NorCal SPJ chapter fights for sunshine in San Francisco

Our chapters throughout the country do amazing work to keep government open. Here is a great example, directly in the words of Richard Knee, SPJ NorCal Freedom of Information Committee:

SPJ’s Northern California Chapter has for the second time this year advanced freedom of information in San Francisco, convincing a transparency watchdog commission that a member of the Board of Supervisors twice violated the city’s 1999, voter-passed Sunshine Ordinance through tardy, incomplete delivery of requested public documents to a co-chair of SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee.

The panel, called the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, found on Dec. 3 that Supervisor Katy Tang had responded late to Thomas Peele’s request for all documents and communications mentioning the task force and nominees thereto that she or her staff had sent or received between Nov. 1, 2013, and last May 15. The ordinance stipulates that the task force’s 11 voting members are to include an attorney and a journalist nominated by SPJ.

Peele, an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group, shares the FOI Committee helm with Geoffrey W. King, an attorney with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The task force pinned an additional violation finding on Tang after seeing evidence that some of the requested communications were missing from the 14 pages of documents that her office had provided to Peele. In fact, there was some indication that Tang or her staff might have deleted or destroyed some communications earlier than city and state sunshine laws allow, a criminal offense that could land her in jail for up to three years. The task force planned to investigate that aspect further and could send the matter to the district attorney for possible prosecution.

City and state laws normally give public agencies up to 10 days to respond to records requests, but the San Francisco ordinance requires a response within one business day to any “Immediate Disclosure Request” (IDR) that is clearly labeled as such.

Peele faxed an IDR to Tang’s office late in the day last May 15 after the board’s Rules Committee, which vets city board and commission applicants, had stalled on appointments to the SPJ-nominated and several other task force seats. Tang, who sits on the committee, told the task force in a memorandum that she did not respond to Peele’s request until May 20 because no one in her office had seen the fax until that day. Task force members said that did not excuse her tardiness.

The episode could gain extra visibility because Tang’s colleagues elected her in late November as interim board president through year end. She represents a square-shaped district midway along the city’s Pacific shoreline.

Pressure by SPJ NorCal and citizen activists played a major role in getting the Rules Committee and the board to move forward on the task force appointments in May and June. The SPJ-nominated task force members are Mark Rumold, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and freelance reporter Ali Winston.

Some on the board, including then-president David Chiu, harbored a grudge since the task force found in September 2011 that he and three other supervisors had violated open-meeting laws by ramrodding a residential redevelopment contract with 14 pages of amendments slipped in at the last minute. Chiu was elected in November to the state Assembly and will leave the board at year end.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Ask an expert: How to appeal a FOIA rejection

Over and over again, I hear journalists complain about being rejected by government agencies when making Freedom of Information Act requests and how difficult it is to successfully file an appeal. So I’ve decided to consult with an expert.

Meet Michael Morisy, co-founder of the MuckRock, a collaborative news site that works with its users in filing Freedom of Information Requests and reports on the results. Since it was founded in 2010, MuckRock has filed almost 12,000 FOIA requests and published over 430,000 pages of government documents.

Here’s his advice:

What avenues can journalists take when their federal Freedom of Information Act request is rejected?

“It’s very easy to get discouraged because usually with FOIA requests you have waited months and months and then you get rejection and it’s pretty intimidating. I would encourage veteran FOIA requesters to appeal every single response they get back. Even if they get some documents, a lot of times people are pretty successful in appealing and saying I don’t think this is everything, keep looking.

I really encourage everybody to take advantage of the various appeal opportunities because you don’t need a lawyer, it’s not a deep understanding of sort-of legal procedure, you just need to send a letter and say ‘I appeal.’ That is a very accessible avenue for everybody. But it really depends on the type of rejection you see and what you are going after.”

What resources can journalists use to help them craft an appeal?

“At MuckRock, we have a bunch of appeals that people can browse through. We also have a question and answer section where if you have a specific rejection, it’s a free resource where everyone can talk. We also have a couple hundred FOIA experts who come in and provide question and answer responses. The RCFP (Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press) has a number of really good response guides and appeal templates.”

How often do appeals work?

“It varies a lot, but we’ve seen about 30 to 40 percent of the time an appeal is at least partially successful. It does add time to the process, but usually an agency can’t say we are going to give you nothing. This is where I think the appeals process is very useful because it tells the agency I’m serious about the request and you need to actually process it. Agencies love to say, ‘well this exemption applies so we are not going to give you the documents you want.’ But rarely does the exemption apply to everything and so by appealing, you can sort of go back to the agency and say, no. Even if parts of what I requested are exempt, not everything is exempt. So please release “separable” information. [Separable] is kind of the keywords I think has been helpful for people.

The first thing you should do is read the rejection letter because that almost always has where you need to send an appeal. Usually where you send the appeal is different than where you sent the original request.”

If you have a piece of advise for someone who may be getting discouraged during the appeal process, what would you tell them?

“I would tell people this is not a personal process. Maybe 90 percent of the time, the people receiving and processing these requests don’t really care about the outcome. They are just trying to do their job and so being kind, professional, but assertive is really important. This particularly applies for the appeal. So take and closely read why the request was rejected in the first place. Was it too vague? You can say, okay I only want documents between this date and this date. Or maybe, I only want emails from this person in March rather than a very broad request.
That is a problem, where many requests are just too broad. So on your appeal, you can kind of narrow your request and try and negotiate with the agency to try and figure out what you are looking for.”

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Contact your senator today to pass FOIA fixes!

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the S. 2520 FOIA Improvement Act  and now it awaits a vote by the full Senate. This is great news, but time is short for all of us to act! The House already passed a similar bill, so now it’s up to all of us to get this done.

Here is what the bill would do, if passed:

  • Requires in writing the presumption of openness. You would think that is already in FOIA, but it is not! This law would say that the presumption is that public records are open unless there is a law that states otherwise.
  • Limits the “catch-all” exemption. That pesky exemption 5 has allowed a lot of agencies to deny requests willy-nilly. The amendment would require agencies to weigh the public interest in the release of the information in their decision.
  • Strengthens the Office of Government Information Services. This federal ombudsman office would be able to get its recommendations for improving FOIA to Congress with less bureaucratic red tape and delay.
  • Requires agencies to post online records that have been requested at least three times. Very cool. Popular records should be easily retrieved by anyone.
  • No deadline, no copy fees. If an agency doesn’t meet its deadlines in responding to FOIA requests then it can’t charge search and duplication fees. Currently, agencies claim “unusual circumstances” in justifying delays.

In June, SPJ and a variety of other groups banded together to support the legislation. Then-SPJ-President David Cuillier testified before the Senate Judiciary in April to urge for the needed change. You can find more details about the legislation and process, courtesy of OpentheGovernment.org

Contact your U.S. senators now and let them know they should vote “yes”! See the handy online form. Write editorials supporting the legislation, and spread the word far and wide!

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Must read FOI stories – 7/25/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the United States Customs and Border Protection to compel the agency to produce documents relating to a relatively new comprehensive intelligence database of people and cargo crossing the U.S. border.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Must read FOI stories – 7/18/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

Special congrats to the FOIA advocacy website MuckRock, they got a shout out from the Daily Show this week for one of their FOIA requests:

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

FOIA should be proactive, not reactive

I’ve noticed a few interesting improvements at various local governments across the country that are taking a more proactive approach to Freedom of Information Act requests — and I’m impressed.

Gainesville, Fla., recently opened its commissioners’ (as well as the mayor’s) emails through an online database. No need for a FOIA request, just click and search away. Ann Arbor, Mich.,— along with Greensboro, N.C. — now publishes its FOIA request log online (something every city should do). A new plan in Albuquerque, N.M., could give wider access to the state’s court records like PACER does at the federal level. Riverside, Calif., logged almost 16,000 views in one week on a new database it launched containing “information on city finances, police and fire calls, and access to thousands of other records.”

While these are to highlight just a few of the good examples, I think (and hope) that we will start to see a trend where local governments realize that relying on technology to assist them in handling public records requests will ultimately cut down on their cost, increase transparency and make for more satisfied citizens. Anything that public officials can do to utilize tools already in existence for open government purposes should be mandatory. Legislators create laws, in most cases, for our own good. We ought to insist the same logic be applied to state agencies and officials by forcing efficiency on them.

Freedom of information laws should first operate on the principle that all information should be readily available to the public at low or no cost, and then work backward (i.e. exemptions for security reasons, etc.).

On the federal level, a bipartisan bill known as the Freedom of Information Improvement Act was recently introduce in the Senate and would, among other things, restrict the use of FOIA’s “deliberative process” exemption — an overused and, in some cases, purposely misapplied exemption. Additionally, Andrew Becker, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting, will serve on the federal FOIA Modernization Advisory Committee.

Local governments should be working with local news outlets and journalists in the same way. We have plenty of ideas on how they can improve their open records processes from low-cost fixes, to minor tech training for open records officers, to other solutions that would just require the use of free third-party tools (not being able to receive records via email should is ridiculous). Government agencies should not be waiting on complaints or lawsuits before deciding that their FOIA processes need updating.

Many of the basic documents that journalists often request — FOIA logs, emails, official memos or documentation — should be readily available and searchable online. There’s no good reason to keep the antiquated status quo.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Must read FOI stories – 7/11/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • A CIA employee with the highest level of security clearance tried to get the agency to release info that was a decade old. They told him no, so he submitted a FOIA request and it “destroyed his entire career.”
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting is collecting ideas on how to improve the FOIA request process. Have ideas? Fill out the form here.
  • Two local activist groups file suit against a Florida county claiming that the commission skirted state open-government laws in allowing a controversial business park to go forward.
  • Which U.S. agencies sprung for the extra legroom provided by first class? MuckRock obtained Agency Premium Travel Reportswhich show how millions in upgrade fees were spent from 2009-2013.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Must read FOI stories – 7/07/14

Every week I’ll be doing a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me (Missed last week because of 4th of July, so you’re getting a double dose this week.)

  • No moving targets in FOIA denials: Missouri judge rules that government agencies cannot give a different exemption than the original one used to deny the FOIA request after being sued.
  • Judicial Watch, a government accountability group, filed a legal motion about the “lost emails” of ex-IRS official Lois Learner.
  • FOIA suffers setback in South Carolina at the hands of the legislature and Supreme Court, which recently ruled that public bodies don’t have to issue agendas for regularly scheduled meetings.
  •  Massachusetts SWAT team claims they’re immune from public records requests, ACLU sues.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Must read FOI stories – 6/27/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • FOIA from the “budget” perspective answers the following questions: How much are we spending on FOIA oversight? How does that compare to the costs of litigation? How much does the government spend on FOIA administration overall.
  • The FBI’s 83-page guide to Twitter shorthand. FMTYEWTK (Far More Than You Ever Wanted To Know).
  • A federal judge ruled that the Freedom of Information Act trumps an Internal Revenue Service policy for handling data requests after an advocacy group, Public.Resource.Org, filed a lawsuit against the IRS to make Form 990 returns available in a format that can be read by computers so the public can more easily search them for critical information about non-profit finances, governance and programs.
  • An Oklahoma County judge ruled that Gov. Mary Fallin can lawfully withhold public documents — relating to a decision on Obamacare  — which are covered by a “deliberative process” privilege.
  • Tulsa World editorial calls for the legislature to strike down the “deliberative process” exemption. A judge recently ruled that Governor Mary Fallin was allowed to withhold 100 pages out of 51,000 concerning her state’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
  • The “FOIA Warriors” (Jason Leopold and Ryan Shapiro) are at it again and have filed a lawsuit against the CIA compelling the agency to release documents about its spying on Senate lawmakers who were tasked with investigating CIA torture.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit

Must read FOI stories – 6/20/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • In the above link about the document seizure by the U.S. Marshals, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency motion to try and claw back those records, but the judge dismissed it.
  • FOIA request reveals brutal photos of seals, dolphins, whales, and other sea life that were caught in California commercial fishing boats that use drift gillnets — one mile-long mesh nets that are intended to catch swordfish.
  • The Kentucky Court of Appeals has affirmed a Circuit Court decision paving the way for public access to court records related to a public official’s job performance and the contentious relationship she had with the former president of a local community college.
  • An appeals court backs a man who made an anonymous public records request. The court ruled that the city of Greenacres, Fla., could not require the man to fill out a form before obtaining the documents.
  • St. Louis police records released per a judge’s order in public records lawsuit show how vice and other drug officers scalped the scalpersFifteen police officers were either suspended and demoted or otherwise disciplined for giving St. Louis Cardinals’ championship tickets seized from scalpers to friends and family.
  • The Miami Herald questions the Department of Children & Families’ “paperless” investigation into why there were originally no records — “no reports, memos, notes, emails or smoke signals” —  of the deaths of at least 30 children who were in DCF’s active case files.
  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons is being sued for FOIA violations by Prisology, a non-profit criminal justice reform organization. They claim that the FBOP has been non-compliant with the law, which has required for decades the Bureau post online substantial information about its day-to-day decision-making.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on Reddit


Newest Posts

Five websites journalists should bookmark December 22, 2014, 10:59 pm
Open season on journalists in Paraguay December 19, 2014, 8:55 pm
Ohio passes bill clouding execution process December 18, 2014, 7:23 pm
Cuba opens its door to U.S. journalists, but be careful December 17, 2014, 7:35 pm
Congratulations to Julie Asher, December Volunteer of the Month December 17, 2014, 2:51 pm
Adding Study Abroad to a Journalism Curriculum December 14, 2014, 6:43 pm
NorCal SPJ chapter fights for sunshine in San Francisco December 12, 2014, 2:21 am

Copyright © 2007-2014 Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ