E-Mails Show “Cozy” Relationship Between Maryland Guv and Chicken Titan

Another FOI at Work moment:

A national consumer group is alleging emails they obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal an “unnervingly close and direct” relationship between Gov. Martin O’Malley and an attorney for Perdue Farms Inc.

The topics covered in 70 pages of emails between O’Malley and Herb Frerichs, general counsel for Perdue Business Services, run the gamut from chicken waste incineration to wind energy.

Food & Water Watch highlights several exchanges of particular concern, including one from August 2010, when O’Malley is grilled regarding comments made by his press secretary to a local newspaper. The article is about an Environment Maryland petition signed by 55 farmers asking O’Malley to hold large poultry producers responsible for pollution from chickenhouses seeping into the Chesapeake Bay. The comments make it appear as though O’Malley supports the petition, and specifically names Perdue as an example of a poultry giant.

FOI at Work: Overtime Pay

This is one of FOI’s lowest hanging pieces of fruit — looking at overtime pay records. More often than not, they yield gold. Here is a beauty from Montgomery County, Maryland

Dozens of firefighters, correctional and police officers and transportation employees in Montgomery County are doubling or nearly doubling their salaries with overtime pay.

More than 280 employees earned more than $30,000 last year in overtime pay, according to records obtained by The Washington Examiner under a freedom of information act request. Fewer than 1,000 employees did not earn any overtime.

The employees who earned the most overtime pay — 14 of the 15 highest overtime earners were firefighters — raked in more than $200,000 between overtime and their normal salaries in 2011.

Exemption for professors dies a quiet death in Maryland…

A bill introduced in the General Assembly to shield professors at state universities from politics-driven public record requests has been withdrawn after its House sponsor concluded no new law was needed.

The Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, which had opposed the bill at public hearings, hailed the decision by Del. Sandy Rosenberg as “good news.”

Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, had introduced a bill that would have broadened the categories of information that universities could deny in response to requests under the state’s Public Information Act.

He said the legislation was prompted in part by a case in Wisconsin where the state Republican Party sought the emails of aUniversity of Wisconsin history professor in an attempt to show he had misused his position to intervene in a nationally watched dispute in that state over the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Once released, the emails failed to support the GOP’s suspicions, but some academics said such requests could have a chilling effect on professors who wanted to weigh in on public issues. Rosenberg said the purpose of his bill was to protect academic freedom from “requests that appear very political in nature.”

John J. Murphy, executive director of the press association, said his group — which represents media outlets including The Baltimore Sun — thought the bill went too far.

“We thought the current law as it now stands protects academics from harassment,” he said.

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Aiming Nuclear Weapons at Academic Molehills

I warned you last year that this was likely coming somewhere…

In Virginia, the attorney general, skeptical of global warming, tried to use his subpoena powers to build a fraud case against a climatology professor.

In Wisconsin, Republican Party officials sought the emails of a history professor, trying to demonstrate that he had misused his public account to stir political unrest during the state’s highly publicized battles over organized labor.

Maryland Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, has cited these controversies, which garnered national attention, as he vows to prevent a similar situation from arising here. Rosenberg introduced a bill being considered in the General Assembly that would extend broader protection from public information requests to professors at the state’s public universities.

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See? This is What I was Worried About…

Remember last year, when e-mail controversies swirled around academics at Wisconsin and UVA? I fretted then that the episodes likely would find their way into bad legislative proposals aiming nuclear weapons at molehills…and then along comes this:

[Maryland] House Bill 62 would allow universities and community colleges to deny requests for “data or other information of a proprietary nature that: was produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of a public institution of higher education; was produced or collected in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical, or scholarly issues; and has not been publicly released, published, or copyrighted.”

If that’s not enough, the secrecy would extend to “correspondence or research produced by faculty of a public institution of higher education on public policy issues.”

But isn’t a public university professor a public employee?

“Professors are different than bureaucrats, and there are issues of academic freedom involved here,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, the primary sponsor.

He said the bill was prompted by controversies in Virginia and Wisconsin.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has sought a former professor’s emails under a state fraud law, and a state lawmaker sought the same emails under the state’s open-records law.

This was painted as an attack on academic freedom, on the theory that making professors’ emails public would have a chilling effect on research and open debate. The Virginia cases are still in court.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg read a New York Times column by Paul Krugman on a University of Wisconsin professor. After professor William Cronon wrote a piece criticizing his state’s new Republican governor and a blog post on a group pushing conservative legislation, Republicans filed a public-records request for his email.

This, too, was painted as an attack on academic freedom, even though some of Cronon’s emails were turned over and nothing came of it.

Sunshine Week Linkapalooza!

LOTS of Sunshine Week stuff today, as the festivities are leavened with a fresh batch of outrage over some terrible legislative proposals…

Back to Utah’s (or Utahkistan, as one wag called it today), here is a nice page that keeps track of everything related to HB477.

And SPJ handed out its first-ever Black Hole Award to….Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for plunging their state into an abyss of secrecy through the most regressive piece of freedom of information legislation in recent history.

In Maryland, someone FINALLY has begun paying attention to the dreadful HB37, currently in the Maryland State Senate and awaiting a final vote, which seeks to limit the ability to procure records in the public domain with expensive fees, redaction of vital metadata and access determined by third-party custodians acting in the interest of government.

Ohio’s auditor vows to ramp up scrutiny of compliance with that state’s access laws…

The Cleveland Plain Dealer certainly gave him something to work on, as its Sunshine Week audit shows the City Hall moves at a glacial pace at granting FOI requests:

Cleveland City Hall is notorious among Plain Dealer reporters and others in town for its slow response to records requests, so for Sunshine Week, we decided to use the records law to measure just how slow Cleveland is.

On Feb. 2, we asked City Hall for records that track public-records requests. We’re still trying to get all the information.

Illinois lawmakers are celebrating Sunshine Week by trying to limit the number of requests citizens can make, in the latest state attempt to punish “vexatious” users.

The Seattle Times runs a nice column on bringing the federal FOIA into the digital age…

And finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the effectiveness of FOIA today with some of the FOI movement’s best and brightest testifying.

Whew! That is a busy day in the land of Sunshine…

Seriously, People: HB37 in Maryland Needs Some Attention!

I talked a bit about Maryland HB37 yesterday. It began with the best of intentions, but dang, it’s become a bit of a mess. The bill’s current language confuses rather clarifies certain important issues, and rather than enhancing transparency, it may instead undermine the public’s right to know.

House Bill 37 is so deeply flawed that the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Society of Environmental Journalists oppose this bill in its current form.

HB 37 allows agencies far too much latitude on the question of whether to provide records in electronic formats and if so, in which formats.  It lacks the clear, compelling language provided in other states’ laws and under federal law.  Under those laws, if an agency possesses a public record in an electronic format, and a person or organizations asks for that record in that format, the agency generally must provide it in that format.

HB 37’s vague language allows agencies in too many cases to continue providing public records solely in degraded electronic formats or in paper copy.  This practice obstructs research, education, and informed public participation.  It also undermines the public’s ability to inform agencies and elected officials – including the General Assembly – with expert analysis on important issues.

Perhaps worst of all, HB 37 authorizes a state agency to out-source public databases to a private, for-profit contractor.

This out-sourcing practice not only obstructs public access, it perpetuates a system in which Maryland has two classes of records requestors: those who have deep pockets with which to buy public records, ample time to wrangle with agencies, or the legal resources to sue agencies into compliance; and those who do not.

And, in a novel and truly horrifying new twist… HB 37 allows a custodian to delete or redact information about the origin and history of a public record.  That information often exists in the form of metadata, which has been ruled to be a public record in several states in the past couple of years. HB 37 inappropriately allows an agency to scrub this information wholesale from a public record without informing the person or organization requesting the record.

If you’d like more information on HB37, feel free to reach out to Greg Smith at Community Research:

communityresearch@igc.org

(240) 605-9238

We need some media attention on this folks. I’m hearing crickets in Maryland…

Testimony Opposing HB 37- Soc of Pro Journalists – 20110307

Testimony Opposing HB 37 – NFOIC – 20110309

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