Webcast FOIA discussions Thursday and Friday

Here are two hearings this week regarding FOIA that you can attend in your jammies:

1. At 2 p.m. EST Thursday panelists will discuss the state of FOIA at a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Federal Ombudsman Miriam Nisbet will be one of the panelists, along with myself. Watch it live online and check the site later for our written testimony (I include more than 40 citations to studies regarding FOIA in case people want to learn more about backlogs and other issues).

2. OpenTheGovernment.org, Public Citizen, and the Center for American Progress will host a live Webcast event noon to 2 p.m. EST on “Building Government Transparency.” See more information and watch it live. See Nisbet, Patrice McDermott, Sean Moulton and others.

Celebrating an FOI Victory During Sunshine Week

Thought I’d also pass this link along highligting EXACTLY why the FOI Fund is such a swell idea. Sometimes, just promising to be there, should upfront costs balloon, is enough to keep the fight going and get those records!

Two Sunshine-filled days in DC…

Ok, half of one, actually, but who’c counting?

Happy Sunshine Week, all! I attended FOI Day festivities at the Newseum yesterday, and today was a panelist on reducing FOI backlogs at the Collaboration for Government Secrecy’s FOI Day. Now, as I loiter in the airport waiting to go home, a thought struck me: we are closing to real transparency in a whole lot of the federal government than we EVER have been before.

Before you accuse me wearing my rose-colored Obama glasses, consider what the administration, working closely with transparency groups, has accomplished thus far, from the Holder memo reversing the Ashcroft-Gonzalez regime to Data.gov, the Open Government Directive, etc., etc. This is not a partisan deal, people: this bunch just gets after it, and they understand it, and they want it to be a lasting legacy. Obama’s transparency czar, Norm Eisen, was practically giddy talking about this stuff.

Here’s a link to the White House blog with all the pertinent documents mentioned above. Eisen is becoming quite the blogger!

Happy birthday, James Madison; Let’s find a new quote for you

Tuesday, March 16, will be the birthday of James Madison, who is often referred to as a founding father championing open government.

Most often you’ll see this quote referred to him: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” However, this quote was in reference to the public school system, not open government.

It’s a great quote, regardless, but maybe it’s time to shake things up a little and use some of his other good lines:

“Despotism can only exist in darkness.”

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”

Do you have a favorite open government quote? Post them here and share the quotables!

Citizen FOI warriors: Taking on local government

For Sunshine Week the American Society of News Editors honored citizen FOI warriors for their efforts to open up their governments. Check out the bios and you’ll see that they are active citizens from Florida, New Jersey and Virginia who saw problems in their local governments and wanted answers.

This is what open records are all about – providing citizens the means for finding out what is going on with their government. A couple in Virginia, Phil and Ellen Winter, noticed that the city failed to deposit their property tax check promptly, so they examined public records to show that the treasurer allegedly mishandled more than $400,000. The treasurer was booted out of office.

This is a great document-based story idea. Request to see records documenting when an agency receives checks and when it deposits them. If there is a long delay then that is interest lost for the agency (and therefore taxpayers losing out).

Arizona school district sues citizens to prohibit records requests

The Congress Elementary School District in Arizona has sued four citizens to prohibit them from requesting any more records, according to an injunction filed Jan. 28.

According to a summary by the Goldwater Institute, which is representing the citizens, the school district has repeatedly violated the public records law and refused to provide basic information, such as budgets. The district states in its suit that the citizens have harassed the school, listing the records requested, including agendas and meeting minutes.

Sometimes active citizens get into arguments with officials and request a lot of records (custodians often call them “frequent fliers”), but the solution is not stripping their right to access meeting minutes. The injunction also asks the court to force the citizens to pay the school’s attorney fees. That’s just wrong.

From an access strategy perspective, these active folks can be a big help for tipping you off to records. Check out the agency’s FOI log to see who has requested records and what documents. You can get a sense for what is going on, find out about records you might not have known about, and also request the records yourself.

Lots of education records available despite FERPA

A lot of people assume that just about every kind of record held by schools and universities are secret because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but it’s not true.

While schools have twisted FERPA beyond its intent (see great series by the Columbus-Dispatch), you can get directory information, budget information, and serious crime/disciplinary records. Also, you can get ANY record held by a school, even grades, as long as the student is not identifiable. So, for example, The Arizona Daily Star looked at grades in all its community school districts to reveal social promotion – a bunch of students flunking classes but still being moved onto the next grade. Because names were redacted, nobody’s privacy was invaded but the problem was still exposed.

For more information, check out a great new guide produced by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee (led by Carolyn Carlson), “Reporter’s Guide to FERPA.” You’ll find FERPA tales of horror (by David Chartrand), 10 great story ideas for school record stories (by Charles Davis), resources, and nuts and bolts breakdown of the law (by Jodi Cleesattle).