Posts Tagged ‘open records’


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emails are automatically published to the website, except for the confidential emails that commissioners place in a “do not publish list.”

If I were a reporter in Gainesville, I would be checking the database every day for accidentally published “do not publish list” emails.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

FOI Daily Dose: Attorney sues Carolinas HealthCare System for withholding confidential settlement

A Charlotte attorney is suing Carolinas HealthCare System for allegedly violating the state’s “sometimes-ambiguous” public records law by keeping a settlement confidential, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Attorney Gary Jackson is arguing that Carolinas HealthCare has no legal right to keep its settlement confidential, and he’s asking for a court order to force disclosure of the document so he can see if it’s fair.

Carolinas HealthCare won the confidential settlement in a court complaint in 2008 against the former Wachovia Bank. The hospital system said the bank broke its promise to put the hospital’s money in low-risk investments. One of their investments fell from about $15 million to $1.8 million, according to The Observer.

The hospital system’s board of directors in 2011 went into a closed session to approve the settlement, but they kept it confidential and refused to provide copies of the agreement.

Jackson and Carolinas HealthCare representatives came before a Superior Court Judge this week in a hearing to present their case.

The hospital is motioning to dismiss Jackson’s suit because the public records law does not explicitly say suits filed by a government agency are public records.

Mark Merritt, a lawyer representing the hospital system, said public disclosure could cost public bodies more money. He argued that the settlement falls through one of the public records act’s many loopholes because the law only requires public release of “any suit, administrative proceeding or arbitration instituted against any agency of North Carolina government.”

“I describe (the public records act) as a Swiss cheese,” Merritt said at the hearing. “It’s got a lot of holes in it.”

Jackson agreed the law does have holes, but said he doesn’t believe confidential settlements in lawsuits filed by public agencies should be allowed to slip through and evade the public eye.

“It’s a public body and there needs to be that transparency,” he said.

Jackson said even though Carolinas Healthcare is the largest employer in Mecklenburg County, it is “not known for transparency.”

Carolinas HealthCare system is a public, tax-exempt hospital, but Mecklenburg County officials have criticized it for acting more like a private organization than a public one, The Observer reported.

The Observer lists a series of speculative open records and open meetings violations committed by the hospital, including failing to share data about a county-owned psychiatric hospital, not inviting the public to quarterly board meetings and not providing The Observer with its administrative expenses.

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 likely limiting open records access, Ohio could conceal handgun license records

California likely limiting open records access

California lawmakers clashed June 19 over changes to the state’s open records laws slipped into the back pocket of the state budget bill earlier this week.

The 11th-hour trailer bill (see previous post) is aimed at reducing reimbursements to local governments when they provide public records, but California news organizations fear it will limit access by giving local governments free reign to stall records requests and avoid responding all together, according to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) proposed legislation Wednesday to rescind the bill’s negative side effects. But it was blocked in the Senate later that afternoon by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who proposed passing the original legislation and keeping Pérez’s bill “on hold” until they can wait and see if local governments actually withhold records, the Daily Bulletin said.

The Los Angeles Times reports Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the original measure.

Ohio could conceal handgun license records

The Ohio General Assembly may bar journalists from accessing concealed-handgun-license records unless they have a court order to review the information, according to The Oakland Press.

Under the current law, journalists can see the records containing the name, birth date and county of residence for handgun permit holders, but they cannot copy the information. The records are not available to the public at all, according to the Press.

Sen. Joseph Uecker (R-Loveland) defended the measure to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, telling them he decided to introduce the legislation last year after a New York newspaper published a map of gun-license holders. He wants to avoid a similar situation in Ohio.

“It is clear that journalists will not always utilize restraint,” Uecker told the Criminal Justice Committee. “Citizens across the country are looking to their elected officials for clarity.”

The bill is scheduled for a second hearing this week, the Press reported.

 

FOI Daily Dose: Open records threatened in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania

Arizona city suggests capping records requests that take ‘long hours’ to complete

Arizona open records laws may be under attack if the legislature passes a bill that threatens to limit the number of information requests a person can file, according to the Arizona Daily Sun. Currently, Arizona law says records must be “open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.” But Yuma City Records Coordinator Susan Alden told the Daily Sun this law requires long hours for staffers to meet multiple, broad records requests. Even so, she said there is “less need to limit the number of requests someone can submit in a period time,” and more need to allow agencies to charge for research time.

Wisconsin FOI Council calls out organization for labeling their own records private

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is challenging a national federalism and conservative public policy organization for exchanging documents with government officials through private online drop boxes and labeling its own materials with disclaimers saying they are not subject to the Wisconsin open records law, according to the Beloit Daily News.

Michael Bowman, senior director of policy and strategic initiatives for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said the organization publicizes its final policy decisions. But until then it keeps documents secret so they aren’t mistaken for final policy, the Daily New reported.

The group also uses drop box to exchange documents instead of email because it thinks drop box files are not subject to public records.

But the Freedom of Information Council scoffs at these practices, coming alongside Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy that filed a lawsuit June 6 seeking ALEC’s materials related to a Republican state senator.

“A stamp by a private non-governmental group saying the records that it shares with lawmakers are not subject to open records laws should carry no weight,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, told the Daily News.  “Absolutely none.”

Pennsylvania county conceals records for controller charged with felony

A Pennsylvania county denied the Citizens’ Voice news organization’s open records request for a county controller’s email records because he was arrested on felony electronic-surveillance charges, and he allegedly violated the state’s wiretap law, according to the Citizens’ Voice.

The Voice requested copies of the controller’s emails from January to May 2013 and from Jan. 1, 2012 to April 30, 2012, but said on June 11 that they were denied by Luzerne County because the controller “is under criminal and non-criminal investigations.”

The Citizens’ Voice said it plans to file appeals to the state Office of Open Records claiming that it is implausible that all of the controller’s emails are exempt from the Right To Know Law.

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. – See more at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi

SPJ FOI Update: Chicago Headline Club releases access survey results

SPJ’s chapter in Chicago, the Headline Club, conducted a survey in early 2011 that shows it can be tough for journalists in the Chicago area to get the public records access they need.

Funded with a $40,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation, the information access study asked local reporters about information request response times. The chapter announced the results Wednesday. The University of Illinois Survey Research Laboratory conducted the Web-based survey in February and March 2011.

According to the study, 51.6 percent of information requests to the federal government took more than 20 days for a response.

The study also found that 66.3 percent of requests to the State of Illinois, 72.5 percent of requests in Cook County, and 66.7 percent of requests for the City of Chicago took more than five days for a response.

The 61-page report is available on the Chicago Headline Club’s website.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

FOI DAILY DOSE: NYT reporter subpoenaed in CIA leak case and Wisconsin voting issues

NY TIMES REPORTER SUBPOENAED

A New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner, James Risen, was subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice for the trial of a suspected government whistleblower.

The accused leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, was indicted in December 2010 by a federal grand jury in Virginia. He is on trial for allegedly providing national defense information to Risen that appeared in a 2006 book called “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

No federal law exists that exempts journalists from testifying. Risen’s lawyer told The Associated Press he would attempt to have a judge override the subpoena.

The Society of Professional Journalists has, with other journalism groups and news outlets, pushed for a federal shield law in recent years. The proposed Free Flow of Information Act would protect journalists like Risen from turning over confidential sources and notes in federal cases, though there would be certain national security exceptions.

WISCONSIN

In Wisconsin, Media Trackers investigated voting practices during the April 5 election using open records requests.

From a small sample of registrations in 15 wards, Media Trackers found evidence of incomplete voter registrations and possible voter registration abuses.

Providing proof of residence for voters was a major problem uncovered by the records request. In one instance, a voter provided an acceptance letter from the University of Minnesota as a proof of residence, which wouldn’t be deemed acceptable under the guidelines by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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