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.

NY gun records draw lawsuit by NYT reporters…back in 2010

Gawker moved the story forward yet again, publishing a list of gun permit holders in New York City.

In the Gawker piece, the author writes that the list he got “contains only the names, and not the addresses, of the licensees,” and though he argued that both were supposed to be public information based on Article 400 of the Penal Code, that the “only way to get the associated addresses from the NYPD, as the law requires, would be to take them to court, which no one has apparently done.”

And as this post at capitalnewyork.com helpfully points out, actually someone has.

Though the New York Times hasn’t acknowledged as much in its coverage of the issue, in 2010, three New York Times reporters sued the New York Police Department over what it described as the department’s failure to comply with state law requiring public access to information, including the addresses of gun-permit holders in New York City.

“We’ve become increasingly concerned over the last two years about a growing lack of transparency at the N.Y.P.D.,” David McCraw, a lawyer for the newspaper, said at the time. “Information that was once released is now withheld. Disclosures that could be made quickly are put on hold for months.”

Among the reporters who filed suit was Jo Craven McGinty.

According to the lawsuit, in May of 2010, McGinty filed a Freedom of Information Law request for an electronic copy of the database containing names and addresses of all gun permit holders who live in New York City.

The NYPD gave her the names, too, but refused to give her the accompanying addresses, arguing that doing so might endanger the life or safety of permit-holders.

In court, the police department also argued that the law allowed it to withhold the addresses if it believed that they would be used for fund-raising or commercial purposes.

McGinty went on to submit an affidavit affirming that she did not intend to use the names or addresses for solicitation or fund-raising purposes, nor would she give the information to anyone with that intention.

The judge argued that others could use the published data for those purposes if it were published, which complicated the issue; ultimately, she ruled that the list should be released to the Times, but that some redactions could be allowed:

Inasmuch as the Times could not control the use to which others might put the addresses requested from the NYPD, were the Times to place them on the Internet, Ms. McGinty‘s affidavit, in effect, bars the Times from putting the addresses on line. Accordingly, the Times is entitled to have the residential addresses of gun licensees in searchable electronic form, as already redacted to delete the names and addresses of retired law enforcement officers and several current or former civilian government employees. Petitioners have not opposed such redaction.

The NYPD appealed the verdict, and the case was argued before the appellate division in May, and is awaiting a decision. If another decision comes down against the NYPD, it’s likely to go to the Court of Appeals.

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FOI AT Work: Outing the Water Hogs In Austin…

What a GREAT FOI-driven story idea, especially given how hot and dry most of the country is these days. An FOI request for the top water hogs, coupled with voter records…

Water Drop

Water Drop (Photo credit: Isolino)

Here’s the lede:

A few years back, Lance Armstrong was caught. He apologized, admitted the error of his ways, and promised to do better in the future. His offense? Using too much water.

Armstrong had used 330,000 gallons of water in July 2008. He hadn’t even been home at his three acre, 14,475 square foot estate. “I’m a little shocked,” he told The New York Times at the time. “There’s no justification for that much water. I need to fix this.”

Well, it’s been several summers since then, this last one being notable for being the hottest and driest on record. And the city is in stage two watering restrictions because of the historic drought.  But it would appear Armstrong has not learned how to conserve. According to data from Austin Water Utility, he used around 1.3 million gallons of water in the last year, putting him among the top ten residential users of water in town.

Armstrong isn’t alone in using excessive amounts of water. In fact, he’s not even the worst offender. That would be Roger Girling, who owns a home health care company. He used 1.9 million gallons of water in the last year. Also on the list of the top twenty-five residential water users in Austin? Venture capitalist Paul Zito, car dealers Doug Maund and Steven Late, and Congressman Michael McCaul, who went through 1.4 million gallons of water in the last year.

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The Best FOI Tool in the Business Just Got Better!

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today published the 6th Edition of its Open Government Guide, a comprehensive overview of open records and open meetings laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The guide is available free on the Reporters Committee website at www.rcfp.org/ogg, where users can cross-reference and compare the laws in different states or simply get an in-depth analysis of one state. A CD version of the entire guide and hard copies of each state’s section also can be ordered from the Reporters Committee for a small fee.

Each state’s outline is prepared by attorney volunteers who are experts in access law; most have worked on earlier editions of the guide.

In addition to updating the material from previous editions, the latest Open Government Guide includes:

  • New categories, including access to government budgets, epidemiological records, and economic development records
  • Significant statute updates, including a new open records law in Pennsylvania and a revised open meetings law in Washington, D.C.
  • More specific category breakdowns on access to email, real estate and investigatory records, which enable users to better find and compare information.
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A Year Later, Attempts to Weaken Illinois FOI Law Loom…

From the Chicago Tribune:

A little more than a year after Illinois lawmakers rewrote open records laws promising a new era of transparency and accountability, frustrated mayors, school superintendents and police chiefs are back in Springfield, looking to undo many of the provisions.

More than three dozen bills — from minor tweaks to major overhauls — were filed this year to change the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), most with the goal of reducing access to records.

“Look, we are not trying to stop any legitimate claims for information,” said Alsip Mayor Patrick Kitching, who asked his state senator to file a bill that could limit the rights of political enemies to inundate agencies with records requests.

“It gets to a point where people in the office can’t do the public’s business. We’ve been paralyzed by someone who is using FOIA as a weapon,” Kitching said, referring to a stack of 90 records requests his village received one day last year from a former police chief and Village Board candidate locked in a bitter political feud with the mayor.

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More on the Academic Freedom-FOI Flap….

Madison, Wisconsin Dec04 STA 2786

Image via Wikipedia

Newsy has a nice rundown…

And Jack Shafer, as is so often the case, makes the point so, so, so much better than I have.

Here’s the money graf:

Take, for example, the lawsuit filed against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by the Associated Press and the Madison, Wis., Isthmus after his team ignored open records requests for emails he had received. The suit forced a settlement that released the materials. That Isthmus, a lefty alt-weekly, might hold a politicized view of the ongoing Wisconsin drama doesn’t matter in the eyes of the law. FOIA laws exists for the benefit of independent seekers of truth, businesses looking for an edge over their competitors, news hounds seeking scoops, and even politicos seeking to stir the pot. If anything, these laws are underused. I side with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which holds, “The Open Records Law is like a muscle: The more it is used, the stronger it becomes. The law belongs to all of us, and it’s our collective responsibility to make sure it stays strong.”

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