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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April 28, 2014 8:13 AM

After the National Day of Civic Hacking drew 11,000 participants last June, lead sponsor Intel decided to take a deeper look at a few promising applications. The goal, according to Brandon Barnett, director of business innovation at Intel Labs, is to conduct practical experiments on how innovation takes place in and across business teams, and to see how large datasets can be used as fuel for new products and services.

Intel's is turning the spotlight on six projects in its Data Services Accelerator, an incubator of open data projects. OMG Transit uses open data from public transportation services to give users end-to-end navigation without using a car. The Disaster Recovery Assistance Tool connects first responders to residents in crisis situations. Purple Binder connects individuals with a range of social service providers, to match needs with available offerings. Public Good Software builds platforms that help organizations connect with and maximize the efforts of donors and volunteers.

The projects are quite different from one another, but a common thread is that they look at social or business problems addressed by large-scale institutions and structures, and look to disrupt them through crowdsourcing and data. Continue>>>
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Civic Hacking, Intel
April 28, 2014 8:11 AM

The sentencing of former Bell, California, city manager Robert Rizzo to 12 years in state prison after being found guilty of 69 charges of public corruption underscores the critical need for local government transparency and advocacy of a culture of ethics within local organizations, according to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and its official California state affiliate, CAL-ICMA.

As a result of the Bell salary scandal, the ICMA Executive Board publicly censured and expelled Rizzo from membership on December 11, 2010. The board found that Rizzo personally benefitted from the misuse of city funds; failed in his fiduciary responsibility to ensure that public funds were legally and properly used for the public's benefit; did not fully and accurately disclose his compensation in a transparent manner; and failed in his obligation to ensure that city matters were transparent and fully communicated to the council and public.

To maintain public confidence and trust, ICMA members are expected to adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct. The 2010 action to publicly censure and expel Rizzo was the strongest action available to the ICMA Board, which considered the case following a thorough investigation by the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct. Continue>>>
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April 28, 2014 8:10 AM

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) is a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) resource for the public and the government. Congress has charged us with reviewing FOIA policies, procedures and compliance of Federal agencies and to recommend changes to FOIA based on what we see. Our mission also includes resolving FOIA disputes between Federal agencies and requesters.

OGIS is a place where anyone can ask for FOIA assistance. In other words we also serve as the FOIA ombudsman -- answering questions, tracking suggestions and providing information. See something we should know about? Have a suggestion to improve FOIA? Continue>>>
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April 28, 2014 8:05 AM

The Chicago Tribune reports that advisers to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel were closely involved with the development of certain scenes in CNN's "Chicagoland" documentary, which aired its final eighth episode Thursday evening.

After obtaining hundreds of email exchanges between the documentary's producers and City Hall staffers through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the newspaper has learned that the mayor's office helped craft Chicagoland plotlines and set up shots of Emanuel. The mayor's team also looked over releases sent to the press to formally announce the "Chicagoland" series, which CNN had advertised as non-scripted.

The email exchanges, however, reveal that the series' producers did not always get the behind-the-scenes footage of the mayor they requested. A good deal of the access to the mayor was organized by Emanuel's team, which "eternally frustrated" Marc Levin, Chicagoland's creator and executive producer, the Tribune reported. Continue>>>
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April 28, 2014 8:04 AM

Come June, you can send a message about transparency. Vote yes on Prop. 42. Tell local governments it's their responsibility to build -- and pay for -- a culture of openness. You can also strip from Gov. Jerry Brown, and any of his successors, the ability to gut the public records act by cooking up another cockamamie, disingenuous scheme to turn out the lights.

When Brown wanted to make the transparency law a "best practice," or an option, for local governments last year, he and his legislative minions claimed it was about money. Under the principle of state mandate, state pay, Sacramento is supposed to reimburse local governments for complying with state laws. But reimbursements for PRA and open meeting law compliance are already nonexistent. Just because state government is supposed to pay doesn't mean it does.

The more cynical among us saw something else: a play to make government harder to access and understand. Brown and his crew eventually backed down after a shock wave of criticism. Now, Prop. 42 can end this silly "who pays for it?" issue and California voters can ensure transparency going forward, even though the PRA remains a weak law riddled with loopholes. Prop. 42 won't remove those loopholes, or force self-interested bureaucrats to take transparency seriously. What it will do really is keep things from getting worse. It won't change that California is full of two-faced leaders when it comes to open and ethical government. Continue>>>
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April 28, 2014 8:02 AM

Your teenage son is walking through his Arizona neighborhood, on a sidewalk perhaps 50 feet from the fence that separates us from Mexico. He is visiting his brother at work. Some kids begin throwing rocks across the fence at Mexican border guards. Your son tries to evade the confrontation.

The Mexican border guards respond with gunfire, shooting through the fence to the U.S. side. Your son is killed, shot 10 times in the back and head. Everyone else runs safely away. Witnesses say your son was not involved.

And there is a video camera in Mexico that recorded exactly what happened. Would you want the Mexican government to turn over a copy of that video? Continue>>>
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Arizona, immigration, Mexico
April 28, 2014 8:01 AM

The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking public release of the secret Red Team report. After two false starts and a billion dollars down the drain, the National Nuclear Security Administration is seeking to re-start its plan for a multi-billion dollar nuclear weapons production plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, with a “Red Team” plan that is shrouded in secrecy. The Red Team, formed in January 2014 at the behest of NNSA Administrator Bruce Held, conducted tours of the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, were briefed on uranium operation there during the month of March, and provided a report to Held on April 15.

The secrecy surrounding the Red Team is almost complete—the only thing known about the team is the name of its leader, Dr. Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge. The names of other members of the team have not been disclosed to the public.

“The National Environmental Policy Act requires the government to conduct a public process before undertaking major federal actions. That process requires hearings, provides an opportunity for public comment, and requires the government to respond to those comments,” said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. Continue>>>
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Oak Ridge, TCOG, Tennessee
April 24, 2014 7:48 AM

The Freedom of Information Act is widely viewed as a successful piece of legislation that helps increase government transparency. But if Missouri State Rep. Jay Houghton (R) has his way, residents of his state will soon have significantly less access to the financial and health records of Missouri’s meat and agriculture businesses.

Houghton is the author of Missouri House Bill 2094. Under Houghton’s bill, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking information about animal and environmental health records from food providers in the state would legally be denied.

Specifically, HB 2094 would block access to data collected under the Animal Traceability Program (ATP). The ATP was enacted for the specific purpose of tracking down the spread and origins of diseases in livestock and agriculture crops. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:46 AM

A Charleston attorney predicts the state Supreme Court’s ruling will have a “chilling effect” on West Virginia’s residents seeking public documents through FOIA requests.

The 4-1 ruling, issued April 10, effectively clears the way for government organizations to charge hourly fees to fulfill requests for public documents filed through the Freedom of Information Act.

It began with a $25 hourly fee the City of Nitro started charging business owners Richard and Lorinda Nease for the retrieval of five years’ worth of records as part of a storm drainage dispute. The Neases challenged that fee.

The state’s FOIA law does allow government organizations to establish fees for the “actual cost in making reproductions,” which Kanawha County Circuit Judge Charles King took to mean the cost of copying the documents. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:44 AM

After deliberating for months, late last week the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of climate scientist Michael Mann in his quest to maintain the privacy of his emails against a Virginia legislator and conservative think tank that sought to access his records using Virginia’s freedom of information laws.

As I wrote last month, the trial and the court’s verdict, has bigger ramifications than the privacy of Mann, who is perhaps best known for charting the “hockey stick graph,” a plot of temperatures demonstrating an uptick in warming. Organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 17 news organizations, including National Public Radio, Dow Jones, and The Washington Post, submitted an amicus brief in November, supporting the group’s rights to Mann’s emails, on the grounds that such a verdict would protect broad freedom of information laws.

Instead, the high court ruled that while Mann’s business emails are a matter of public record, personal emails—including correspondence with other scientists—constituted proprietary information, therefore exempt from FOIA laws. It’s a win for both Mann and fellow scientists employed by public universities—who say they have increasingly faced public information requests that can be cherry picked to discredit their research and interrupt their studies. Peter Fontaine, Mann’s lawyer, called the verdict “a strong affirmation of science and those who conduct it,” while Michael Halpern, a program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organization designed to help researchers deal with paper trail blockades to their research, welcomed the verdict as a shield against undue inquiries that might impede scientists. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:43 AM

A bill that would bring greater transparency to California’s century-old ballot initiative system was approved on Tuesday, April 22, by lawmakers on the State Senate’s Elections Committee. The Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, SB1253, authored by Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D – Sacramento) was approved on a 4-to-1 vote and moves forward to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

“California’s commitment to direct democracy through its illustrious initiative process has given citizens a powerful voice in state governance and has enabled the people of California to outflank the corporate self-interests of billion-dollar industries like Big Tobacco” said Senator Steinberg. “This bill offers the system greater transparency and greater collaboration, strengthening our direct democracy for another century to come.”

The measure would give voters more comprehensive information on ballot initiatives, requiring the Secretary of State to post on a website an easy-to-understand summary of the initiative, as well as a regularly updated listing of the ten donors who have contributed the most money to campaigns in support and opposition of the initiative. In addition, once the proponents have collected 25 percent of the necessary signatures to place a measure on the ballot, Senate and Assembly committees will hold public hearings on the proposed initiative at least 131 days prior to the election. Proponents will also be allowed to withdraw a proposed initiative from the ballot at any time before it qualifies for the ballot, even if that occurs after signatures have been submitted for certification. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:42 AM

When it comes to having an open-and-transparent government that is accountable to the people, Florida truly leads the nation. Since the Florida Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was enacted in 1967, Florida has served as a model for other states.

In a world where technological advancements have introduced even more material into the public record, we continue to be on the cutting edge of reforms.

As president of the Florida League of Cities — an organization that serves as a united voice for Florida’s municipal governments — I understand that all levels of government are accountable to the people. That’s why I was pleased to learn that improving government accountability and efficiency was part of the 2014 joint legislative agenda established by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Continue>>>
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