Mississippi House Advances Nice FOI Bill

A bill that passed the Mississippi House on Tuesday says public officials could have to pay fines out of their own pockets if they improperly close meetings that should be open.

Under current state law, taxpayers pay the fine – not the officials themselves.

The bill says the fine could be up to $500 for a first violation and up to $1,000 for any subsequent violation.

The bill also says anyone who denies someone access to public records may face a fine of up to $100 per violation.

The bill passed 119-0 and moves to the Senate. Senators passed a similar bill.


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A Nice FOI story Idea: Light Bills!

Here is a nice little FOI-driven story

Night after night, year after year, this nightside reporter observed lights left on in federal government buildings. So I decided to see just how much taxpayers were spending to keep empty buildings illuminated.

For several months, we kept track of the lights left on in a dozen federal buildings, including the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Transportation and Energy always checking after 10 p.m., each on at least six occasions.

“Turn the lights off. That’s what I do anyway. That’s how I save money,” said one visitor from North Dakota.

Just how much are the federal agencies electricity bills costing you, the taxpayer? First, using the Freedom of Information Act, we requested six months of utility bills for the headquarters buildings of more than a dozen agencies. Then, we asked taxpayers to estimate the price of one month in one building.

‘Whew. $3,000 a month?” one woman estimated.

“$5,000 a month?” guessed a young man from New Jersey.

“Monthly? $5-10,000,” said a man from Virginia.

The low end is about $200,000 a month. The high end more than a million. One month’s electricity bill at the Department of Labor topped a MILLION dollars. That was a bill paid in July of last year. The month before, the department paid a bill of nearly $700,000. And utility costs of that magnitude are not unusual.


Nice Use of FOI in Sports: WVU Coach’s Agreement

An image of the Mountaineer Marching Band form...
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Here is a nice example of the old maxim: always, always ask.

Bill Stewart’s alleged past indiscretions with NCAA rules helped conspire to cost him his future as West Virginia University’s football coach.

The Charleston Daily Mail obtained – through the Freedom of Information Act – the seven-page modified employment agreement Stewart and WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck signed on Nov. 17.

That was four days after the Mountaineers defeated Cincinnati to begin a four-game winning streak at the end of the regular season, but also the day WVU agreed to advance the ongoing NCAA infractions case through the summary disposition process.

The Nov. 17 agreement was amended in a three-paragraph letter on Dec. 7, three days after WVU’s regular season ended. It is under the guidelines spelled out there that Stewart will work the 2011 season as WVU’s football coach.


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The High Price of Transparency in India

Expertly documented by this New York Times story in yesterday’s paper:

Amit Jethwa had just left his lawyer’s office after discussing a lawsuit he had filed to stop an illicit limestone quarry with ties to powerful local politicians. That is when the assassins struck, speeding out of the darkness on a roaring motorbike, pistols blazing. He died on the spot, blood pouring from his mouth and nose. He was 38.

Mr. Jethwa was one of millions of Indians who had embraced the country’s five-year-old Right to Information Act, which allows citizens to demand almost any government information. People use the law to stop petty corruption and to solve their most basic problems, like getting access to subsidized food for the poor or a government pension without having to pay a bribe, or determining whether government doctors and teachers are actually showing up for work

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EFF Enters GIS Fray

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Last week, EFF joined a coalition of public interest and media groups in filing an amicus brief (pdf) urging a California Court of Appeal to uphold the public’s right to access electronic files created and stored by local governments. The case, Sierra Club v. Superior Court, focuses on the public’s right to access geographic information system (GIS) basemaps created by local governments in California.

GIS basemaps integrate basic property information such as parcel boundaries, addresses, and other property data. Additional information can then be “layered” on top of the basemaps, enabling users to understand, interpret, and visualize data in ways that simply aren’t possible through the rows and columns of a spreadsheet. Individuals and organizations then use these maps for a variety of innovative purposes — for example, scientists use them, journalists and the media use them, and public interest organizations use them(pdf).

The Sierra Club filed a request under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for Orange County’s property information — information the County used and maintained in a GIS format. The Sierra Club requested the GIS basemap as part of its mission to protect open spaces in California: using the basemaps, the Sierra Club makes detailed maps of proposed real estate developments and suggests possible alternatives to those developments. The County, however, refused to turn over the information in the requested GIS format, despite its obligation under California law to provide public records in “any electronic format in which it holds the information.” Instead, the County offered to provide the property information in a pdf, even though the Countyalready had the information available in GIS format.

Orange County claimed that information stored in GIS format is exempt from disclosure under the “software exception” of the CPRA. While the CPRA does exempt government entities from disclosing “computer software developed by a state or local agency,” public information processed or formatted for that software is not exempt. Coupled with the County’s obligation to provide public records in the format requested, it seems clear that Orange County is illegally withholding its GIS basemap from the Sierra Club.


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What Do You Think Of This FOI Request?

The Charlotte Observer reportedly has made a most interesting FOI request:

The City of Charlotte has given residents on its e-mail list a heads-up about the Charlotte Observer obtaining the city list through an open records request. The paper’s Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development says the Observer requested the listings “because we believe that many of the engaged citizens on the lists would be interested in helping us improve our journalism by telling us about stories they see.”


AT&T, Corporate Privacy and Personhood: The Best Thing I Have Read on the Subject…

U.S. Supreme Court
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This piece in Slate gets it about right:

AT&T slips into the Supreme Court chamber this morning, moments before arguments are set to start. He feels slightly affronted that nobody seems to notice him. (AT&T is a very emotional guy.) AT&T is handsome in the obvious way. (He has the Nights and Weekends plan). After these same justices ruled almost a year ago to the day that he had the same political-speech rights as human people, he’s feeling a lot more corporeal than he used to. If things go his way today, in the coming years he will enjoy not only free speech and personal privacy rights but the right to bear arms as well.


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