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 19, 2013 10:56 AM

From The Atlantic Wire:  A couple of weeks ago, it looked like the federal government would (finally) start releasing what amounts to thousands of pages of documents pertaining to the Secret Service's investigation into Aaron Swartz. But on Thursday, MIT stepped in with a motion to delay the release of those documents. Swartz, the internet and open information activist who died earlier this year, was the subject of a federal case after he downloaded in bulk from the JSTOR academic database, using a computer set up in a utility closet on MIT's campus. The university seems to think that the pending FOIA request for the file could expose the identities of employees who assisted in the prosecution of the activist.

The FOIA request for Swartz's file comes from reporter Kevin Poulsen, who ended up suing for access after his public information request was denied by the Department of Homeland Security (that's the parent organization of the Secret Service). And then, in July, a judge ordered the department to "promptly" begin the release of documents that promise to give the public a lot more information on the investigation leading to the federal case against the activist. That release was supposed to begin tomorrow. Now, the process is delayed once more. 

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July 19, 2013 10:46 AM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week.

While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

Toledo mayor refuses to release a police department gang-turf map

In the face of political criticism during a tough election year and despite near-condemnation from a First Amendment expert, Mayor Mike Bell dug in his heels Thursday and refused to release a police department gang-turf map. In a 2-1 decision dated Friday, the 6th District Court of Appeals in Toledo had concluded the gang map is not exempt from disclosure under Ohio public-records law and ordered the city to turn it over to The Blade within 10 days.

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Oklahoma Corporation Commission to determine phone records privacy on a case-by-case basis

State regulators will determine the confidentiality of telecommunications companies' records on a case-by-case basis in an effort to balance the interests of consumers and of the telecom firms, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission decided Thursday. The three-member commission, which regulates utilities and the oil and gas industry, voted 2-1 to dismiss a proposal to make a general determination about what records would be kept confidential and out of the public's eye while still complying with the Oklahoma Open Records Act. Commissioner Bob Anthony ... said that while the law authorizes the quasi-judicial commission to keep trade secrets and certain records confidential, he saw nothing in the law that authorizes commissioners to issue protective orders to keep a company's proprietary information secret.

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Arkansas Secretary of State legal action questioned

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by blogger Matt Campbell took a twist this week that could spell trouble for Secretary of State Mark Martin. Campbell filed a lawsuit in June to compel Martin’s office to comply with a document request. Martin’s office supplied some copies of the documents Campbell was seeking, but provided them in PDF format not in the original Word format in the request. Martin, a Republican, and Campbell, who describes his blog as “unabashedly progressive, populist, and liberal” have a long history of antagonism regarding FOIA requests and ensuing spats over information disclosure.

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Second Amendment Foundation sues City of Seattle over withheld public records

The Second Amendment Foundation today filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle, alleging that the city did not fully comply with a request for documents relating to January’s gun buyback under the Public Records Act. According to SAF Special Projects Director Philip Watson, the foundation asked for all communications and other related documents in February under the PRA, and in return received more than 1,500 electronically reproduced e-mails between five people on Mayor Mike McGinn’s staff. Allegedly missing were other communications, notes and meeting agendas, including an e-mail exchange with, and regarding, Seattle gun rights activist Ralph Fascitelli.

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Open meetings, records act seminar slated for Kansas communities

The Kansas Attorney General's Office, Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, Kansas Press Association and Kansas Newspaper Foundation are making stops around the state next week, including one Monday in Garden City, to offer training seminars on the Kansas Open Meetings and Kansas Open Records acts. ... KPA participants will be Garden City Telegram Editor-Publisher Dena Sattler, who is the president of the KPA Board of Directors; Brian McCauley, Miami County Republic; Tomari Quinn, editor and director of audience development for the Topeka Capital-Journal; Tim Carpenter, Capital-Journal Statehouse bureau chief; Andrew Nash, Pittsburg Morning Sun managing editor; Sharon Friedlander, Colby Free Press publisher; and KPA Executive Director Doug Anstaett.

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Survey finds U.S. counties leading the way with open government, citizen engagement and transparency

The Center for Digital Government (CDG) and the National Association of Counties (NACo) have announced the 2013 Digital Counties Survey winners. The annual survey recognizes leading examples of counties using technology to improve services and efficiency. Here's a look at the first-place winners.

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Willows publisher wins appeal in school district public records case

Tim Crews, a grizzled, hell-raising country publisher, is off the hook for $56,595 he was ordered by a Glenn County judge to pay to attorneys who defended a school district he sued. Contrary to the judge's ruling that the lawsuit was frivolous, three justices of the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento found Wednesday that it "lacked merit but was not frivolous." "Consequently, we reverse the award of attorney fees and costs to the district," the appellate panel ruled in a 20-page published opinion. The decision brought the Willows-based Sacramento Valley Mirror back from the brink of extinction. Crews would not have been able to pay the fees, and his newspaper would have folded.

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Records request unleashes cross-(Washington)-state criticism

... The Association of Washington Cities (AWC) made “relief from harassing and abusive public records requests” a top priority in Olympia this year, citing claims of prison inmates and others filing requests just to harass officials at great expense to taxpayers. The resulting House Bill 1128 would have allowed agencies to determine on their own whether a specific public records request was indeed just harassment. And it would have allowed them to sue citizens to stop asking. Open government advocates rallied hard to stop it, and did, but expect that the fight is not over. To prepare for it, the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) is asking agencies for records that show just how big a burden records request are. They filed public records requests via email, including one sent to Coulee Dam’s town clerk on July 4.

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South Carolina Supreme Court allows radio host's public records lawsuit to proceed

A radio host’s 2009 public records lawsuit will get another look after the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case ... The lawsuit stems from a 2009 public records request made by Rocky Disabato seeking documents that showed discussion between the South Carolina Association of School Administrators and then-Gov. Mark Sanford about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, as well as telephone records. The association stated it was exempt from the state’s public records law because it is a nonprofit corporation ...

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July 18, 2013 9:55 AM

From The Denver Post: Denver just opened the book on its finances.

The city and county of Denver launched "Transparent Denver" on Wednesday afternoon, a website displaying city finances that before were only available through public-records requests and deeper digging.

"It's meant to do a lot of things for our citizens," Mayor Michael Hancock said. "The goal is to build trust and transparency with the public."

The site displays the city's financial reports, investments, residential- and business-property records, and city-owned properties for sale.

It features a checkbook so citizens can see how the city is spending its tax dollars.

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July 18, 2013 9:50 AM

From San Jose Mercury News:  A state Court of Appeal has ruled that a small-town California newspaper publisher does not have to pay legal fees to a school board he sued over his public records request —a decision hailed by First Amendment advocates as a victory for government transparency.

A loss in the case could have chilled the public and journalists from challenging government agencies that are withholding documents sought under California's Public Records Act, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition (FAC). He said that fear of being hit with legal fees could deter people from suing to obtain public records.

"This has reaffirmed that people have a right, if they are denied public records, to go to court and try to get that decision reversed and as long as it's in good faith you won't be in the disastrous position of having to pay the government's legal fees," said Scheer. "Had it gone the other way, all bets would have been off."

FAC organized the appeal and, with one of its board members, underwrote the paper's legal expenses.

First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds.

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July 18, 2013 9:44 AM

From Miami Herald:  Public bodies in South Carolina cannot use the Freedom of Information Act to justify decisions not to release records or hold open meetings, the state's highest court ruled Wednesday.

In a 3-2 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that a circuit judge should not have allowed the South Carolina Association of School Administrators to argue that open records requirements harmed its members' free speech rights.

[...]

Jay Bender, a media attorney who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the South Carolina Press Association, applauded the ruling as a victory for open records supporters.

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July 18, 2013 9:39 AM

From Courthouse News Service:  A federal judge may shine a light on foreign dictatorships that have imported illegal surveillance and jamming technology from the United States.

Events from the so-called Arab Spring show that Middle Eastern dictators have used Western technology to quash uprisings, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit digital watchdog group, has said.

To understand how and why despots get access to U.S. surveillance and filtering devices, the EFF has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Commerce for years regarding the licensing of these technologies outside the United States.

The group says that the agency admitted in a separate FOIA response that it had granted licenses for the export of "surreptitious listening" devices - unavailable to the public in the U.S. - to Syria, Jordan, Gabon, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Iraq and Mexico.

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July 18, 2013 9:31 AM

From inewsource:  In the midst of an inewsource investigation and with state and federal agencies eyeing its practices, the North County Transit District is considering a policy change that would direct employees to delete certain emails after 60 days.

NCTD currently keeps emails, which often are important documentation of official public business, for two years. The NCTD board is scheduled to vote on the matter Thursday, and it comes at a key point in the agency’s accountability.

[...]

inewsource has submitted dozens of CPRAs over the course of the last six months to obtain NCTD documents — some of which were emails sent or received by staff members and board members. By doing so, inewsource was able to shed light on the SPRINTER shutdown, high staff turnover, severance agreements, headhunter fees, audits, and a number of other issues that have made up the bulk of the more than 20 stories since February.

This new policy would change all of that.

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July 17, 2013 11:51 AM

From CharlotteObserver.com:  A Charlotte attorney contends in a lawsuit that one of the nation’s largest public hospital chains, Carolinas HealthCare System, has violated the state public records law by keeping secret the terms of a legal settlement.

Carolinas HealthCare, the multibillion-dollar system that runs Carolinas Medical Center and more than 30 other hospitals, won a confidential settlement in a court complaint that it filed against the former Wachovia Bank.

The new suit by attorney Gary Jackson maintains that Carolinas HealthCare has no legal right to keep the settlement confidential – an argument that the hospital system disputes.

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July 17, 2013 11:36 AM

From NewsRadio WTAX:  A man suing the city for the release of internal police files has won — again.

Calvin Christian sued the city to release internal affairs files regarding a 2011 request. Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled the city could not keep secret police documents, other than to redact names, birthdates, social security numbers and other personal information. Video interviews, the judge ruled, must be transcribed and redacted accordingly.

The ruling follows a previous ruling from a different judge that internal police files must be released.

Christian says this sets a precedent.

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July 17, 2013 11:32 AM

From Louisiana Record:  A man whose motion for attorney’s fees was denied by a district court has won an appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit involving his case against the IRS.

After being audited in November 2006 by the IRS, appellant Mark Batton filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the IRS. Nearly a year later, in September 2007, Batton sued after not receiving any response. Subsequently, the Open Government Act took effect, allowing for awards to be issued for attorney’s fees when parties “substantially prevailed.”

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July 16, 2013 9:43 AM

From MuckRock:   Jason Leopold has used the Freedom of Information Act to break a number of major stories, from the drugging of Department of Defense detainees to the Biblical justifications the Air Force used for nuclear war to a drawn-out battle with the FBI over Occupy Wall Street documents.

So Jason was a natural for kicking off the return of our Requester's Voice, and he very graciously shared how he got involved in using FOIA in the first place, and what his secret is in shaking documents loose from bureaucracies that seem built to avoid disclosure at all costs (Follow Jason on Twitter and his articles here).

MuckRock: You call yourself a "FOIA terrorist." What does that mean, and why is FOIA such a central part of what you do?

Jason Leopold: Actually, "FOIA terrorist" is the term that was used to describe me by a certain government agency that was apparently annoyed by the number of FOIA requests and appeals I had filed. I found out about it during a phone call with a FOIA analyst (who has since become an important open government source for me) who said he saw an email from his boss that said, "the FOIA terrorist strikes again. We just got two dozen new requests from him." I actually liked the term because it made me feel that I was doing my job and doing it well if it meant I was angering government officials.

See the rest of the interview here.

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July 16, 2013 9:27 AM

From The City Wire:   A Freedom of Information Act request filed with Secretary of State Mark Martin's office on June 2 has partially been fulfilled, but not before a lawsuit was filed to compel Martin's office to turn over the documents in electronic format.

The suit, filed on July 1 by attorney and liberal blogger Matt Campbell of the Blue Hog Report, sought a court order to force Martin's office to turn over documents related to another lawsuit by two former State Capitol police officers, who claim to have been wrongfully terminated from their positions. The former officers have also made claims of racial discrimination in the suits against Martin's office.

The documents were requested in electronic format, though Martin's press secretary, Alex Reed, has attempted to provide some of the documents in physical form.

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