Sometimes the good guys win…

This is a heartwarming FOI tale of persistence and truth prevailing in the end. The feel-good story of the week!

After generations of having their hopes dashed by immovable bureaucrats, dismissive officials and deferential judges, advocates of open government can hardly be blamed for being skeptical about the effectiveness of freedom of information laws. As the recent Illinois decision in Rock River Times v. Rockford Public School District shows, however, sometimes those laws actually work — at least in the end.

The document at issue in Rock River Times was a June 19, 2010, letter written by Patrick Hardy, a departing high school principal, to LaVonne Sheffield, then a controversial superintendent of Rockford Public Schools, one of Illinois’ largest school districts. In the nine-page, single-spaced letter, Hardy disputed Sheffield’s version of many events and accused Sheffield of poor leadership, dishonest management and excessive drinking.

Having heard about it, The Rock River Times, a small community newspaper, requested a copy of Hardy’s letter on Aug. 26, 2010, under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. On Sept. 1, the school district — following the procedures required by the act — advised the Times and Illinois’ Public Access Counselor that it intended to deny the request….

But wait!

…On Oct. 3, 2012, the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District unanimously affirmed the trial judge’s decision, holding that the judge had correctly applied the amendments regarding awards of attorney’s fees and finding that the penalty was appropriate. In affirming the penalty, the appellate court was particularly troubled by the district’s reliance on the purported “verbal opinion” of the public-access counselor.

“Not only did the school willfully and intentionally violate the FOIA by raising a third exemption after the first two were denied,” the court said, but it also “‘looked for a way to save face’ rather than simply admit it was wrong.”

YES! Game, set, match, openness….

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News From Myanmar…er…Pennsylvania. Trickle-down Fascism Alert…

Not an FOI-related post, but I’d like to also use this space from time to time to highlight what I like to call “trickle-down fascism”: the inexorable creep of authoritarian tin-pot dictators in offices large and small across this great land. Consider it my occasional foray into the absurd. Today’s Banana Republic Moment is brought to you by the Allentown, Pa., school board:

For more than three hours on March 31 the Allentown School Board let children, parents, taxpayers and employees voice their opinions — all negative — on Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak’s plan to cut 247 teaching jobs and 85 courses next school year.

The next school board meeting shouldn’t be nearly as long.

It’s not just because the school board has approved the cuts contained in Zahorchak’s new Program of Studies, but because one group has been ordered to keep negative comments to themselves: teachers.

It seems the powers-that-be in Allentown would like all those fussy teachers to toe the line and swallow policies they find repugnant, all in the interests of appearing to agree with them.

In an email to district principals for distribution to staff, Deputy Superintendent Russ Mayo issued a five-point reminder that employees could be disciplined if they are “making public statements that are inconsistent with district policies and that could serve to harm the effectiveness of district programs.”

In other words, silence! This is trickle-down fascism at its finest: a public official trampling on the rights of public employees in the name of state-enforced orthodoxy. It is profoundly un-American, and these officials should be ridden out of office on a rail. If and when citizens simply refuse to abide by such heavy-handed tactics, our civic life will improve markedly.

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Yeah, these cats ought to give it up. Nice work by the Goldwater Institute.

The Arizona Court of Appeals today unanimously ruled in favor of the Goldwater Institute in rebuking the Congress (Ariz.) Elementary School District for its efforts to permanently deny public information sought by four parents and taxpayers.

“This is the second court to tell the Congress school district that it has no case,” said Clint Bolick, the Goldwater Institute’s litigation director. “Hopefully, district officials will stop trying to silence these women and instead will start following the law.”

The four women have sought records over the past 10 years ranging from school board meeting minutes and agendas to their own children’s school records. On at least three occasions, the state Attorney General’s office and the Arizona public records ombudsman have found the school district violated its obligations to open meetings and public records under state law.

“It would defy the purpose of our public records law to deny the public rightful access to information on how the district is conducting its functions on the tenuous ground that requesting such lawful access constituted a public nuisance,” wrote Judge Sheldon H. Weisberg.

The full release is here.

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Yeehaw! Huge Win In Wyoming for FOI

Interstate 25 northbound in Laramie County, Wy...

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The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled today that the salaries of individual school district employees are a matter of public record.

The state’s high court upheld a Laramie County District Court decision in favor of Cheyenne Newspapers, Inc., which publishes the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

The newspaper in a letter dated Dec. 11, 2009 requested the school district to provide records with district employee names and their salaries.

The request was made under the Wyoming Public Records Act.

The school district denied the request, citing a provision in the Wyoming Education Code that requires the district to publish the salaries of employees by category without reference to the names of individual employees.

The district contended the statute makes it unlawful to disclose individual salaries by name.

The supreme court adopted unanimously the ruling by District Judge Michael Davis, who wrote that construction of the statute as the district suggests “would leave the court with no rational explanation as to why the legislature would want to treat school district employees differently than employees of other public entities.”

 

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