Rhode Island Gets New FOI Revamp!

Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Tuesday signed a reworked public records bill into law that unseals government employment contracts and creates a so-called “balancing test” for disclosures modeled after federal statute.

The new law is the first significant change to the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) in 14 years and Chafee said he hopes it will make government more transparent in Rhode Island.

“It’s a good bill, passed almost unanimously,” Chafee said moments after signing it. “We’re always criticized for being inaccessible and we struggle with some of our ethical issues in this state, so it’s always good to [let] sunshine in.”

The law – which goes into effect Sept. 1 – also requires certain details of an arrest to be released within 48 hours on weekdays or 72 hours on weekends. The information would be presented as an arrest “log” and include the name of the person charged, the alleged crime and where and when it took place. Massachusetts uses a similar process.

The most significant change is the addition of the balancing test, which is designed to counter a broad exemption in the old law that keeps sealed all records that are “personally identifiable” to an individual.

Ohio Launches New FOI Mediation Service

Citizens having problems getting public records from government agencies can now turn to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for a new forum to resolve the dispute.

Attorney General Mike DeWine on Wednesday announced the formation of a public records mediation program.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Public Records Mediation Program, which will be overseen by lawyers in the AG’s public records unit, is aimed at resolving disputes over public records requests that are alleged to have been improperly denied or not responded to in a reasonable amount of time.

“Frankly, what we are trying to do is speed things up, save taxpayers’ money and get the people who want the information the actual information they want,” said DeWine in a phone interview. “Many times a request comes in and it’s a very broad request and the government entity is faced with denying the request or spending a ton of time and money trying to gather the records. We think a lot of these can get worked out, so that’s why we are doing it.”

Both parties must agree to enter into the mediation program and the person requesting the mediation retains the right to sue under Ohio’s open records law.

While DeWine couldn’t put a timeframe on how quickly a typical case would be resolved, he said speed would be of the essence.

“I told our team we should only do this if we can do it quickly. Our intention is to jump on this right away as most of these cases aren’t horribly complex and the legal issues aren’t horribly complex.”

A spokesman for DeWine said the goal would be to get an answer about whether both parties in a dispute would accept mediation within 10 days of the initial complaint.

Boy Scout “Perversion Files” Public Oregon Court Rules

The Oregon Supreme Court has approved the release

History of the Boy Scouts of America

History of the Boy Scouts of America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

of 20,000 pages of so-called perversion files compiled by the Boy Scouts of America on suspected child molesters within the organization for more than 20 years, giving the public its first chance to review the records.

The files gathered from 1965 to 1985 came to light when they were used as evidence in a landmark Oregon lawsuit that ended in 2010 with a jury ruling that the Scouts had failed to protect a plaintiff who had been molested by an assistant scoutmaster in the early 1980s.

The Scouts were ordered to pay the man $18.5 million and the case drew attention to the organization’s efforts to keep child molesters out of its leadership ranks.

The perversion files contain accusations against Scout leaders that ranged from child abuse to lesser offenses that would prohibit them from working in the Scouts. The organization, headquartered in Irving, Texas, has said the files have succeeded in keeping molesters out of the Scouts.

The Boy Scouts fought to keep the files sealed in the Oregon case. But a judge ruled that since the information was used at trial it was public record, prompting the organization to appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court.

A Multnomah County judge had said that the names of alleged victims and the people who reported the accusations should be kept private. The state Supreme Court agreed with his decision.

The Scouts argued opening the files could unfairly affect those who were suspected but never convicted of abuse. The organization also said that if the information were to go public it could prejudice potential jurors in future trials.

Media organizations, including The Associated Press, The Oregonian, The New York Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting, KGW-TV, and Courthouse News Service challenged the Scouts’ effort to keep the files under seal, arguing that their introduction by attorneys in the suit makes them public record.

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FOI At Work: Remember That GSA Boondoggle in Vegas? That was nothing….

Bloomberg drops an FOI-driven bomb:

The U.S. General Services Administration, under investigation for excessive spending at a Las Vegas conference, almost tripled its expenditures for such events from 2005 to 2010.

Taxpayers paid $27.8 million for more than 200 overnight gatherings attended by at least 50 GSA employees since 2005, according to records obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The destinations included New Orleans; Orlando, Florida; and Palm Springs, California.

Lawmakers have been scrutinizing the agency since an inspector general report on April 2 revealed the 2010 Las Vegas event had cost more than $800,000. Since then, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson has resigned, and the inspector general has referred the matter to the Department of Justice.

“Starting with the Bush administration, GSA has wanted to be `more like business,’ but they seem to have picked up more of the vices than the virtues,” said Charles Tiefer, a former member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting. “These conferences look less like learning experiences and more like rewards for favored subordinates.”

 Whew! THAT is what FOIA is all about…
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A Great Idea: A Courts Access Audit!

Hats off to the Tacoma News Tribune, which took a long, hard look at access to court files in the region, with disturbing results…

Several small courts in the South Sound, including half of the courthouses in Pierce County, fell short of that state standard in a recent survey of 22 district and municipal courts conducted by The News Tribune.

In municipal courts from Sumner and Fircrest to Lakewood and Yelm, among other sites, court clerks denied, hindered or delayed requests to view case records. They gave reasons that contradicted legal requirements set down by the Washington State Supreme Court.

Some courts handled requests properly, providing immediate access to files. Smaller municipal courts, typically relying on one or two staff members with limited training, were most likely to block or hinder access – but larger, higher-volume courts also fell short in some instances.

Some clerks said the cases were still “open” or “ongoing” and thus barred from public view. Some said only attorneys and defendants could view case records. Some said case files were confidential. Clerks in two courts – Sumner and Fircrest – insisted the only way to view case files was to pay for copies.

Those answers were wrong. They contradict state rules that govern courts large and small. High-ranking legal leaders, including Barbara Madsen, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said The News Tribune’s findings paint a picture that calls for correction and training.

“That’s obviously troubling,” Madsen said. “It’s troubling to think that members of the public would not be able to access records which are obviously accessible, so I’m disappointed. We will be looking further into the situation.”

FAC Sues City Over Emails…

A new suit filed by the First Amendment Coalition claims that city officials’ emails about government business are public records even though they were sent or received on the officials’ personal email accounts.

The suit, against the city of Auburn and Auburn’s City Council, also challenges the city’s policy–similar to that of many California cities and counties– of deleting most government emails shortly after they are received, regardless of their status under the Public Records Act. The suit was filed June 1 in Placer County Superior Court.

FAC is joined in the case by Victoria Connolly, an Auburn resident and community activist. She and FAC submitted public record requests for emails to and among Auburn Council members dealing with a local ballot initiative to convert Auburn to a “charter city.” The locally controversial ballot issue was defeated in last week’s elections. (The measure was opposed by Ms. Connolly; FAC took no position on the charter city question).

Karl Olson, the attorney representing both FAC and Connolly, said the public has a right to see council members’ emails about Auburn city business. “When city officials discuss or conduct city business, the writings should be open regardless of whose computer they use or what email account they use,” Olson said.

During the period covered by the record requests, the city’s website listed the council members’ personal emails as the addresses to use for communicating with the City Council members on government business.

“It’s undisputed that council members’ emails on government business, when sent from a dot-gov email account, are subject to the Public Records Act,” said FAC executive director Peter Scheer. “If council members could avoid the disclosure law simply by switching to a gmail or similar personal email account, their most important communications would evade public accountability,” Scheer said.

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Tweets and texts and emails, oh my!

Electronic communications — specifically tweets, text and e-mail messages — between city officials discussing public business are subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, even if they were sent from personal cellphones and accounts, a state circuit judge ruled.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt issued an oral ruling Monday ordering the Champaign City Council to turn over all such electronic messages to a local newspaper, The News-Gazette, affirming an earlier opinionissued by the Illinois attorney general’s office.

City Attorney Fred Stavins said officials are deliberating whether to appeal.

“We didn’t think the Freedom of Information Act covered that kind of stuff,” he said. “There is not that much law in that area.”

Last July, News-Gazette reporter Patrick Wade filed a request for all electronic communications, “including cellphone text messages, sent and received by members of the city council and the mayor during city council meetings and study sessions since (and including) May 3.” Wade’s request included messages on city-issued cellphones, e-mail addresses and Twitter accounts, as well as personal ones.

The city disclosed 24 pages of documents — with personal e-mail addresses and phone numbers redacted — and withheld the rest, claiming they were not public records because they were from officials’ personal e-mail accounts and phones.

Wade asked the attorney general’s office to review the city’s decision not to disclose the requested materials in full. The office issued its opinion in November 2011, declaring the city’s actions to be “clearly inconsistent with” the state’s FOIA.

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