Posts Tagged ‘open government’


Show why FOI matters

Sept. 28 is kind of a big day for the concept of democracy.

Yes, Congress submitted the U.S. Constitution on this day in 1787 to states for ratification. We all know how that turned out.

But Sept. 28 also is important for another reason: It’s International Right to Know Day, a worldwide event aimed at promoting open government laws and highlighting why they matter. The day commemorates the anniversary of when freedom of information groups from around the globe formed an international coalition called the FOI Advocates Network, of which SPJ is a member.

The network turns 13 years old this year.

Despite that impressive achievement — and unlike ratification of the Constitution, a historical event — the story of the public’s right to know is still being written: Laws governing disclosure of government-held information change and evolve, and there is a constant tug of war over access to public records and proceedings at all levels of government.

Journalists play a key role in that story — we have an ethical duty to do so! — and International Right to Know Day is another opportunity to make a difference.

Here’s how:

  • On Monday, Sept. 28, journalists and FOI advocates can commemorate International Right to Know Day by showcasing the impact of open government laws on social media.
  • To that end, journalists should highlight stories made possible because of open government laws. Did a public records request reveal important information for a story? Did that story effect some kind of change? Did you successfully challenge improper government secrecy? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you have a social media post to share!
  • Use hash tags #FOISuccess and #IRTKD2015. On Twitter, the handle @FOIAnet also can be referenced.
  • Post stories on the FOIAnet Facebook, too.

Jonathan Anderson is chair of the Society’s Freedom of Information Committee.

Science Writers Survey Looks At Reporter-PIO Dealings

Science writers have a hard time getting candid information from government scientists. While the public information office sometimes helps connect the two, the PIO also can interfere with the reporting process to the point of keeping the public from getting all the information it needs. These are some of the findings of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee’s latest survey of reporters about their relationship with government public information offices. The survey of science writers was released April 9 at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The survey was cosponsored by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

 
Among other things, the science writers survey found that:
• Almost three quarters (74.2%) of respondents said that PIOs require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees at least some of the time.
• More than half (52.2%) said that when they ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the PIO at least some of the time.
• 67.5% said they have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert at least some of the time.
• Reporters who got an interview often found the PIO sitting in on the interview either on the telephone or in person (31.8% some of the time, 19.5% most of the time, 6.5% all of the time).
• However, many science writers have figured out ways to interview subject matter experts without involving the public information office (34.2% some of the time, 21.9% most of the time, 10.3% all of the time). Often, these are people they cornered at a conference or meeting, or had a long-term relationship with.

 

Kathryn Foxhall, an SPJ FOI Committee member who has made a study of the PIO issue, said at Thursday’s conference that the problem of reporters being required to go through the PIO to talk to government employees is becoming widespread in recent years.
“Most basically, when reporters are required to go through PIOs to talk to anyone, the source people know they are under surveillance by the official structure and that changes everything. Likely enough, there is someone in the agency who could blow the whole story out of the water if the PIOs weren’t tracking who is talking to which reporter,” she said.
“Maybe the most frequent problem is not about hiding malfeasance. It may be the constant blockage of pieces of our education, so the whole understanding is weak,” she said. “However, often enough there is also just stone-cold manipulation of the message according to insiders’ ideas and desires, including political purposes.”

The report released April 9, which included survey results from science writers, was the fourth in a series of reports from the FOI committee since 2012. The first surveyed Washington¬‐area reporters who covered federal agencies. The second surveyed members of the Education Writers Association and the third was a national survey of state and local political reporters. FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson led the research for these surveys.

Must read FOI stories – 5/23/14

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

Wisconsin court ruling is a real danger to open records. It’s a big problem giving government officials the right to “consider the intentions of people who file open records request when deciding whether to fill them.”

The joy of public records — You can’t make this stuff up… No spoilers on this one, you just have to click it.

It took four months to redact a majority of a top-secret Pentagon report conducted to determine the damage done by the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. It concluded that “the scope of the compromised knowledge related to US intelligence capabilities is staggering.”

The FOIA Project just uploaded 97 new FOIA court documents, plus case descriptions. No need to pay for a PACER account now.

Federal Appeals Court ruling says that the CIA can keep their 50-year-old internal account of the Bay of Pigs secret indefinitely.

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

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.

FOI Daily Dose: Judge dismisses North Carolina public records lawsuit for confidential settlement; Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

Judge dismisses N.C. public records lawsuit against hospital chain for confidential settlement

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit a Charlotte attorney filed against one of the nation’s largest public hospital chains for violating the North Carolina public records law, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner ruled that the hospital chain, Carolinas HealthCare System, can legally keep a confidential settlement from its 2008 lawsuit against the former Wachovia Bank (see previous post).

Since the hospital chain’s board of directors made the settlement in a closed session and kept it confidential, attorney Gary Jackson filed a public records request to inspect it and ensure it’s fair.

In a hearing last week, attorneys for Carolinas HealthCare argued that the hospital chain can legally withhold the settlement because the state’s public records laws has many holes.

But Jackson said legislators never intended the law to allow confidential settlements in lawsuits involving government agencies, so he plans to appeal Sumner’s ruling to the N.C. Court of Appeals, according to The Observer.

The Observer notes that former state Senator David Hoyle who sponsored most North Carolina public records laws, agrees with Jackson.

“The intent was that if it becomes a court case, the results of the settlement were to be made public,” Hoyle told The Observer.

Pennsylvania considers changes to Right-to-Know law

As Pennsylvania lawmakers weigh a series of potential changes to the state’s 5-year-old Right-to-Know law, the head of Pennsylvania’s open records agency is telling them to proceed with caution, according to NewsWorks.

The Senate is considering one piece of legislation to address problems with the state’s open records, and the House has at least 10 different proposals.

But Terry Mutchler, director of the Office of Open Records, told NewsWorks some of the changes proposed in the name of open government could deny certain populations, such as prison inmates, the right to access information and exempt information from public requests.

“While the intent is good, I have some concerns with the results,” Mutchler told NewsWorks.

But until the legislature decides to change Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, a recent Commonwealth Court decision could mean more access to information from state-related universities, according to Watchdog News.

In the case of Ryan Bagwell v. Department of Education, Bagwell, a Penn State alumnus, requested information about the Jerry Sandusky investigation, including emails, letters, reports and memos sent to then-Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis. The Commonwealth Court decided since the records are part of the education secretary’s job dealing with state-related universities, they should be released, Watchdog News said.

Mutchler expects the decision to have a “domino effect” on similar cases, and she expects the state to expand the Right-to-Know law for state-related universities.

“I am grateful the Legislature took its time with deciding this question, because it has to be done right, and it has to be done well, and the implications of it have to be thought through,” Mutchler told Watchdog News.

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.

FOI Daily Dose: FOIA fines prompt change in Michigan; Washington city council tries private email trick; More public records controversy in California

Hefty FOIA fines prompt change in Michigan

Hefty fines for public records requests in Michigan rally support for the state’s House Bill 4001 aimed at limiting costs to 10 cents per page and eliminating the charge for on-sight inspection, according to the Oakland Press.

Residents and reporters are worried the state’s current fees for obtaining free information discourage the public from requesting records.

In Oakland Township, where the current cost is 25 cents per page plus labor, resident Marc Edwards racked up a nearly $2,500 bill for two FOIA requests with township officials. The bulk of the cost came from the 8,918 pages he requested in print, according to the Oakland Press.

House Bill 4001 was introduced Jan. 9 by Rep. Mike Shirkey. Along with lowering costs for the public, it raises fees from $500 to $5,000 for government agencies that delay or deny records requests. Government agencies would be allowed a 10-day extension, and after that, the cost of the request would drop 20 cents per day, the Press said.

Washington city council members discuss official business in private emails

Members of the Bainbridge Island City Council in Washington were caught discussing city business using private email accounts last week, and when the city asked them to turn over the emails pertaining to official business, some refused, according to the Bainbridge Island Review.

Discussing official business on private email accounts keeps information out of public reach and violates the city’s Manuel of City Governance adopted in 2010 that says council members “shall cease utilizing any private, public or proprietary email service other than the city’s, for the sending or receiving of any such emails that meet the definition of public records,” according to the Review.

More public records controversy in California

Although Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation loosening requirements for meeting open records requests on June 27, he remains committed to relieving the state of its financial burden for reimbursing local governments when they meet records requests, according to The Associated Press.

The same afternoon Brown signed the state budget, lawmakers proposed constitutional amendment SCA3 to save the state government millions of dollars a year by requiring local agencies to pay for fulfilling the records requests they receive. It’s currently pending before the Senate, and it needs two-thirds support from both houses to be placed on a statewide ballot next year, the AP said.

But while Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the amendment is aimed at strengthening open-government laws and holding local governments accountable, the Oakland Tribune’s editorial board is skeptical it might go too far.

The Tribune fears the amendment requires local governments to comply with the exemption-ridden Public Records Act and Brown Act open-meeting law, giving both acts “greater legal weight.”

They also said the amendment allows the legislature and governor to change the laws and, hence, the constitution at any time without voter approval.

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.

FOI Daily Dose: NSA denies reporter’s FOIA request, open-data company to expand government data trove

NSA denies ProPublica reporter’s FOIA request for his own records

Jeff Larson of ProPublica filed a freedom of information request with the National Security Agency (NSA) asking for any personal data the agency collected about him, and his request was denied, according to ProPublica.

Larson filed the request on June 13, shortly after the first of the NSA’s mass surveillance systems was unveiled on June 6. He received a letter from the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Pamela Phillips on June 24 neither confirming nor denying that the agency had his metadata and warning him any response could “allow our adversaries to accumulate information and draw conclusions about the NSA’s technical capabilities, sources, and methods.”

In the letter (see here), Phillips cites section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the NSA’s surveillance in the interest of national security and tells Larson granting his request would compromise classified information (the existence or non-existence of such metadata).

Ultimately, Larson concluded he would have to file a lawsuit if he actually wanted to see his records. While he was in touch with the NSA, he learned that their FOIA office has received more than 1,000 information requests since June 7 and hasn’t approved any Privacy Act requests for metadata, according to ProPublica.

“We do not search operational records on specific individuals,” Phillips told Larson.

Open-data company raises money to expand government data trove

An open-data cloud software company that plans to put the NSA’s data online and analyze it raised $18 million to share more government information with the general public, according to TechCrunch.

The Seattle-based Socrata consumerizes “untapped” government data by putting it into accessible and usable forms for citizens, developers and government employees. The funding came from OpenView Venture Partners, Morgenthaler Ventures and Frazier Technology Partners, and as part of the deal,  Scott Maxwell of OpenView will join Socrata’s board.

Along with hiring more staff, the company said it will use its new funds to expand its cloud infrastructure and develop portals and apps it calls “the next wave of open data and government performance innovations.” One of Socrata’s most recent apps called GovStat allows government agencies to set goals and measure their impact against data. GeekWire said many cities are already using Socrata for everything from compiling restaurant inspection data to election results and voter information.

TechCrunch asked Socrata about its plans for the NSA’s data, and Socrata said it has a platform “designed to help put the government online to see what it is doing with the data and what can be built from it.”

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.

FOI Daily Dose: California reverses ruling on public records, New Mexico open government group fights for previously denied records

California to reverse ruling on public records

Pressure from reporters and open government advocates helped reverse legislation in California this week that threatened to make key parts of the state’s Public Records Act optional, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The California legislature passed Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal on June 14 with an inconspicuous trailer bill to help the state save money on reimbursing local governments when they fulfill records requests (see previous post).  The bill said agencies no longer needed to explain why they were unable to meet requests, and they could provide data in any form of their choosing.

Once the bill was passed, it attracted immediate criticism from news outlets and citizens who wrote editorials, emailed and called legislators en masse, according to the Times.

Public voices grew louder until Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) proposed legislation June 19 to rescind the bill’s negative side effects. But Pérez’s proposal was blocked in the Senate later that afternoon by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Steinberg suggested passing the original legislation and then passing a constitutional amendment one year later to reinstate the records act and force local governments to pay for all its costs, the Times said (see another previous post).

But the one-year window of government secrecy induced more public outcry, so the legislature eventually agreed to pass both Pérez’s substitute bill and Steinberg’s constitutional amendment, calling it a short-term and a long-term solution.

Open government group in New Mexico fights for previously denied records

Freedom of information advocates in New Mexico are requesting previously denied records about the travel and expenses of Gov. Susana Martinez’s security detail during the 2012 election season, according to the ABQ Journal.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) filed an inspection of Public Records Act request July 25 for “the schedules of any overtime paid to and all travel expenses of officers” assigned to Martinez’s personal security team when she made several political trips in August-October 2012, the Journal said.

The Department of Public Safety and the Department of Finance and Administration previously denied records requests from The Associated Press on grounds that the information might compromise the security of Martinez and her family.

But FOG argues that the agencies’ decision to deny the request flies in the face of a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling (Republican Party of New Mexico v. New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department) that prohibited the state from withholding records unless they are specifically exempted from release under the Inspection of Public Records Act or other regulation.

“This is a troubling response because we do not think it reflects clear direction from New Mexico’s Supreme Court on an important issue of public access,” FOG acting executive director Janice Honeycutt told the Journal. “We would urge the agency to comply and avoid a costly legal battle in which the taxpayers will likely pick up the tab.”

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.

FOI Daily Dose: Ohio newspapers restrictions on open government, AP president says DOJ violated its own rules

Ohio newspapers stand against restrictions on open government, records

The Ohio Newspapers Association (ONA) is standing against more than half a dozen bills pending in the legislature that place more restrictions on the state’s public records and open meetings laws, according to Gongwer News Service.

Two bills ONA is watching closely include House Bill 59, an amendment that allows local governments to discuss economic development deals in secret and Senate Bill 60, legislation that eliminates public access to concealed handgun permit records (see previous post).

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio monitors the state’s sunshine laws, and she told Gongwer News Service she’s noticed increased efforts to limit access to government information across the board.

Dennis Hetzel, ONA executive director, told Gongwer there are other pending bills that provide hope for open government advocates, including Senate Bill 93 that limits reasons for executive session, House Bill 175 that creates a state government expenditure database and House Bill 189 that increases the transparency of Jobs Ohio.

AP president says DOJ subpoena without warning violated DOJ rules, compromised First Amendment freedoms

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, accused the Justice Department of violating its own rules when it secretly subpoenaed more than 20 AP phone lines in May. He also noted some sources have been reluctant to talk with reporters since the search for  fear that their anonymity will be compromised.

Pruitt addressed a luncheon of journalists and others June 19, telling them the AP was never warned about the search that monitored thousands of phone calls to and from its reporters even though the DOJ rules say the only reason for a delay in notification is if the party searched could compromise the investigation.

Pruitt said there’s little reason to believe this could justify not warning the AP because their phone records were in the hands of the phone company so there’s no way they could have tampered with them. The FBI had also already announced its leak investigation by the time the search began, so the leaker was already tipped off, Pruitt said.

Instead, he explained the only logical reason the DOJ did not notify the AP is to supersede the AP’s ability to contest the search or narrow its scope.

“The DOJ’s actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” Pruitt said.

Beyond the DOJ’s own code of ethics, he said the search compromised the First Amendment freedom of the press and effectively suppressed the free speech of federal leakers. Since the search, he said reporters from several news organizations have told him their sources felt intimidated by the DOJ’s actions.

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.

Maine and D.C. officials aim to hide communications; Calif. opens more records

Maine: Governor Paul LePage is proposing a measure to hide all working papers from public access, reports the Bangor Daily News.  The state legislature currently enjoys such protection of its working papers, or “anything written down that could contribute to proposed legislation.” The state’s right-to-know advisory committee has approved the proposal by a vote of 10 to five. Dissenting members of the committee advocate not only for the governor’s proposal to be rejected, but for the legislature to lose its current protections of working papers.

Judy Meyer, co-chairperson of the committee and managing editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, said that “this runs completely contrary to what the governor has said about transparency.” The governor’s deputy counsel, Michael Cianchette, argues that the proposed protection “doesn’t cut against transparency because as soon as a bill is presented, all documents become public. This just protects the decision-making process.”

Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post reports that some top city officials in D.C. have used personal email accounts for work purposes. Speaking for Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who testified at a deposition last month, Gandhi’s chief of staff said, “There may have been an issue that we wanted to discuss, but did not necessarily want it to be FOIA-able to the press and, so, we would have perhaps had a conversation on personal email.” Gandhi explained at the deposition that he used his personal email account when emailing colleagues from home, citing difficulty accessing his work account. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray may also be under fire after the Post uncovered several emails he had sent to aides from his personal account.

California: In good FOIA news, a California state senator has introduced a bill that would require more transparency and ease of access to public files among government agencies. Rather than posting graphics and scans of documents, which are not keyword-friendly, Sen. Leland Yee’s bill would require public documents and data to be uploaded in user-friendly formats such as word-processing and spreadsheet files. On Saturday, a conference/”hack-a-thon” was hosted to allow software developers to create applications that can help the government open and streamline its operations. Read the story from the Central Valley Business Times.

– Abby Henkel

Abby Henkel is SPJ’s communications coordinator and a 2011 graduate of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs master’s program. Reach her at ahenkel@spj.org.

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