Archive for the ‘rights’ Category


14 Death Cab for Cutie Lyrics that Are Actually About FOI

Illustration by Michael Koretzky, SPJ Region 3 Director

In these dark times—coming out of an anti-access administration and right into a an anti-press administration—we journalists may benefit from brazenly turning our attention to less stark information.

This is one of those times.

Oregonian journo Bethany Barnes argues a 2015 indie-favorite album is about public records requests and not about love.

Maybe she’s right or maybe she’s alternatively factualizing to make her case in a post-truth sense.

I think it’s best to let you decide..

Death Cab For Cutie’s Latest Album is About Love—of FOIA

By Bethany Barnes

Death Cab For Cutie is an indie rock band known for songs that chronicle love stories fueled by cynicism and passion. So it was only a matter of time before they released an album about records requests.

I recently got around to listening to Death Cab’s latest album and I think there’s a case to be made that it’s a soulful tribute to transparency.

For starters, it’s called Kintsugi. Kintsugi, as I learned from a quick Google search, is a Japanese pottery technique used to make new art by fusing together broken pieces. Conceptually, Kintsugi is about embracing something broken to find beauty. Anyone who has filed a records request can consider themselves a practitioner of the same art form.

We know the Freedom of Information Act is both beautiful and broken. Don’t take my word for it, just read this take from the government on the matter: “FOIA Is Broken: A Report

Not that I need to convince this audience, but for proof of what’s heart-stopping about public records, consider how the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The paper’s investigation exposed how a helicopter design flaw killed 250 US servicemen.

A gem from the story behind that story, as told by Roy J. Harris Jr. in his excellent book
Pulitzer’s Gold”:

“Can you tell me about these accidents?” Thompson asked.

“No I can’t,” White responded.

“Well, what if I sent a FOIA?” the reporter followed up.

White hesitated.

“I’ve been waiting years for somebody to ask that.”

That reporting saved lives. The deadly flaw wasn’t unknown; it was just that nobody fixed it until the press got involved. Military records showed that.

Emotional stuff, public records. That’s why it makes perfect sense that Death Cab, once described as “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining,” would inevitably make an entire album’s subject freedom of information.

Let’s look at the lyrical evidence:

“I don’t know why/I don’t know why/I return to the scenes of these crimes” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

You can’t stop thinking about that police brief you read the other day. You’ve got a hunch, so you file a request for the police reports.

“You’re always out of reach when I’m in pursuit/Long winded then suddenly mute”  — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

Clearly an ode to a records officer.

“And I’ve got nowhere to go except further below/So I keep digging/And it gets darker everyday/But I see no other way than just committing.” — Song: “Everything’s A Ceiling”

The point in the investigation when you start muttering to yourself, “Follow the money!”

“Zeros and ones, patterns appear/They’ll prove to all that we were here/For if there is no document/We cannot build our monument” — Song: “Binary Sea”

Obviously a conversation about why you need to talk to the IT person and not the spokesperson about exporting the database in a machine-readable format.

“And so I wait but I never seem to learn/How to capture your diminishing returns” — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”

When the redactions get heavier with each subsequent request.

“You’ll never have to hear the word “no”/If you keep all your friends on the payroll/The non-disclosure pages signed/Your secret’s safe between those lines” — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”

When the agency has denied your records request and you must explain why the public interest demands disclosure.

“I don’t know why, I don’t know why/I don’t know what I expect to find/Where all the news is second hand/And everything just goes on as planned” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”

When the agency’s spokesperson doesn’t understand why you won’t just say which exact record you want and you sigh and say, “But I haven’t seen the records because you won’t let me see them. I can’t ask for something if I don’t know it exists. They are your records and I don’t know how you keep them. That’s why I’m asking.”

“Darling, don’t you understand/That there are no winners/Or medals hung from silken strands/To greet you at the finish/As we’re dissolving into the sea/I can only take what I can carry/As the counsel’s combing through our debris/For the treasures we never buried” — Song: “Hold No Guns”

When the spokesperson is breaking the bad news to officials that the agency’s general counsel is reviewing your records request and will soon produce damning documents.

“And there’s a dumpster in the driveway/Of all the plans that came undone” — Song: “Black Sun”

Corrupt officials have heard about your request and they’re not taking it well.

“There’s a long, slow fade/To a darkened stage/And I hear you say/’Only a fool gives it away’ — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”

The agency has asserted that it is allowed to charge “reasonable fees.” The fees are not reasonable.

“Seems you finally found, finally found El Dorado/So why does it feel underwhelming, barely real?” — Song: “El Dorado”

El Dorado is a pet name for The Documents. Clearly.

“And it’s such a hard thing to do/So take all you can” — Song: “Ingene”

When you’ve negotiated to inspect the records in person so must take as many photos of them with your phone as you can because this might be your only chance.

“No room in frame/For two” — Song: “No Room in Frame”

You have the records, you’ve found proof of wrongdoing, you’ve written the story—your editor urges you to focus. It is time to cut out some hard-won details. Can’t bog down the narrative.

“So lean in close or lend an ear/There’s something brilliant bound to happen here” — Song: “Binary Sea”

The investigation is done. It’s on today’s front page. You’re at your desk and the phone rings. On the line is someone who just read your story. She’s calling to tell you you can get even more records.

Sure, maybe the album is about a romance. But I like to think Ben Gibbard, Death Cab’s frontman, is telling us about the power and poetry found in the pursuit of public records.  After all, the band’s most famous single is “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

Isn’t that what every journalist must do to shed light?


Bethany Barnes is a journalist at The Oregonian. Before taking her records requests to Portland, she spent three years in Las Vegas (Also the subject of a Death Cab song. See “Little Bribes”) and in 2016 was named Nevada’s Outstanding Journalist.

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If You Sue Trump, This DC Lawyer Will Help You For Free

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Mark Zaid wants to help journalists file a national security-centered FOIA request against Trump so much he’ll do it for free:

According to Zaid’s site, he’s an expert in defending “former, current, and prospective civilian federal employees, defense contractors, members of our active duty and reserve military, and journalists, particularly when they are threatened by the overshadowing spectre of national security.”

Of course, consider the risk. At this point, if you sue Trump, he may sue you back (and/or stick his tongue out at you)—or throw you in jail.

Photo by Michael Vadon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Hear It from a Journocriminal

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Let’s turn our attention to a real Georgia journalist who went to real jail for making a real public records request—really.

From the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s July 1 piece:

A North Georgia newspaper publisher was indicted on a felony charge and jailed overnight last week – for filing an open-records request.

Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason, along with his attorney Russell Stookey, were arrested on Friday and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request.

Here’s AJC’s nut graph:

Thomason was charged June 24 with making a false statement in an open-records request in which he asked for copies of checks “cashed illegally.” Thomason and Stookey were also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they did not get Weaver’s approval before sending subpoenas to banks where Weaver and another judge maintained accounts for office expenses. Weaver suggested that Thomason may have been trying to steal banking information on the checks.


Thomason Speaks at SPJ Region 3’s MediAtlanta

Thomason told his story at Region 3’s annual conference, dubbed MediAtlanta, on Oct. 29—you can watch the whole thing above. He’s in the center, to his left SPJ Georgia president-elect Dan Whisenhunt, to his right Kennesaw State University Professor and FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson. Video by Nydia Tisdale.

You can read SPJ Georgia board member Julius Suber’s review of the event here.

Photo above courtesy of Julius Suber.

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Journalist Handcuffed For Public Records Is Unacceptable

A journalist in Louisiana was taken away in handcuffs Wednesday while inquiring about the status of a state public records request submitted to the Town of White Castle in Louisiana.

Watch the video here.

You’ll see Chris Nakamoto, an anchor and investigative reporter for WBRZ-TV, the ABC affiliate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, remaining calm throughout the ordeal.

The station has been asking questions about a salary increase the Mayor of White Castle, Jermarr Williams appears to have received. According to WBRZ reports, Williams was earning $20.31 an hour but in November 2015, records show he was earning $24.44.

Attempting to find out if the local city council voted to increase Williams’ salary and wanting information about mileage reimbursements, Nakamoto submitted a request under the Louisiana Public Records Act.

The Act, allows any member of the public to view public records unless the records are determined to be exempt.

While inquiring about the missing portion of his request Wednesday, a security guard asks the journalist to leave. Nakamoto stresses, he is inside a public building, on public property and will not step outside. Next, the security guard cuffs Nakamoto and takes him to the police department. Nakamoto was charged with a misdemeanor.

Thursday, WBRZ reported, the final portion of the public records request was fulfilled. More on that here.

An email to Williams was not immediately answered.

Prohibiting the public and journalists from obtaining information that they are entitled to is unacceptable. To take it a step further and arrest someone, who is inquiring and asking questions about a request is ridiculous. As we know obtaining information is sometimes hard enough, but to worry that you might be charged or arrested while inquiring about a request is annoying and unnecessary.

This information belongs to the public and should be handed over easily.

SPJ does not support or encourage the arrest of journalists and members of the public, who are trying to obtain public information. SPJ also does not support or encourage public agencies and individuals who fight the release of public information.

If you experience this at any time, we encourage you to let us know. You can tweet directly to me, @LWalsh or @SPJ_Tweets.

Lynn Walsh is President-Elect of SPJ. She also serves on the FOI and Ethics committees. She is currently leading the investigative team at KNSD in San Diego, California. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh or contact her via email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.

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The secret state of Massachusetts

Over the past year, Massachusetts State Police informed a local attorney it would cost him $2.7 million for public records related to data about the accuracy of breathalyzer tests. And the Bay State Examiner was told by the department they would have to pay a $710.50 fee to get a public records fee estimate, after the news site requested copies of internal affairs files for 49 state troopers.

Massachusetts: Once considered the birthplace of American civil discourse, its government over the past four decades has transformed the state into quite literally, one of the most secretive in the country- recently earning an F grade for public access to information by the Center for Public Integrity.

Two weeks ago, a bill passed through the state’s House of Representatives that would improve the situation and be the first update to the state’s public records laws in 40 years. And while there is hope the bill will be strengthened when it goes before the Senate next month, the current version does not address many of the deficiencies of the state’s broken system and in some cases, makes it worse.

A broken system

Government agencies in the state have the ability to charge reporters, advocates, and citizens massive fees to administer public records requests, which they say, covers the labor and printing costs of fulfilling requests. Often they charge high costs to have lawyers review and make redactions on each requested page and make printed copies of the records, even when the documents are available electronically.

Challenging high fees or public records denials in court can be expensive and can often take years. And filing an appeal with the Secretary of State is largely ineffective, allowing government agencies to push the boundaries when deciding what records should be public and how much it should cost to administer them.

Boston Globe Spotlight Team Investigative Reporter Todd Wallack said he is regularly charged tens- of- thousands or hundreds-of-thousands by Massachusetts government agencies for public records, which many states provide for free. On several occasions he has been flat-out denied records.

“It is all too common when dealing with particular agencies and police departments [in Massachusetts] where I get really high fee estimates that stretch the imagination and look like alternative ways to deny a request,” Wallack said.

In Sept. 2014, Massachusetts State Police said a blogger could not obtain records relating to a 63-year-old murder case because it was still under investigation, even though the suspect was long dead.

And last spring, Wallack filed FOIA requests to the state police and the Middlesex DA’s office asking for the state police report for the 2013 Watertown shootout involving the Boston Marathon bombers. In response, the Middlesex District Attorney’s office held a press conference about the report and posted it on their website. But days later, the state police sent him a letter denying his request.

“How much credibility do they have when that same report is on the web and the DA sent out a press release?” Wallack asked.

The state’s public records law doesn’t apply to the governor’s office, the judicial branch, or the state legislature at all, allowing them to operate in the dark. And the state agencies that are subject to the laws, sometimes take months or years to administer a request.

Recently, the Massachusetts State Police was fittingly named the most secretive publicly-funded government agency in the country, winning the Investigative Reporters and Editor’s prestigious 2015 Golden Padlock Award.

But the secrecy has expanded to police departments across the Commonwealth.

Last spring, Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin made a series of rulings that gave police greater power to withhold and censor arrest records. In 2014, former Governor Deval Patrick signed a law that prohibits police departments from releasing reports or logs with information relating to domestic violence and sex crimes.

And NEMLEC, a law enforcement council that coordinates regional police activity and has a SWAT team that deploys armed vehicles and conducts forced-entry raids on Massachusetts homes, have continuously dodged FOIA requests.

Lack of enforcement

Over the years, it has been difficult for journalists to fight public record denials or exuberant charges.

In fact, the state’s Attorney General’s office finally began enforcing the law for the first time in five years last June, months after Maura Healey was elected to the AG post. And in that one case, the AG’s office ordered the Fall River Police Department to lower the fee amount for a request. But the police department was never prosecuted.

Without the state’s help in enforcing the laws, reporters, citizens and advocates have been forced to go to the courts for help, which can be an expensive and time-consuming route.

Massachusetts is one of just three states that does not allow people who were found wrongly denied access to public records to recover attorneys’ fees. And such suits often take years before they are ever heard, Wallack said.

“[Government agencies] recognize if journalists are denied information for a long period of time, that means a story might not get written at all or it may no longer be timely,” Wallack said.

The fight for public records reform

While there is a major push by state lawmakers and advocacy groups to try and open up some of the blinders, such efforts have been met with large resistance from the lobbyist group the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns across the state.

Two weeks ago, the state’s House of Representatives unanimously approved a public records reform bill that would reduce public records administration costs, require agencies and municipalities to assign a public access officer to handle requests, and allows judges to reimburse attorney fees and litigation costs to requesters who were unlawfully denied public records.

The bill was introduced by state Representative Peter V. Kocot and backed by a coalition of 40 watchdog, civil rights and journalism organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts and SPJ’s New England pro chapter.

But, as DigBoston thoroughly reports, the bill doesn’t nearly go far enough and in some cases, makes the situation worse.

For instance, the existing law gives agencies 10 days to respond to FOIA requests while the new bill gives state agencies up to 60 days and local agencies up to 75 days, with the option to apply for an extension with the supervisor of records. However, Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said the courts have ruled that the 10 days isn’t really a hard deadline for agencies to respond to requests.

“Even though there is something on paper, there is no effect,” Wilmot said.

Another issue DigBoston points out, is judges would have discretion over whether to award attorneys’ fees to people who successfully sued agencies over wrongfully denied records. Wilmot said judges would need to produce a written explanation as to why they are withholding attorney’s fees, which she suspects they would prefer not to do unless there was a good reason for it.

And the bill makes it harder to simply file a lawsuit for denied public records requests. As it stands, requesters have an indefinite amount of time to file a lawsuit, whereas in the bill, they would have only 30 days.

The bill would also not make the public records law apply to the governor’s office, the judicial branch, or the state legislature. But, a late amendment to the bill was added that would create a study commission to look at the future inclusion of the three bodies and other ways the legislature can be more open and transparent.

The road ahead

Wilmot said the bill is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. She said the Senate is expected to take up the bill in January, which, as a whole is typically more friendly to public records reform. She said she is optimistic the Senate will strengthen the bill.

“The Senate has been consistently more pro-reform in a number of areas and more willing to push the envelope when it comes to transparency,” Wilmot said. “Will it be everything we want? Probably not. But I think it may be close.”

Once approved, the bill would go to a conference committee, which would likely pass some kind of compromise between the Senate and the House bills, she said.

As for Governor Charlie Baker, who would need to sign-off on the final bill, he set public records procedures for state agencies in July, in an effort to improve transparency. But Wilmot said his office is concerned about having strict cost controls for municipalities when administering public records due to existing laws barring the state from mandating municipalities to spend more money without giving them more money.

It’s encouraging that lawmakers are finally taking public records reform seriously. But real reform that addresses all of the issues is needed, not something that gives public officials avenues to avoid having to turn over records that belong to the taxpayers and hardworking journalists. Massachusetts has been governed in the dark for too long. It’s time to pull up the shades and bring in some sunshine.

Danielle McLean is a member of the Society’s Freedom of Information Committee and President of Society’s New England Pro Chapter.

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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.”

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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

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Local government emails at your fingertips, no need for public records request

This is HUGE: The City of Gainesville, Fla., has moved to make public officials’ emails available online — without the need to submit a FOIA request.

Anyone with a computer and Internet connection can scroll through any of the city commissioners’, or even the mayor’s, emails in a user-friendly database. You can search by date, specific mailboxes, or by specific words in either the subject line or body of the email. You can even export them into a ZIP file for further use.

Currently, there are over 10,000 emails searchable that date back to March. Of course, there will be some emails that won’t be available to the public that contain confidential information in accordance with state law. According to an interview between Clerk Commissioner Kurt Lannon and The Alligator, University of Florida’s student newspaper, that only applies to few emails. However, you can still view those emails by submitting a FOIA request.

I asked Lannon via email if the online email access of public officials was likely to help reduce the labor cost in fulfilling open records requests. “Yes, very much so,” he replied. The emails are automatically published to the website, except for the confidential emails that commissioners place in a “do not publish list.”

If I were a reporter in Gainesville, I would be checking the database every day for accidentally published “do not publish list” emails.


On a semi-related note, I suggested this idea of an email database to a reporter interviewing me about my open records lawsuit against the University System of Georgia. I filed suit against them last June for stonewalling and delay tactics in providing me emails. In court, their witnesses testified, and their lawyers argued, that this was the “largest request” for open records the university system had ever dealt with.

Their process for complying with an open records request for emails?

Printing out every email, reviewing and redacting them on paper, then scanning them back into a PDF file as JPEG image files (which effectively disabled the ability to perform keyword searches). This amounted to printing out a little over 12,000 pages to redact a handful of emails.

The reporter who interviewed me asked if I had a suggestion for how this process could be more efficient. Well, it seems Gainesville has come up with the solution. And they’re poised to save labor costs in doing so.

Government agencies subject to freedom of information laws need to catch up with the times. The technology is here and can make their lives easier. I would almost go a step further and say this technology needs to be legislated in other states’ open records laws.

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

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FOI Daily Dose: Virginia county supervisor questions closed meeting discussion

A Virginia county supervisor called out fellow supervisors for violating Virginia’s open government laws during a closed session performance evaluation, according to The Virginia Gazette.

Before and after the closed session on July 23, supervisors had to certify that they would only discuss issues related to the performance of a county administrator.

But the day after the closed session, James County Supervisor Jim Kennedy emailed other supervisors saying he was “uncomfortable” that they also used the meeting to discuss the issue of keeping backyard chickens.

Virginia lawmakers have been in an ongoing debate about homeowners’ rights to keep and raise chickens for eggs and food. Raising chickens in some residential areas is illegal.

Kennedy said he brought the issue up for discussion at the meeting, but he did not intend the discussion to result in policy and “pages of notes,” according to The Gazette.

“I believe we all participated in a violation of public trust, and went outside the scope of the closed session and would ask (county attorney) Leo (Rogers) for his opinion,” Kennedy said in an email.

Supervisors are not supposed to discuss any material not related to an administrator’s evaluation during a closed session. Kennedy thinks their discussion was not relevant to the evaluation. Other supervisors say it was.

“Our discussions were entirely appropriate,” Supervisor John McGlennon told The Gazette. “I would say it was entirely appropriate for the Board, in evaluating the county administrator and the county attorney, to discuss issues related to our expectations of the administrator and provide direction to county staff on what the Board is concerned about.”

Rogers told The Virginia Gazette on July 26 that he was not present during the closed session, so he cannot make an opinion on whether or not the discussion was for evaluation purposes. But Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said if the administrators certified the closed session and knowingly discussed other matters, they’re breaking the law.

“Certainly I can see why it’s difficult to stick to the topic, but it absolutely has to be done,” Rhyne told The Gazette.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.
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FOI Daily Dose: Illinois attorney clarifies public records ruling; National Press Club debates practices of public affairs offices

Illinois attorney clarifies public records ruling

An Illinois attorney clarified a public records ruling issued July 16 by the Fourth District Appellate Court, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The ruling said emails and text messages sent during public meetings about public business are public records.

But Peter Friedman, a Lake Bluff village attorney and a partner at Holland & Knight, clarified that the ruling does not apply to any electronic communications not pertaining to public business or those sent outside of board meetings.

“The appellate court correctly determined that private electronic communications outside the context of a board meeting are not public records under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act),” Friedman told the Tribune.

 National Press Club debating practices of federal public affairs offices

The National Press Club in Washington, DC,  is hosting a panel on Aug. 12 to debate whether federal public affairs practices are more of a hindrance or a help to reporters.

Public affairs offices typically require reporters to go through the press office to arrange interviews.

Those skeptical of the process complain that it limits who they interview. They are also frustrated that some companies require members of the communications team to be present with employees during their interview, according to the Press Club.

Other people feel public affairs professionals ensure that the press gets accurate information and a coherent message.

The debate will feature a panel of experts on both sides of the issue. The panel will be moderated by John M. Donnelly, chairman of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Committee and a senior writer with CQ Roll Call.

Panel experts include:

  • Linda Petersen: Managing editor, The Valley Journals of Salt Lake; chairwoman SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee; and president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government
  • Carolyn Carlson: Former AP reporter; past SPJ national president; assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta; and author of two surveys on the relationship between public affairs staff and the press
  • John Verrico: President-elect of the National Association of Government Communicators
  • Kathryn Foxhall: Freelance reporter who has extensively researched the issue
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