on the Hill, and in state and district offices," he said. The understanding gained from the apps "could have the power to evolve our democracy," he added. Continue...

 

June 28, 2017 2:48 PM

DeKalb County and the cities within it may not have independent websites for government transparency — such as the site recently created by the city of Atlanta — but they are utilizing a variety of tools to keep their communities involved and informed.

The city of Atlanta recently approved the creation of a Transparent Atlanta website separate from its official site which will allow constituents to review city revenues, expenditures and all city-related financial information.

In DeKalb, no efforts to create entirely separate websites have been launched to-date. However, the county and local city governments have made a number of improvements to their existing websites to increase transparency and create a more user-friendly experience. Continue...

June 28, 2017 1:50 PM

Gov.  Tom Wolf says he will sign a controversial Senate bill that would limit public access to police footage.

Under the bill, police footage (audio and video recordings from both body cameras and dashboard cameras) would become exempt from the state’s public-records law. That means police departments wouldn’t be required to release footage to those whose request it.

The state Senate passed the legislation without debate in a 49-1 vote Tuesday. Wolf says he will OK the bill despite reservations that it could limit transparency. The governor called Senate Bill 560 an “important first step” because it changes state law to enable police departments to use body cameras, specifically in private residences. Continue...

June 28, 2017 12:39 PM

Valdosta Daily Times Editor Jim Zachary received the Associated Press Media Editors Freedom of Information award for the third year in a row Saturday.

Zachary also received awards for best editorial, bringing home both first and third place.

Managing Editor Kristin Patten received a second-place award for best website in the daily newspaper division. Continue...

June 28, 2017 12:20 PM

Next week, the Freedom of Information Act will be 51 years old. July 4th marks the birthday of the law that, for the first time in U.S. history, gave all persons a sweeping right to obtain government records. FOIA may be middle aged, but it is still very relevant. In fact, the advent of the Trump administration gives the law new immediacy. It can be used to open government records (potentially even memoranda to and from the White House) thus assisting citizens in understanding and acting on their lawfulness and policy implications.

This is important because President Donald Trump has, in the first five months of his administration, pushed the limits of executive power. He has used unilateral actions or executive orders to override national laws and policy in areas including immigration limitations, environmental protection and the enactment of updated consumer and worker safety rules. Continue...

June 27, 2017 2:23 PM

Florida lawmakers received a final grade on their support for public-records laws during this year’s legislative session in Tallahassee — a score given by Florida newspapers with information culled by the state’s premier open-government group, the First Amendment Foundation.

Unfortunately, lawmakers’ scores are nothing to boast about to their constituents back home. And South Florida legislators barely made a respectable grade.

For its Sunshine Week project, a nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government, members of the Florida Society of News Editors created a scoring system to grade legislators on their introduction of public-records bills, final votes, and overall support of the Sunshine Law, the oldest state-level open-government law in the country, giving citizens the right to public records. Continue...

June 27, 2017 11:59 AM

When Mayor Eric Garcetti was elected in 2013, one of his major goals was to make Los Angeles a smart city. That very year, he signed a landmark executive directive that established the city’s emphasis on data-driven policy and open data.

Since then, Los Angeles has delivered results on Garcetti’s smart city vision, including the creation of one of the most innovative government data portals and ever-increasing support for data-driven governance within city departments. Lilian Coral, who joined Garcetti’s team in 2015, first as Deputy Chief Data Officer until she was appointed Chief Data Officer last spring, has been integral to taking Los Angeles’ digital efforts to the next level.

Coral oversaw the implementation of the GeoHub, a map-based data portal that connects citywide location data and brings to life data previously stuck in spreadsheets. The portal is an ambitious attempt by the city to build on open data and develop more enterprise-wide solutions to manage the city’s wealth of data. The goal is to spur innovation and increase engagement, internally across city departments and externally with residents and entrepreneurs. Continue...

June 27, 2017 11:47 AM

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing parts of President Trump’s Muslim ban to go into effect, Amnesty International USA this evening filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents showing how federal agencies are planning to implement the ban. Amnesty International is asking the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to provide any information concerning the guidance provided to CBP agents at international airports regarding how arriving passengers will be processed. Agencies are legally obligated to respond to such requests in a timely fashion. Continue...

June 27, 2017 11:25 AM
A group of 31 activist organizations are urging lawmakers to take out language in the fiscal year 2018 defense policy bill that, if enacted, would exempt the Pentagon from releasing certain documents that until now were accessible under the Freedom of Information Act.
 
In a June 26 letter, the organizations call on the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, as well as those committees with jurisdiction over the Freedom of Information Act, to raise concerns that language in the FY-18 defense authorization bill would "undermine the FOIA, creating an unnecessary and overbroad secrecy provision at odds with FOIA's goal of transparency and accountability to the public." Continue...
June 19, 2017 10:18 AM

Score a significant victory for the Fort Smith law firm that's been fighting one battle after another to ensure and preserve freedom of information and transparency in that community.

I've written some lately about attorney Joey McCutchen and his law partner Chip Sexton in their lawsuits involving the Fort Smith School Board alleging Freedom of Information Act violations by holding what amounted to business sessions by email exchanges over several days. During those electronic back-and-forths members discussed who would be best to fill their slate of officers for the coming year. 

Circuit Judge Stephen Tabor in his order the other day found it was undisputed fact that the board unintentionally conducted what amounted to an extended meeting, all without legally required notice to the public.

Then the judge permanently enjoined the board from repeat performances.

I'm proud of McCutchen and Sexton for taking a stand to defend the Freedom of Information Act and what is clearly the right thing. If only all were so committed to important causes that affect all of us.

And they did it all without expectation of personal aggrandizement or enrichment. Although McCutchen is within his rights now to seek legal fees connected with this months-long battle, he was forgoing that option as long as the board agreed to accept the decision without appeal.

Up in Fayetteville, McCutchen and company continue to use the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to review relevant financial records maintained by Springdale's beleaguered Ecclesia College. Just how has that tiny college been spending the public money it's received courtesy of our elected lawmakers?

But the private college's attorneys say they won't permit a review because those records supposedly have been sealed in a protective order by a federal court in the ongoing public corruption criminal case against a former state legislator, a business consultant and Ecclesia's president, Oren Paris III. The other former legislator entangled in the case pleaded guilty in January. Read more...

Arkansas
June 19, 2017 10:08 AM

A public-private agency that promotes Florida’s tourism industry won full funding from the state legislature despite criticism that the state support amounts to corporate welfare.

But the $76 million approved for Visit Florida during a special session of the legislature last week came with stiffer reporting requirements aimed at making the agency’s activities more transparent.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has been critical of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, which doles out taxpayer-funded economic incentives designed to bring more jobs to the Sunshine State.

“As we’ve said, spending more taxpayer money on VISIT FL (or less) has not demonstrated a direct impact on tourism,” Corcoran said in a Twitter post in February.

An earlier version of the state budget that the legislature passed in May slashed funding for Visit Florida to $25 million. But Scott, a strong supporter of promoting tourism, called for a special session to restore full funding to the agency, along with other legislative matters.

“The speaker believes the oversight and accountability measures passed this session will ensure that Visit Florida spends taxpayer dollars appropriately and transparently,” Corcoran’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, told Watchdog.org.

The legislation passed in the special session contains a number of transparency provisions, including a requirement that all the agency’s contracts be placed on the corporation’s website for public viewing, as well as limitations on expenses and matching requirements between public and private contributions. Read more...

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