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.

Georgia Guv Signs Huge FOI Reform Bill Into Law!

Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday signed into law a sweeping revision of the state’s Open Records Act that strengthens the public’s access to records and documents.

House Bill 397, which took effect upon Deal’s signature, is the first major rewrite of Georgia’s sunshine laws in more than a decade. New provisions in the open records and meetings laws increase fines for offenders. The maximum penalty of $500 is now $1,000, and offenders who commit repeat violations within a year face fines of up to $2,500.

Previously, the sunshine laws allowed only criminal complaints to be filed against suspected violators, meaning a prosecutor would have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The rewrite now allows the filing of civil complaints, which have a lower burden of proof.

The rewrite also would provide new exemptions for some gatherings of governing bodies, such as allowing a quorum of members to attend the same civic function, receive training or visit government agencies — provided no official business is discussed or transpires. It also reduces the cost of most documents disclosed under the Open Records Act from 25 cents to 10 cents per page…

Irony Alert! Georgia Lawmakers Close Hearing…on Sunshine Reform!

Because Georgia lawmakers are catching a ton of flak after a witness who equated domestic partner benefits with the End Times apparently has…well, received some less-than-flattering response, the organizers of a hearing aimed at making government more open (?) closed a hearing and banned video coverage. Seriously.

Before voting Monday to advance an overhaul of the state’s open government law, a House subcommittee voted to banish the taking of photographs and video from the hearing.

Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, made the motion, saying that video taken at a prior hearing had been put on the Internet and used to harass a witness.

Willard later identified the witness as Tanya Ditty, state director of Concerned Women for America, who testified in opposition to House Bill 630, which would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from discrimination in the public workplace.

Ditty said one reason her group opposed HB 630 is that it would extend the same protections to a variety of sexual orientations, including pedophilia and necrophilia.

After the hearing, Wendell said he cherishes the right to free speech and said the Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from any witness, regardless of his or her opinions and positions. But he said he was upset at what happened with Ditty’s testimony going viral on the Internet.

“This seemed to me to be more about intimidating people,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

At the hearing, Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, said those taking videos of witnesses needed to act responsibly. But he said he opposed Willard’s motion because it infringed on the freedom of the press.

“We do have a Constitution … and that kind of interferes with that,” Bruce said of the motion.

If you choose to appear at a public legislative hearing and make your group’s views extremely public, then, to paraphrase the United States Supreme Court, you have thrust yourself into the vortex of public opinion…shame on the pols for a cowardly reaction to a perfectly predictable response.

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Wyoming Works On An FOI Bill…Improvement or Setback?

As always, it depends on how the sausage is ground:

State senators approved a public records bill Monday after changing it to keep secret from the public many documents that show how elected officials make decisions.

The bill — Senate File 25 — also would prohibit the public from seeing correspondence that is sent to less than a majority of a political body…

As approved by senators Monday, the bill would prevent any member of the public from seeing documents related to “pre-decisional” or “deliberative” communications. That designation would apply to anything from advisory opinions to suggestions from experts, staff or anyone else…

The joint judicial committee this fall advanced a bill that did not contain any restrictions related to deliberative documents or provisions to keep secret the documents sent to less than a majority of a board.

Georgia to Overhaul Sunshine Laws?

Georgia’s legislature is debating a major overhaul of its sunshine laws…

House Bill 397 is being pushed by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens. It was first introduced a year ago but has gone through multiple changes as Olens has presided over a series of meetings with interested parties, including representatives of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Olens said new legislation is needed to clarify the law, increase penalties for violators and bring the statute up to date with advances in technology.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla, where he once served as mayor, said if the comprehensive rewrite of the sunshine laws is enacted this session, the statute will be improved and “much more understandable.”

A key facet of HB 397 is an increase in potential penalties for those who violate the open records and meetings law. The maximum penalty of $500 would rise to $1,000 and to $2,500 for a repeat offender. Current law allows for only criminal prosecutions against sunshine law violators, subjecting them to potential misdemeanor convictions. The new legislation would allow civil complaints to be filed and for judges to impose sanctions with the increased financial penalties.

The proposal also would provide new exemptions for governing bodies to gather together and not be in violation of the Open Meetings Act. They would include allowing a quorum of members to travel together to attend training seminars, attend the same civil or religious functions and meet with lawmakers or officials at government agencies. These would not apply if the purpose of such gatherings is to evade the law’s requirement for open meetings when discussions of official business are taking place.

South Carolina Bill Would Make it Easier, Cheaper to Get Public Records

A bill sponsored by S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would make it cheaper and faster for citizens to get copies of public documents using the state Freedom of Information Act, officials from the S.C. Press Association said.

The measure passed out of a House subcommittee Wednesday morning,

“We’ve heard from numerous people, and legislators have their own problems with this,” Taylor said. “This would bring some peace to the law. We are urging in the legislation that governments would be entitled to supply the information electronically when they can.”

Some government agencies throw up barriers to FOI requests, Taylor said, by trying to charge for staff time. The proposed measure would allow only a fee comparable to those charged commercially and no fee at all for electronic format.

Currently, there is no time limit for FOI compliance. Taylor’s bill would require that the requested materials be produced in no less than 30 days. However, Taylor said that a request for information going back more than two years would add another 45 days for an agency to fulfill the request.

Constituent E-Mail Latest Utah Sticking Point

Brooke Adams continues to do a stellar job of chronicling the Utah working group’s efforts to redraw the state’s FOI laws:

As the work of a group charged with recommending changes to Utah’s open-records law draws to a close, it’s clear there’s a major sticking point among its members: whether written correspondence from constituents to lawmakers should be public at all.

Most people don’t realize the letters and emails they send to legislators are public records under the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, said GRAMA Working Group member Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. He argues an attempt to alert them to that fact may only serve to chill communication from some.

“Is that constitutional?” he asked at a recent group subcommittee meeting. “You cannot talk to your legislator in an email without it being a public document?”

After nearly three months of discussion, Adams and numerous other lawmakers are not convinced the law does enough to protect personal information disclosed to them on a daily basis by constituents or to avoid subjecting people to what Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, calls “pre-emptive intimidation” of those who don’t like their views on hot-button issues.

Efforts to shield such communication have been successful elsewhere. Across the country, nearly a dozen states, including Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have walled off constituent communication. Those states specifically say such correspondence is not public record, or they provide broad protections for personal, private disclosures….

 

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