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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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Save The Data! Save the Data!

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Passing along from my friends at Sunlight….

Next week, Congress is going to vote on a budget that may decimate funding for some of the most important technology programs that help make Washington accountable.

Take action now to Save the Data.

Data.gov, USASpending.gov, the IT Dashboard and other federal data transparency and government accountability programs are on the chopping block, set to have their budget reduced from $34 million to $2 million. These programs make up only a tiny fraction of the federal budget and are designed to help the public see what the government is doing, where it’s spending money and help to hold the government accountable. In fact, Vivek Kundra, Chief Information Officer for the U.S., recently said the IT Dashboard helped the administration cut over $3 billion in IT spending.

You can help. Take action now by signing on to our letter to Congressional leaders, sending a letter to the editor, and spreading the word. While the legislation that created these websites and programs had broad bipartisan support and are crucial the future of government transparency, they’re not widely known, so we need your help to sound the alarm.

Take action now at http://sunlightfoundation.com/savethedata.

Websites like Data.gov and USASpending.gov have been used by journalists to see how much the government spends on contracts, such as in a report on BP’s contracts with the U.S. after last year’s Gulf Coast oil spill. Here at Sunlight, we used these sites to bring to light nearly $1.3 trillion in inaccurate spending data — a report that led to a congressional hearing just a few weeks ago.

If we don’t take action now, these websites will start going dark within a month.

Transparency is essential to a healthy democracy, and cutting these programs would be a huge step back. Help save the data and make sure that Congress doesn’t leave the American people in the dark.


Ellen Miller
Executive Director
Sunlight Foundation




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Now Here Is A New Strategy: “Documents…What Documents?”

Right here in chilly, grey Missouri, we have a nice little FOI flap brewing. It seems that the state’s former treasurer can’t find pretty much any of the records worth looking at for, well…the entire four years she was in office!

Here is Politico:

Sarah Steelman’s political opponents aren’t finding much daylight in their Sunshine requests for records while she was Missouri’s state treasurer.

In fact, it appears that most of the key documents from her four-year term between 2004 and 2008 aren’t available.

The current state treasurer’s office tells POLITICO it hasn’t been able to track down schedules, emails and other documents from Steelman’s tenure that are routinely retained.

“We have received Sunshine Requests similar to this question.  What we have found is that we do not know how they kept those records because we do not have them. Our team has searched the office for any schedules and public documents and we do not have them,” said Jon Galloway, the treasurer’s office director of communications and policy.

Steelman, now a Republican candidate for U.S.  Senate, has often touted the virtues of transparency and open government.  In a 2004 editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she wrote that “every elected official at every level of government should strive to ensure that our laws, our records and our meetings are open to the public’s scrutiny.”

The great irony of this is that the FOI requests came from opposition researchers looking for issues to raise in the Senate election, to neutralize the damage caused to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was forced to admit she had failed to pay taxes on a personal plane she used for official travel.  (She’s since paid more than $300,000 in back taxes and fees.)

Now, I guess they have found the issue, by not finding the records….



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Do As I Say…Not As I Do!

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From Iowa, a fresh helping of FOI hypocrisy:

Lawmakers are considering creation of a new board to better enforce Iowa’s open records and meetings laws, but there’s a notable exemption from the board’s oversight: the governor and his office.

The board’s oversight also would not extend to operations of the legislative and judicial branches, reflecting current open records and meetings laws. But it’s the governor’s exemption that is raising eyebrows.

“We believe, and this is where the anger comes in, that this is a very cynical bill,” said Larry Pope of the Iowa League of Cities. “We have had the governor’s office staff lobbying the bill, pushing the bill, but at the same time lobbying to get out of it.”

Not only the governor — who fears his office would be drowned by FOI complaints (hint: comply with the law and that problem tends to sort itself out, governor…) — but the usual foes of sunlight have emerged:

The seven-member Iowa Public Information Board created by Senate File 430 would cost taxpayers $155,000 a year, starting in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2012, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. Most of those costs are associated with salaries for an attorney and an administrative assistant.

“That’s what we’re doing here, is we’re cutting education and growing state government,” said Iowa Association of School Boards attorney Mary Gannon.

No, that’s not even close to what you’re doing here, and you bloody well know it. What Iowa is quite wisely thinking about doing is investing a modicum in seeing that all citizens in the state have some basic rights of access to information, and more importantly, some recourse when they are met with a stonewalling attempt by, well, just to pick a random example…a school board.

The Senate passed the bill without any no votes earlier this month. The House State Government Committee approved the bill Wednesday, meaning it met a legislative deadline this week and remains alive for further consideration. This is smart legislation, a bill that really would make a huge difference in Iowa.

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Tomorrow’s Hearing Will Be Quite Interesting…

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Thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for this….

Tomorrow the House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing titled, “Why Isn’t the Department of Homeland Security Meeting the President’s Standard on FOIA?” As we wrote last October, redacted DHS emails revealed the agency was targeting certain Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and certain FOIA requesters—such as activist groups, watchdog organizations, and journalists—for an extra layer of review by politically-appointed officials within and outside the agency. The emails further revealed EFF was one of the organizations explicitly targeted, and three of our FOIA requests are mentioned specifically. Given the delay between when we filed these FOIA requests and when we finally received records, we assume our requests and the documents produced in response to them went through this extra vetting.

The Oversight Committee is expected to investigate all this at the hearing tomorrow. However, we now think the problem may be much larger than either the emails indicated or we first thought. Since we wrote that blog post, we have learned through litigation in our social networking FOIA case that not only did DHS drag its feet on producing documents, the agency also failed to release all documents it had that were responsive to our request. In conversations with the DOJ attorney representing the government, we have recently learned that DHS likely has a “voluminous production” of additional documents concerning how the agency uses social networking sites that it has yet to produce to us.

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See How Many Federal FOIAs are Generating Withholding, Litigation…

Details about every new court challenge to the withholding of information by the Obama Administration are now available on a new website developed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Designed to bring more transparency to FOIA withholding decisions, the new site — http://FOIAproject.org — gives the American people a way to track all instances in which a federal agency’s decision to deny government records has become the subject of a suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) since October 1, 2009.

The site, supported with a grant from the CS Fund/Warsh-Mott Legacy, is updated daily with the latest court FOIA filings and provides extensive information about the names of withholding agency, the names of the plaintiffs, the location where the action was brought, along with the actual complaint and attachments that were filed.

TRAC sees this ground-breaking website as only a first step in a much broader community effort to expand the withholding decisions covered, and to improve the site’s features. While this first phase focuses on court challenges to withholding, later phases are planned to expand coverage to turndowns at the initial request and administrative appeal levels. The ultimate goal: to mobilize the power of public exposure to encourage a more transparent government.

Links on the new site allow the public to offer suggestions and to volunteer to help on the project. Currently under consideration is the addition of a mechanism by which requestors can post current egregious examples of FOIA withholding decisions to share with a wider audience.

TRAC, a part of Syracuse University, was established more than two decades ago to obtain detailed information from various federal agencies under the FOIA, check its accuracy and completeness and make the data available to the public through its two web sites, http://trac.syr.edu and http://tracfed.syr.edu. Over the years, this effort has required TRAC to file suits in federal court against the Internal Revenue Service, the Office of Personnel Management, the National Archives and Records Administration, and various components of the Justice Department including the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys and the Civil Division.


David Burnham and Susan B. Long, co-directors

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse

Syracuse University


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More on the Academic Freedom-FOI Flap….

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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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I Think I Described An FOI Request As Leaving “Powder Burns”….

A new piece on the FOI-academic freedom debate from Miller-McClune….

The more I read my own quotes on this issue, the more I recognize what years in academia has done to my brain, for good, and for ill. I tend to overanalyze issues like these when interesting academic questions exists, even if I think they are no more than than — interesting academic questions, the stuff of cocktail parties, tweed coats and good theoretical conversations.

At the end of the day, these are FOI requests, like every other. I support FOI and FOI requesters. Why can’t I just say that?

Because, at the end of the day, such naked partisanship makes me uncomfortable. Yeah. That’s what it is, and it’s my problem, I know. But that’s what it is.

I see FOI in general as this constantly endangered creature, one that any number of interest groups, regulated industries, non-profit associations, to say nothing of public officials from governors to dog catchers would throw dirt on tomorrow with glee, if only they could. And what prevents that?

The bipartisan view that FOI is a good thing, a value worth preserving. Nurturing and maintaining that value when political parties are lobbing these sorts of requests at each other is tougher than ever.

But that’s all academic meandering. See what I mean?


Yeehaw! Huge Win In Wyoming for FOI

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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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A Look At Utah’s Records Committee…

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This is the first in a series of stories The Slat lake Tribune is doing on the state’s public records law, and it has a great anecdotal opening:

In 1992, the first appeal brought before the State Records Committee under Utah’s newly adopted open-records law came from The Salt Lake Tribune, which wanted the Department of Transportation to hand over a year’s worth of traffic-accident reports stored on nine-track computer tape.

That’s right, nine-track tape.

In the two decades since, the committee has settled about 218 records disputes using the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) to sort out competing interests, even as data moved from tapes to floppy disks to instant messages and email.


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