As Missouri Sunshine Law Turns 40, Changes Proposed

For the 40th anniversary of the Missouri Sunshine Law, Sen. Kurt Schaefer is pushing a bill to limit closed meeting discussions by public officials and make it easier to prove when violations have taken place.

Schaefer, R-Columbia, has sponsored some of the proposed changes to the state’s open-records law for each of the past two years and expects more action this year as lawmakers also address anti-terrorism exemptions that expired at the end of 2012…

Under Schaefer’s proposal, which has not been scheduled for a hearing, public bodies would be required to include summaries of closed-meeting discussions in the minutes of those meetings. In addition, closed meetings to discuss litigation or potential litigation could only take place after a lawsuit has been filed or after a credible threat of a lawsuit over a specific action has been received.

To make enforcement easier, government agencies or boards that violate the Sunshine Law would be hit with a mandatory fine of $100 rather than a discretionary fine of as much as $1,000. When a knowing violation is proved, the proposal awards attorney fees to the party bringing the enforcement lawsuit. Under current law, a judge is allowed to award attorney costs but not required to do so.

Enforcement now, Schaefer said, “is a fairly complicated process that I don’t know that government entities really fear.”

Cool little FOI quiz…

This is a great little quiz that the non-profit news site The St. Louis Beacon worked with me and a St. Louis attorney to create….other states should replicate this!

 

 

Executive Privilege Challenge to be Heard by Washington Supreme Court

A growing menace, this state-level claiming of executive privilege:

Does the governor have the right to to shield documents from public view simply because she’s the governor? That’s a question the state Supreme Court late last month announced it would consider.

The case is brought by the Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank based in Olympia. The group is challenging Governor Chris Gregoire’s claim to an “executive privilege” that she says allows her to withhold documents from public disclosure. According to the foundation’s research, Gregoire claimed this privilege roughly 500 times between 2007 and 2010.

But there is no executive privilege spelled out in either the state Public Records Act, or the state constitution. So the foundation sued, citing a half-dozen examples of withheld documents.

Alan Copsey, the deputy solicitor general in the state Attorney General’s office, tells Seattle Weekly that the privilege “flows from the separation of powers.” He explains: “Each branch of government has a core function and in order to perform it property, it needs to have room to operate.” In the governor’s case, he continues, that means letting the state’s chief exec privately “consult with her advisers before making a decision.”

Freedom Foundation attorney Mike Reitz, however, says the documents withheld by Gregoire are not just communications between the governor and her advisers. He cites, for instance, a draft memorandum of agreement–along with Gregoire’s handwritten notes–between the state, King County, and city of Seattle over the viaduct replacement.

The question is, says Copsey, who were those handwritten notes for? He suggests that they may have been intended for the governor’s aides.

This page brought to you by…

Charles and I are trying something new – we posted a sponsor’s link on the right side of the page, for PeopleFinders. As former newspaper folk, we appreciate the idea of advertising, and we also know the importance of not co-mingling ads with editorial content. So we’ll be upfront – we aren’t beholden to anyone as far as content goes. But if someone wants to provide us support for an ad, we’ll be happy to take their money! (Although, we might be reluctant to take ads from the FBI touting their open, transparent operations…)

This Would Be Funny, Were It Not So Sad…

Four years for the TSA to hand over complaints?

Here’s the story, from ProPublica’s Michael Grabell…

From intrusive pat-downs to body scans to perceived profiling, the Transportation Security Administration always seems to be the target of complaints.

Here’s another one: It took the TSA almost four years to tell me what people complained about — in 2008.

In my first week at ProPublica in June 2008, I filed a public records request for the agency’s complaint files. Such records can provide good fodder for investigations.

For example, amid the brouhaha over the agency’s introduction of intensive full-body pat-downs in 2004, I requested complaints and discovered an untold story of the pain and humiliation suffered by rape victims and breast cancer survivors. In one incident that I found from that request — while I was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News — a woman complained that a screener asked her to remove her prosthetic breast to be swabbed for explosives.

When I made a similar FOIA request in 2008, I assumed the TSA would respond in a few months. Government agencies have about a month to respond to public record requests, though they often take longer. I figured even if their response took months, I’d be able to repeat it regularly to get a timely, inside look as to what passengers were complaining about and find out about incidents that required some more digging.

Boy, was I wrong.

Outtahere….

Taking a week off to get some real sunshine, In Mexico. Keep ‘em honest until I return!

 

Charles

Virginia General Assembly Passes the Lobbyist Privacy Protection and Corruption Stimulus Act….

Well, they may as well have named this mind-bogglingly bad bill that, for it will effectively provide the most secretive and untraceable communications (read influence-peddling) channel in any state anywhere. This is the single worst FOI exemption I have seen in years:

People filing Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests may not be permitted to know the identity of a person or entity who is communicating with policymakers under new FOIA exemptions, which sailed through the General Assembly on Thursday.

House Bill 141 would shield information about anyone who contacts a public official unless the conversation includes mention of a public business transaction. Email records obtained under FOIA will no longer feature information identifying people who talk with local lawmakers.

People who support government transparency say the proposal provides cover for corruption, because lawmakers could redact the name of a lobbyist as easily as they could black out that of a concerned constituent.

Um, yeah. And I can think of a million and one ways in which such an exemption will run directly counter to any notion of accountability. Imagine the FOI request that yields a treasure trove of seemingly unethical conduct on behalf of a public official….but no one knows who the secret party on the other end of the conversation is! Lobbyists, cronies, and all sorts of money peddlers must be licking their chops. 

 

 

Is the FBI “Blackballing” FOI Requests?

A provocative piece…

Have you ever filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI and received a written response from the agency stating that it could not locate records responsive to your request?

If so, there’s a chance the FBI may have found some documents, but for unknown reasons, the agency’s FOIA analysts determined it was not responsive and “blackballed” the file, crucial information the FBI withholds from a requester when it issues a “no records” response.

The FBI’s practice of “blackballing” files has never been publicly disclosed before. With the exception of one open government expert, a half-dozen others contacted by Truthout said they were unfamiliar with the process of “blackballing” and had never heard of the term.

Trevor Griffey learned about “blackballing” last year when he filed a FOIA/Privacy Act request with the FBI to determine whether Manning Marable, a Columbia University professor who founded the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, sought to obtain the FBI’s files on Malcolm X under FOIA. At the time of his death last April, Marable had just finished writing an exhaustive biography on the late civil rights activist. Griffey filed the FOIA hoping he would receive records to assist him with research he has been conducting related to a long-term civil rights project he has been working on.

In a letter the agency sent in response to his FOIA, the FBI told Griffey that it could not locate “main file records” on Marable responsive to his request. Last November, in response to a FOIA request Truthout filed with the FBI for a wide-range of documents on the Occupy Wall Street, the agency also said it was unable to “identify main file records responsive to [our] FOIA,” despite the fact that internal FBI documents related to the protest movement had already been posted on the Internet. The FBI has been criticized in the past for responding to more than half of the FOIA requests the agency had received by claiming it could not locate responsive files.

 

Indiana Tries To Put Teeth in The Sunshine Laws

Public employees who intentionally circumvented public meeting and disclosure laws could be subject to fines under legislation reintroduced in the Generally Assembly.

The bills would let a judge fine a person $100 for first offense and $500 for subsequent violations of the Open Door Law or Access to Public Records Act.

The act requires meetings of public agencies to be open and public documents to be made available for copying or inspection except for specific exemptions spelled out in the law.

The bills are receiving support from bipartisan lawmakers and the Hoosier State Press Association. Versions of both bills have been introduced during the past several years but have not made it out of either chamber for reasons unrelated to the bill.

 

From Miami, a Critical Case on Federal Mug Shots

Theo Karantsalis, a soft-spoken librarian who teaches research classes at Miami Dade College between freelancing for Miami New Times and the Miami Herald, has become an unlikely central character in a hotly contested federal case that has free-speech advocates ready to clash with top D.C. officials.

In a case that has now made its way onto the U.S. Supreme Court’s radar, Karantsalis is challenging a decades-long insistence by the feds that mug shots are not public record. The nine justices are expected to meet in a couple weeks to decide whether to hear Karantsalis’s argument.

“I need this information to be able to tell stories,” Karantsalis says. “This case is just a matter of fairness and transparency.”

Karantsalis’s fight began three years ago in an MDC classroom. He had been stonewalled while trying to obtain a mug shot of Luis Giro, a local fraudster facing federal charges; his students persuaded him to fight for the photos….

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