Pennsylvania Moves to Toughen Its Open Meetings Law

Sunshine of my life is you...

A bill to toughen Pennsylvania’s primary open meetings law for governments is on its way to the House after Senate passage.

The state Senate voted 48-to-2 on Tuesday to increase penalties for first-time intentional violations of the Sunshine Law to a fine of up to $1,000.

Second-time offenders could be hit with a $2,000 fine, and taxpayers can’t be made to pay the fines.

This is the third time the state Senate’s passed such a bill. The other two died of inaction in the House at the end of session.

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The Latest on Climategate FOI docs: UVA will lean on exemptions..

Alderman Library, University of Virgina, Charl...

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I’d like to say, “Yeah, well, of course…”

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan says the school plans to use “all available exemptions” under the state’s freedom of information act as it responds to a formal legal request from a conservative group seeking e-mails and documents written by a former university climate scientist.

The American Tradition Institute’s Environmental Law Center has askedthat the university turn over the documents related to the work of Michael Mann, a former U-Va. professor who now works at Pennsylvania State University.

They hoped that the public information request would force the university to turn over the same documents sought by Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli (R) with a civil subpoena.

Cuccinelli is trying to force the university to turn over the documents because he says he wants to see whether a fraud investigation is warranted into Mann’s research, which has shown that the earth has experienced a rapid, recent warming.

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A Good FOI-Driven Story: The Toxic Courthouse

After rumors and some public comments about toxicity in the county courthouse, KWQC News did the right thing — they FOIAd the reports.

The Knox County (Ill.) board is trying to figure out what to do with the courthouse. Board members voted to renovate the building and hired a construction company; however, a few board members decided to stop everything after tests on toxic substances came back.

KWQC submitted a Freedom of Information Act request and the results are back. Tests show asbestos in several parts of the building. Floor tiles, linoleum, textured parts of the ceiling, the boiler breeching and mud joints, all have asbestos.

25 random radon tests were done all over the building. The levels ranged from 2.2 to 28.5. A majority of those levels are higher than the EPA and Illinois Emergency Management Agency Recommended action level of 4.0.

A Record Year for Crazies…

Nancy Pelosi photo portrait as Speaker of the ...

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A great FOI-driven story documenting the national outbreak of crazy….

Members of Congess reported a record-high number of threats to their safety in 2010, according to The Hill.

According to documents obtained by The Hill through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the FBI investigated 26 threats of violence against lawmakers (and occasionally, their family members) in 2010.

Almost half of the threats came in the contentious weeks before and after the health care reform bill was signed into law on March 23, 2010. Among those targeted include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

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Good News From Wyoming…

Efforts to improve Wyoming public records and open meetings laws have moved from conflict to cooperation, members of a legislative committee learned here Friday.

Officials from the Wyoming Press Association, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association sat side by side before the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Interim Committee and explained recent efforts to work together to produce agreed-upon changes in government access laws.

This is a change in approach for the three groups, which traditionally have been at loggerheads over alterations to the statutes. The most recent occurrence of that was this year’s legislative session, when WAM and WCCA spoke out against legislation that would have, their sponsors said, improved the laws for the subject.

Getting Deeper into the whole FOI cost issue…

My buddy Joel Campbell takes the whole cost issue of HB477 apart in a must-read column:

Many proponents of the failed HB477 argued that the government needed to control the costs of voluminous public records requests and limit the ability of the public to “inspect” a record free of charge. Before such policies get blindly rolled into another GRAMA bill this summer, the GRAMA working group and others should reconsider the ill-conceived fee provisions in HB477.

In plain language, HB477 proposed a scheme in which a requester using the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) would not only pay fees to cover the “actual cost” of providing the records, but it also added new charges for overhead and administration. That would have undone Utah GRAMA’s current and narrowly drawn “actual cost” provision, which is among the best in the United States.

Despite a good law, there is wide interpretation of this provision. For example, costs for a paper photocopy can range anywhere from 10 cents to $5 a page across the state. Some government entities justify high records costs to support the maintenance of a computer system to store records, while others may simply view copy fees as a revenue stream.

In Florida, fees for copying paper records are also limited to the actual costs, unless fees are set in law. Otherwise, government cannot charge more than 15 cents per copy. Florida law also prohibits public offices from using photocopy charges as a revenue stream, according to Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. Utah legislators should consider similar uniform cost limits for both electronic and paper records across all levels of government.

On Civil Discourse, Gun Permits and Hate Mail…

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 13:  Journalist John Stoss...

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As referenced in an earlier post, I appeared on Fox Business News’ Stossel program to argue against closing gun registries and concealed weapons permits. It was a lively, interesting exchange, far more entertaining than I had anticipated. Well, it’s been running all weekend, and I can time it by the hateful e-mails I get 🙂

How disappointing! And how reflective of today’s intellectual climate, in which an exchange of ideas instantly becomes transformed into a lowest-common-denominator hatefest.

Perhaps this is why: I said on the show, and will repeat again, that licensure is an extension of state power, and thus is a public act. What’s more, the arguments against public information here run on two equally misguided assumptions: (1) that guileful, cunning criminals, the likes of which have to date never been documented, will use FOI to plot sweeping burglaries against homes bristling with weaponry and (2) that some right of privacy emanates from the Second Amendment.

Neither is a discussion that Fox Business News’ weekend audience wants to have in a civil way. But hey, I’m a big boy, so I am more than open to a non-emotional (“Because they SHOULD be closed!”) argument that an entire category of public information should be closed, on policy grounds.

As I wade through the hate mail and personal attacks, I will await that argument.


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Image via Wikipedia

One of my doc students, a recovering lawyer named Jon Peters, recently published a most interesting piece in the Harvard Law & Policy Review on Wikileaks, the First Amendment and the Press.

Now Forbes has picked it up as well…and Wikileaks itself tweeted it….and the rest, as they say, is history. Jon, you’re a media law rock star!


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A Fine Mess in Illinois…

An opinion by the Illinois Attorney General calling for the release of results of medical testing on prison guards who filed successful workers’ compensation claims speaks of the public’s fundamental right to know how its money is spent.

Despite this broad language, this single decision announced Monday in response to a Belleville News-Democrat Freedom of Information request is limited. It cannot legally compel the state’s Central Management Services to release other basic records that relate to how taxpayer money is spent on workers’ compensation claims, said attorney general spokeswoman Natalie Bauer.

Bauer said that Central Management Services, or CMS, contends it can withhold virtually all financial and other records related to workers’ compensation based on a state law that allows “proprietary” information regarding the operation of an “insurance pool” to be off limits to the public.

Read more:

Wonder How Often This is Happening?

Cleveland Scene does a fine job of illuminating an example of a rather troubling trend…

Five years before Cuyahoga County Recorder Pat O’Malley resigned in May 2008 — one of the first dominoes to fall in the county’s ongoing shame game — he quietly closed a deal that garnered little interest at the time. It was a pact with Data Trace, a California company that specializes in snapping up title and tax documents, then customizing and re-selling the information.

Ohio law provides that anyone may receive a copy of any document filed with a county recorder’s office for $2 a page. But there are no stipulations on what a disc loaded with an entire day’s records — sometimes more than 1,000 documents — should cost. To O’Malley, $50 a day sounded about right.

That deal has since blown up into a controversy that involves a lawsuit before the state’s highest court and a newspaper’s apparent role as judge and jury in the case despite a conflict of interest.

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