FOI Advocate Blog

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 8, 2014 12:03 PM

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu filed an ordinance aimed at providing greater transparency on municipal data. Right now, Boston has an open data portal, but the data on that site only shows information obtained through Freedom of Information Act obligations. The new ordinance would resemble other open data policies in cities nationwide, by disclosing datasets without first requiring a FOIA request.

46 datasets are currently available on the open data portal site but they do little to give the public much information on a city as large and diverse as Boston. The lack of data is surprising given previous transparency efforts under Mayor Menino, not to mention the healthy developer community in Boston and the surrounding metro area.

The proposed ordinance would set up similar open data processes and procedures common to municipalities with one. Boston would have a Data Coordinator role ensuring that datasets are posted and comply with applicable Open Data policies. The coordinator role would also be tasked with creating an open data plan for appropriate agencies including release timelines. Continue>>>
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March 24, 2014 12:58 PM

Massachusetts takes pride in liberal politics and technological prowess. But when it comes to government transparency and using technology to connect citizens with government, Beacon Hill has nothing to be proud of.

The state has had terrible difficulty getting its new Heath Care Connector website working, despite years of experience operating an online health insurance exchange, but that’s a topic for another day.

Putting legislative bills and vote tallies online is a far simpler enterprise, so it’s hard to explain how the state Legislature has failed so miserably, especially as compared to other states.

Through its Open States project, the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for open government, recently put the legislative websites of all 50 states to the test. It evaluated them on completeness, timeliness, ease of access, machine readability, standards and permanence of records, then compiled the scores and gave each state a grade. Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 4:44 AM

The charge that South Burlington failed to publicly announce a gathering of a quorum of city councilors underscores the need for public officials to be far more aware of appearances.

The open meeting controversy brewing in the City Council also offers a cautionary tale for local politicians who must operate in a hyper-partisan environment.

Three city councilors — Pam McKenzie, Chris Shaw, and Pat Nowak — have been accused of violating the state’s open meetings law by attending the launch party for South Burlington’s Energy Committee. Continue>>>
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December 3, 2013 12:55 PM

From New England First Amendment Coalition: The New England Fist Amendment Coalition published its NEFAC Report for November 2013. In this issue: The Diminishing Public View, Barge? What Barge!? Oh, That Barge! Indiegogo Campaign Underway to Fund New England Fist Amendment Institute, and more.

The Diminishing Public View

By Rosanna Cavanagh

Have you noticed lately that it seems we are taking a trip down the rabbit hole when it comes to citizen privacy versus the public's right to know? The new norm has become that we citizens have no reasonable expectation of privacy (witness the NSA's amassing of warehouses of information about us) but the government that we elect and support with our tax dollars has every expectation of privacy and shutting the public out has become the new norm (see the recent report by the international group, the Committee to Protect Journalists). Is this the way a democratic society is supposed to function or have we somehow landed in Alice in Wonderland where everything is flabberghastingly backwards? Shouldn't private citizens have some legitimate expectation of privacy and the government behave in a more open and transparent way?

New England First Amendment Coalition joined 38 other groups, including The Associated Press and the White House News Photographers Association, in the latest challenge to this disturbing trend of the diminishing public view, calling on the White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, to improve their policy towards photojournalists who are continually being denied access to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing seemingly official functions at the White House. "As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist's camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive Branch of government," the letter protests. Meanwhile, the White House has taken to releasing its own photographs of the "private" events on social media, undercutting the contention that the event should be deemed private after all.

Please see NEFAC's blog for more content and the complete newsletter.

The New England First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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September 25, 2013 12:13 PM

From New England First Amendment Coalition: The New England First Amendment Coalition published its latest NEFAC Report. The publication includes: Head scratcher: US marshals say photos would invade VT killer's privacy, ACLU again checks RI school board on failing to open testing talks, MA town sues gaming commission for proposed casino details, NEFAC will honor James Risen with Hamblett Award at annual luncheon, and more.

Head scratcher: US marshals say photos would invade VT killer's privacy

By Michael Donoghue: BURLINGTON, Vt. - The U.S. Marshals Service says the privacy rights of a man who pleaded guilty in the high-profile kidnap, rape and murder of his 12-year-old niece in Vermont far outweigh the rights of taxpayers to see the man they will pay to keep behind bars for the rest of his life. ...

ACLU again checks RI school board on failing to open testing talks

By Steven Brown: PROVIDENCE - For the third time in less than two months, the ACLU of Rhode Island has taken legal action against the state Board of Education for violating open government laws. ...

MA town sues gaming commission for proposed casino details

By Laura Krantz: HOPKINTON, Mass. - A small rural Massachusetts town determined to ward off a casino in its backyard got stonewalled this year by a state commission and the secretary of state, but the fat lady hasn't sung yet for Hopkinton. ...

NEFAC will honor James Risen with Hamblett Award at annual luncheon

PROVIDENCE - James Risen, a New York Times reporter who's done ground-breaking work on domestic spying and now faces possible imprisonment for refusing to disclose the source for his account of a failed CIA operation in Iran, will receive the 2014 Stephen Hamblett Award from the New England First Amendment Coalition. ...

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Visit New England First Amendment Coalition's new website for more.

The New England First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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September 20, 2013 9:27 AM

From New England First Amendment Coalition: PROVIDENCE, R.I. - James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who's done ground-breaking work on domestic spying and now faces legal peril for refusing to disclose the source for his account of a failed CIA operation in Iran, will receive the 2014 Stephen Hamblett Award from the New England First Amendment Coalition.

An investigative reporter for The New York Times, Risen was told by a divided 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to identify his source and testify in the trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who's charged with leaking classified information to Risen in violation of the Espionage Act, a dusty law cited with new frequency by the administration in efforts to crack down on leakers. Risen, despite the threat of imprisonment, has refused.

"James Risen is not just one of the best investigative reporters in the country. He is a journalist of enormous principle and courage, so committed to the public's right to know that he is willing to sacrifice his own freedom in defense of the freedoms that make it possible for all journalists to hold government officials and institutions accountable,'' said Walter V. Robinson, chairman of the New England First Amendment Coalition committee that recommended Risen for the Hamblett award.

Robinson, now a distinguished professor of journalism at Northeastern University, led The Boston Globe Spotlight Team that won the 2003 Pulitzer for public service for exposing the Roman Catholic Church clergy sexual abuse scandal.

[...]

He was part of The Times team that won a Pulitzer in 2002 for explanatory reporting for coverage of the Sept.11 attacks and terrorism. He shared the 2006 prize in national reporting with Times reporter Eric Lichtblau for revealing President Bush's legally questionable domestic wiretapping program.

Risen is the fourth recipient of the Hamblett award, named for the late publisher and chief executive of The Providence Journal. Earlier recipients were retired New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who died March 25; Martin Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe and now executive editor of The Washington Post; and Philip Balboni, GlobalPost CEO and co-founder and the architect of cable news channel NECN.

The awards luncheon will be held Feb. 7 in conjunction with the winter conference of the New England Newspaper and Press Association.

Visit New England First Amendment Coalition at their new website for more.

The New England First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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September 12, 2013 12:16 PM

From New England First Amendment Coalition: PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Journalists from a variety of media and all six New England states will gather in Dedham, Mass., Sept. 29-Oct. 1 to learn the latest investigative and database reporting techniques and public records access skills.

The fellows chosen for this, the New England First Amendment Coalition's third annual Institute, reflect today's diverse news media and come from daily and weekly newspapers, television and radio stations and online publications.

"The interest shown in joining this year's class was very gratifying," said Rosanna Cavanagh, NEFAC's executive director. "The strength of the candidates made the selection process very difficult."

"They and their organizations feel strongly about the mission NEFAC was created to advance - the people's right to know that their elected and appointed officials are honoring the public's trust," she said.

Here, by state and professional affiliation, are the 2013 fellows:

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Cavanagh said the program is supported by grants from the McLean Contributionship and the National Freedom of Information Coalition and sponsorships from New England Society of Newspaper Editors, the Academy of New England Journalists, Hearst Newspapers, The Providence Journal Charitable Foundation, The Boston Globe and Sam Adams.

The New England First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

Visit New England First Amendment Coalition for more.

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September 11, 2013 8:19 AM

From Bangor Daily News: PORTLAND, Maine — Attorneys on opposite sides of a legal dispute over public access to 911 call transcripts suggested Monday that dangerous precedents could be set if their sides did not prevail.

The case is rooted in MaineToday Media’s request for records of 911 calls made on Dec. 29 after James Pak, 74, of Biddeford, allegedly shot and killed two tenants of a building he owned during a dispute over snow removal and parking. The request was denied, and the company subsequently sought access to all of the state’s 911 transcripts from unresolved murder cases.

[...]

A “friend of the court brief” has been filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the New England First Amendment Center, the Maine Association of Broadcasters, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and the Associated Press. A brief filed on behalf of the organizations urged justices to release the transcripts.

The New England First Amendment Center and the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition are members of NFOIC. --eds

Visit Bangor Daily News for more.

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August 28, 2013 1:38 PM

From Boston Globe staff reporter Todd Wallack via NEFAC: While writing a story recently about the Massachusetts state pharmacy board, I noticed something odd: Only half the board members showed up for a meeting last summer — too few for a quorum — but the board members went ahead with the meeting anyway and voted on one item after the next.

It turns out it was part of a much wider problem, raising questions about how frequently obscure boards comply with all the rules for public meetings throughout New England.

Usually, boards need a majority of members to show up for a meeting for any votes to count. But when I checked past Massachusetts pharmacy board minutes, I found at least two other cases where at least half the members were absent, but the rest of the members voted on items anyway.

Then it occurred to me if that if the problem existed with one licensing board operating under the state Department of Public Health, it might affect similar boards as well. So I decided to check the minutes.

Sure enough, after spending an hour flipping through a box full of documents at the DPH offices, I found six other boards had the same problem: The boards voted at least once on items even though they didn’t have enough members to hold a legal quorum.

Visit New England First Amendment Coalition for the rest.

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

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August 1, 2013 8:48 AM

From New England First Amendment Coalition:  The NEFAC Report -- New England's monthly right-to-know dispatch.

This month:

Electronic Chatter Among Officials at Public Meetings Raises Issues of Transparency:  

NASHUA, N.H. - When officials in Nashua came up with an idea to equip the city's elected leaders with electronic tablets at public meetings to save costs on paper copies of documents, it seemed like a decent idea.

Except for one thing -- keeping track of their electronic communication during public meetings. 

Chafee Signs Legislation Shielding RI School Safety Plans from Public View:

PROVIDENCE - Last year, after a ten-year struggle by open government groups to get the law updated, the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted some important reforms to the state's Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Regrettably, this year the legislature appeared to show buyer's remorse, passing bills that will keep Rhode Islanders in the dark on important issues.

A Year Later, Exemptions Chipping Away at RI Open Records Law:

PROVIDENCE -  A year ago Rhode Island open government advocates were celebrating a huge milestone. We had won the first large scale reform of our open records law, the Access to Public Records Act since the late 1990s.  And while we didn't get everything we wanted in the bill, we did get into the law a balancing test for the first time.

A year later things aren't so sunny for APRA. 

Deadline for Applications to the 2013 NEFAC Institute is Aug. 20:

Applications for 25 fellowships at the third annual NEFAC Institute, to be held in Dedham, Mass., from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, are due o

n Aug. 20.

The fellows will be selected from applicants representing print, broadcast and online news organizations in the six-state region. The 2013 class will be announced the first week of September.

Visit New England First Amendment Coalition or get the entire newsletter for all the rest.

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

 

June 20, 2013 12:15 PM

From New England First Amendment Coalition:  The New England First Amendment Coalition published its latest open government newsletter. In this issue: These Are Rough Times for Government Transparency in CT, AG Balks at Sharing Report on RI Inmate's Suicide with Family, MA Town Gets Little Info from State on Casino Plan, and Newsletter Sues Private VT Prison Firm for Public Records Access.

These are rough times for government transparency in CT

HARTFORD - In 1975, under the enlightened leadership of Gov. Ella T. Grasso, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a freedom of information law that remains a model today.

The original legislation proclaims "that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy, that the people have a right to be fully informed of the action taken by public agencies in order that they may retain control over the instruments they have created; that the people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; that the people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know ...

Today it is that confidentiality and secrecy that is taking precedence in Connecticut's halls of government.

[...]

Please see the entire issue here.

The New England First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

June 19, 2013 9:16 AM

From Providence Journal:  PROVIDENCE — Last September, at least on paper, Rhode Island was supposed to become a more transparent state.

[...]

But there seems to be confusion over the interpretation of the law among police departments and state agencies, which in many instances are releasing less rather than more information.

[...]

“If we keep going at this rate,” says Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, “we could end up like Vermont, a state where there are so many exemptions no one can even count the correct number, though it is beyond 250.”

Please see here for more background of the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act.

The New England First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

 

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