Texas Bill Would Allow Online Meetings…

Members of the Legislature and other governmental bodies could communicate in an online forum and not break the law under proposed legislation filed Thursday that would expand the Texas Open Meetings Act.

“Government should function efficiently and effectively, and the public should know as much as possible about what government is doing,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the author of Senate Bill 1297, said Thursday. “This bill uses technology to ensure that officials at every level of government can communicate when they need to.”

Currently, the Texas Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of local and state government boards from discussing government business unless it is in an open meeting that has been announced to the public. However, the act, which was first adopted in 1967 and revised in 1973, offers no guidance as to what is permissible in an online setting.

SB 1297 would allow for public officials to create online message boards that they could use to communicate government business. The boards would be available for the public to see.

The law would require all communication between officials to be in writing, which must be made available in real time. All postings would be required to be viewable for 30 days after posting, must be electronically archived for at least two years and are subject to Texas Public Information Act requests. No votes or official actions by the members of a board are allowed in these virtual arenas.

More here.

In Maine, a full-out assault on open government…

As the Portland Press Herald put it, “The public’s access to government information is under attack in Maine.” To wit:

The Legislature will take up several bills this session that would further puncture the state’s open-government law, snatching from public view information that is now considered part of the public’s right to know.

If approved, the measures will reinforce Maine’s national reputation as a place where transparency and government accountability rank behind privacy and other powerful interests.

The proposals include bills that would block access to information about individuals who hold concealed-weapons permits, allow police to withhold transcripts of 911 calls, and shield the email addresses of citizens who sign up to receive notifications from government groups.

If adopted, the proposals would lengthen the list of 483 exemptions that previous legislatures have already carved out of to the right-to-know law. Many more exemptions are woven into the governing statutes of various state agencies.

These exemptions, combined with a weak and costly appeals process for the denial of public records, and what some describe as a cultural reluctance to expose personal information collected by public officials, have positioned Maine as a state that does not value transparency.

“I don’t think of Maine when people ask me which states are shining examples of sunshine,” said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Sigmund Schutz, a Preti Flaherty media attorney whose clients include the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, describes Maine’s open-government law as “all over the place.”

“It’s good in some places, but really bad in others,” Schutz said.

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, adopted by the Legislature in 1959, stipulates that all records are public so long as they are used in the transaction of governmental business. But through liberal use of rulemaking, state lawmakers have reduced “all” records to “some.”

Open to public inspection are records such as tax assessments; visitor logs for state offices, including jails; the schedules of elected officials, including the governor, attorney general and the secretary of state; arrest logs; and transcripts of emergency dispatch calls.

But the Legislature has made myriad changes to the law to exempt documents from public view. Many exemptions have been made to protect personal identifying information during sensitive interactions with government, including information about who receives government assistance or data that could identify crime victims or impede police investigations.

Other exemptions are more arcane. One, adopted in 2001, shields the list of growers using genetically engineered plants. Another proved self-serving for state lawmakers, who voted in 1991 to shield their “working papers,” or communications related to the drafting of legislation. Gov. Paul LePage, citing legislators’ exemption, tried to obtain the same privilege in 2011, but the proposal was rejected.

Lawmakers periodically offer bills to strengthen the law, but those proposals face long odds, often traceable to the push-pull struggle between privacy and transparency.

Bunting, of the freedom of information coalition, said that unlike heavily populated states, Mainers’ close proximity to their elected officials and their government may make them more inclined to let government and its records remain private, or in some instances become that way.

“In a state like Maine there is a shorter distance … between the people and those city councils, school boards and lawmakers who see any liberalization of transparency laws as a threat,” Bunting said.

Much more here in this excellent report…..

This is a signal victory for openness in Tennessee, and a major shot across the bow of private prison operators. Seems CCA’s argument that it was not in the “official business” of running prisons didn’t hold water. Maybe it’s because they, well, run prisons?

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled that Corrections Corporation of America’s legal settlements are subject to the state Open Records law.

In a ruling filed on Feb. 28, the court said it disagreed with CCAs assertion that the company shouldn’t have to turn over settlement-related records because they aren’t part of the “official business” of running a prison.

The request for settlement agreements from CCA was part of a public records request made in 2007 by Alex Friedmann, the editor of Prison Legal News.

The company turned over some documents after a 2009 Appeals Court ruling that CCA is subject to the state’s Open Records law, but the legal settlements weren’t included.

CCA argued that the settlements didn’t fall under the statute’s definition of a public record and that because they were created for litigation — not the running of the prison — they weren’t subject to the law.

The court rejected both arguments.

“Settlement agreements have consistently been held to be public records by our courts,” the opinion stated.

More here.

UCF Student Media Outlet Sues Its University….

Um, wow….

Student media outlet Knight News sued UCF and its president, John C. Hitt, on Feb. 21, claiming the university violated public records acts and sunshine laws.

According to a PDF of the lawsuit on Knight News’ website, the student media group listed 10 alleged violations including public records request denials involving UCF and SGA, as well as violations of the sunshine laws.

In response to the closure of the Feb. 15 Sigma Chi fraternity suspension hearing, Knight News is looking for ratification of the current denial status of public and media access to observe such hearings.

According to an email written by Knight News’ attorney Justin Hemlepp, this lawsuit is about protecting the public’s rights under Florida laws.

“The public doesn’t know how UCF has been handling these hearings, and that is exactly the point of our lawsuit: to open these hearings to the sunshine so the public can see how the university is making these decisions,” Hemleppsaid.

More here.

Open Government: A State’s Rights Issue, or More?

The Atlantic takes an interesting look at the state FOI case in front of the Supremes:

A lot of American constitutional law involves the tension between “this land is your land” on the one hand and “you’re not from around here, are you?” on the other.

McBurney v. Youngwhich will be argued Wednesday in front of the Supreme Court, is a great example. The issue in McBurney is whether a state can set up an “open records” system that benefits only its own residents, while denying access to outsiders. As an issue, it’s less exciting than gay marriage, affirmative action, or the Voting Rights Act. But it has practical implications for anyone who owns or wants to own property in another state, who does business in more than one state, or who has moved recently from one state to another.

We take access to government records almost for granted. In fact, the challengers in McBurney argue that, because of its importance for business and daily life, such access has become a basic building block both of national citizenship and of interstate commerce. Virginia, however, argues that records access is simply a matter of local concern, like voting.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the country underwent a quiet revolution in open government. In 1966, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and all 50 states — those, that is, that didn’t already have “sunshine laws” — followed suit. Those laws are now a key part of politics, news-gathering, and business. They allow a requester to demand governmental records for any reason, and they require government to furnish copies without an excessive charge. FOIA requests are used to expose governmental wrongdoing, provide cheap discovery in litigation, fuel large-scale journalistic investigations, create multi-state research surveys, and obtain detailed data that can be mined, exploited, and sold.

Most states have opened their records to anyone who asks. However, Virginia and Tennessee extend the guarantee only to those within their borders. (Some other states have ambiguous laws providing access to every “citizen,” which could mean state citizen or federal. Delaware limited access to in-staters until the Third Circuit struck that requirement down in 2006.) The challengers argue that the “citizen only” laws conflict with two provisions of the Constitution. One is the “privileges and immunities” clause of Article IV; the other is the so-called “dormant commerce clause,” which courts have deduced from Congress’s power to regulate commerce “among the several states.”

Much more here.

Good Intentions Breed Bad Potential Outcomes in Colorado…

Freshman Rep. Brittany Pettersen’s House Bill 1041 (pdf) seeks to heighten public accountability by updating the Colorado Open Records Act. Her measure would prevent officials from requiring that people who ask for public documents review them in person before receiving copies. It was a legislative update activists applauded, until they read the bill, which they now decry as being ambiguously worded and ripe for abuse.

“It’s been a frustrating experience, even if it’s all part of the process,” said Pettersen. “It’s unfortunate, I think, on one level, because lawmakers in the future may be less willing to take up issues related to the Open Records Act and, on another, because the activists are right to see larger issues that need addressing.”

Marilyn Marks, founder of Aspen-based Citizen Center and a lightning-rod figure for controversy tied to records access, originally supported Petterson’s effort but is now leading the charge against it. In a letter to the editor published in the The Colorado Statesman last week, Marks called Pettersen “petulant” for not meeting with activists, and called House Bill 1041 an “anti-transparency bill.” She believes lobbyists have worked to include language in the bill that would make it possible for obstructionist records custodians to charge high fees to records seekers and shut down meaningful document review.

Veterans of battles over the Open Records Act are unsurprised by the suspicions rising up around the bill in the activist community.

Steve Zansberg, a top media attorney in the state and one of the architects of the bill, said it makes sense that government accountability champions like Marks guard their right to access vigilantly and are wary of any proposed changes to records laws — even changes they may have initially supported.

“I understand folks who have had bad experiences with records custodians and so come to the bill with suspicions. They see vague language and they view that vagueness as a ‘trap for the unwary,’” he said. “But all language is susceptible to abuse. No legislation will work 100 percent of the time to protect against bad faith.”

Katie Fleming, Colorado associate director of government accountability group Common Cause, was also not surprised by the heat the bill has drawn.

“The Open Records Act is one of the most effective ways the public has to hold officials accountable and to make sure laws are working. It’s just going to generate lots of interest every time you talk about it,” she said.

Read more here.

Cincy Enquirer Before State Supremes on Conviction Records Denial

The Cincinnati Enquirer is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to order a Butler County judge to release thousands of criminal-conviction records it contends are being illegally withheld.

A judge has routinely – and immediately — sealed the convictions of some offenders, principally students at Miami University in Oxford, for 14 years, according to the newspaper.

Problem is, the records were illegally sealed and, as such, remain public records, The Enquirer argues in its filing with the Ohio Supreme Court.

The judge has been sealing records of criminal convictions by citing a section of state law that permits those found not guilty or against whom charges are dismissed to petition to seal such records.

Of course, the cases being disputed by newspaper involve convictions and different law comes into play. First-time offenders are entitled to petition a judge to seal a conviction after one year for a misdemeanor and after three years for certain non-violent felonies.

The Butler County prosecutor, who represents the judge, has said the court records cannot be provided because they have been sealed and have shed their status as public records.

However, the newspaper is arguing before the justices that since the records were illegally sealed, they never have been defrocked of their status as public records under court rules and state law.

Bed Bugs and the Pathology of Secrecy

An adult bed bug (Cimex lectularius) with the ...

An adult bed bug (Cimex lectularius) with the typical flattened oval shape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a textbook example of why sometimes secrecy seems like the right thing, when in fact it is precisely the wrong thing…

A bill that would shield certain bed bug data from public records law in an effort to encourage voluntary reporting passed in the House this morning.

House Bill 2131, which now heads to the Senate, passed on a 55-1 vote.

Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, said that bed bug infestations are a growing health concern in Oregon.

“Here’s the bill that you have been itching to vote on,” Kennemer told lawmakers on the House floor.

Under the bill, bed bug infestations reported by pest control operators to a public health authority would be kept confidential. The location of the infestation, identity of the property owner and information describing the infestation would be exempt from public records law.

Public health officials say that it would encourage voluntary reporting for data that is currently difficult to gather.

Pest control operators are not required to report bed bug infestations. If the information was released to the public, it could jeopardize the operator’s business with clients, supporters say.

“Collecting this new data allows public health (officials) to make data-driven decisions about prioritization of scarce resources for bed bug education, mitigation and assistance,” Kennemer said.

So, to translate: we have a public health concern. It could cause very real shame to those who have an infestation…so, if we keep this information from the public, it will incentivize those in arrears to clean up their act.

Nothing — absolutely nothing – supports that assumption. Logic defies it. And yet it emerges over and over in FOI issues: “hide it, and it will get better…” I am itching just thinking about it.

 

Missouri Lawmakers Get to Work on Sunhsine Bill…

What began as a debate Monday on a bill to reinstate expired security exemptions in the Missouri Sunshine Law turned into an attempt by one senator to expand access to records.

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, brought up Senate Bill 139 for debate on the Senate floor Monday afternoon. Under Kehoe’s bill, exemptions for security planning and response guidelines by governmental bodies will be put back in place. The exemptions, put in place more than 10 years ago following the September 11 attacks, expired at the end of 2012.

Only a few minutes after debate began, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, took to the floor to offer an amendment to, in his words, strengthen the law. The amendment makes it easier to sue public bodies for violations of the law and requires 48 hours notice of public meetings, rather than the current 24 hours….

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis, introduced an amendment to the amendment to require closed meetings to be tape-recorded. The tapes would only be reviewable by a judge when trying to determine if a violation of the Sunshine Law had occurred, Sifton said.

The bill also reinstates the security exemptions.

Virginia unleashes the worst FOI bill in recent memory…

Make no mistake about it: this bill is an unmitigated disaster, an epic reversal of the presumption of openness that forms the basis of public records law. If you know anyone in Virginia interested in access to information, please help sound the alarms, for this is as bad as it gets!

A bill speeding through the state legislature upends a major tenet of information access, say the foes of the measure.

House Bill 1524 seeks to reverse the “open unless closed” presumption of the Freedom of Information Act to make the law “closed unless open,” according to Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Rhyne and Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, spoke out against the bill when the senate FOIA subcommittee took up the legislation Wednesday. The panel reported the bill to the Committee on General Laws that meets on Monday…

Current law states that information related to children participating in state or local parks and recreation department programs is public record unless a parent opts out of disclosure, according to Rhyne. Such departments began providing “opt out” boxes on registration forms for parents to check off for their children since the state enacted the law in 2004.

“This one flips [the presumption] on its head so that the default rule is these records about children in parks and rec are closed unless somebody flips the switch to make them open,” Gernhardt explained.

Stanley stated in an email Wednesday that, under FOIA, records and meetings remain open unless specifically stated as an exemption. Even then the custodian of record may choose to release the information. Likewise a public body can choose not to close a meeting. Such rules pertain to information in school directories, according to Stanley.

“Unfortunately, the senators that heard testimony this morning were voting with their hearts (it was all about the children) instead of trying to understand the code section (2.2-3705.7-22) that already gives proper protection to the participants as long as the opt out box is checked on the registration form,” Stanley states.

Rhyne and Stanley also have testified that such a change to the philosophy of FOIA could set a precedent and open the door for similar alterations, Gernhardt said. The attorney indicated he couldn’t predict whether such legislation would lead to further changes in the state law.

Del. Ronald A. Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored the bill in the house where it met almost no opposition. The House of Delegates on Jan. 25 passed the bill by a 96-1 vote. Delegates representing the Northern Shenandoah Valley voted in favor of the bill’s passage. Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, did not vote.

No incidents have been reported since 2004, according to Rhyne, who, in a coalition newsletter, also refutes claims that this legislation would enhance protection for children. Games and practices are held in public places; rosters and schedules are freely distributed and shared with participants, according to Rhyne. Schools often provide directory information for all children whose parents have not opted our and then share that with school families. In fact, the Family Educational and Rights Privacy Act stipulates that director information is open to the public.

Parent-teacher associations routinely share children’s contact information to vendors of school-related products and services. Newspapers publish honor roll lists and congratulatory messages that name children, Rhyne notes. Commercial entities often share children’s contact information through magazine subscriptions and video game registration. Privately run sports leagues publish participant information that coaches, teachers or vendors can use, according to Rhyne.

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