New Mexico Takes a Huge Step Toward Digital Access

A new law will require New Mexico government agencies to provide public records electronically if the records exist in digital form.

The measure, which passed both the House and Senate unanimously, goes into effect July 1. Gov. Susana Martinez signed it into law Friday.

The bill’s sponsors said they and their constituents had problems in the past with some agencies or departments not wanting to send records in an email or download them to a CD.

 

FOI Reforms and Blue Bonnets Blooming In Texas…

The Dallas Morning News has you covered:

Texas leaders have called for government to be transparent, but some lawmakers want to shut off the spigot for information flowing from police departments, chambers of commerce and the courts.

Open government advocates say there’s no wholesale attack this session on the Texas Public Information Act or Texas Open Meetings Act, but there are ample attempts to tinker with the laws and block citizen access.

The news gets better from there:

Open government groups were pleased last week when the Senate Open Government Committee approved a measure by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, to make government employees’ birthdates public, following a Texas Supreme Court ruling last year saying they are to be withheld for privacy reasons.

 

A Nice FOI-Driven Idea: The Mayor’s Calendar

Here is a great FOI idea — and one that found a mayor doing pretty much what he is SUPPOSED to be doing!

Mayor Dave Bing took office pledging substance over style, saying he prefers “hard work behind the scenes” and that he won’t “showboat.”

His 2010 official calendar shows that, halfway through his term, Bing is sticking to the approach. The Detroit News used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the schedule — the most detailed portrait yet of Bing’s governing style.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20110407/METRO01/104070416/Bing-s-calendar-focused-at-City-Hall#ixzz1JBJWwl3K

Illinois Poised to Hide Gun Registry

Hiding the identity of gun owners is always a political hot potato, as elected officials shrink from the ire of those who argue that there is a privacy right buried somewhere in the Second Amendment. I think there is a legitimate debate to be had here, but unfortunately, it seldom happens as few in position to pass legislation seem eager to challenge the many untested assumptions of harm inherent in the arguments of those seeking secrecy.

Gun owners in Illinois could have their identities shielded from public disclosure under legislation that passed the House Friday.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan has contended lists of gun owners who have Firearm Owner Identification cards should be retrievable under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Richard Morthland (R-Cordova) would amount to an end-run around Madigan. Morthland’s bill passed the House 98-12 and now moves to the Senate.

“I appreciate the work of the attorney general,” Morthland said. “But there is a pressing need to keep this information private. It would create a situation where there’d be increased possibility for gun violence in the State of Illinois should this not pass.”

I’m still waiting for the first real example of the rocket scientist criminals supposedly scouring public records looking for houses to raid based on gun ownership.

 

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A Tough Exemption to Battle In Florida…

This is a toughie, and it’s where FOI stalwarts really have their work cut out for them in making the case for openness:

Lawmakers are considering exempting photos, audio recordings and videos “that depict or record the killing of a person” from public records laws. The bill was spurred by last summer’s brutal murders of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis.

A dashboard camera in a police cruiser captured the officers trying to arrest a passenger from a car that was pulled over in a routine traffic stop. On the video, in a split second, the man pulls a gun, shoots both the officers and bolts. The scene is clear and terrible and no doubt the strongest evidence for prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Dontae Morris.

This St. Pete Times editorial takes the best approach:

The bill under consideration would let a judge provide such viewings only if certain guidelines are met. It could also undercut a critical element of our justice system: public trust.

Consider the case of a police officer who shoots and kills someone, and how crucial it is for the citizens to know what happened and why. What’s good about a law that automatically keeps any video, photo or audio evidence secret?

Or consider the infamous video of the 14-year-old boy in the boot camp yard surrounded by drill instructors striking his arms and kneeing him in the back before his death — images that prompted the elimination of boot camps in Florida.

One more thing about the video of Martin Lee Anderson that day: It was also front and center for a jury that ultimately decided no crime was committed.

What happened in Tampa to two police officers was beyond tragic, and you can understand wanting to protect the grieving. But a better legacy is one that takes care to protect them while letting the public see the truth about what happened.

 

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And This, Kids, Is Why They Are Called Public Comments…

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Savannah Morning News, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the full text of public comments submitted to the corps on the Savannah harbor deepening project.

The more than 1,100 comments are available atwww.savannahnow.com/harbordeepening, under the “Important Documents” section. All but the handwritten comments are searchable by key word at this site.

The corps already posted the comments on its own website, but in a move criticized by open government advocates, officials blacked out the names of the commenters. Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell initially cited privacy issues as the reason for redacting the names.

Despite making the public comments fully public with their release to the newspaper, the corps does not intend to update its website, Birdwell said,

 

Dave and I in the first four grafs = FOI goodness

I love it when Dave and I are in the first four grafs of a story!

Whenever Charles Davis speaks to government officials, business leaders, lawmakers and journalists, he holds out Utah’s open-records law as one of the best in the nation.

“It is incredibly user-friendly,” said Davis, a records expert and associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “What I like about the law is its clarity, precision of language and its relatively few exemptions.”

The law is now up for review as the GRAMA Working Group gets to labor on 36 policy questions aimed at bringing Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act into the 21st century. The 25-member group meets for the second time Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Capitol.

On Friday, legislators repealed HB477, which most notably changed language that presumed records were closed unless someone requesting a document successfully argued otherwise. The short-lived law earned the state a Black Hole Award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ national chapter. David Cuillier, chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, said that, based on the revisions, he would knock Utah from 13th to 51st for transparency among states.

See, This is the Kind of Stuff I Was Worried About…

WOW, was there an outbreak of FOIA fear-mongering today, thanks to the academic FOI stuff in Wisconsin and Michigan. Folks are overreacting just a wee bit out here. Calm, people, calm…

My reading pile began with this piece on The Huffington Post, in which a fellow who probably knows a great deal about law wrote this:

In recent years, however, that sunshine has begun to produce severe risk of sunburn. Broadly written state and federal “open records” laws have converted an instrument for ensuring transparency into a handy weapon to discredit political opponents, intimidate critics, and simply harass private citizens for no better reason than that they are government employees.

Really? First of all, that makes it sounds like we just make requests and get records, simple as that…broadly written FOI laws? Really? Broadly written to allow governments to close things, sure, but the author is arguing here that they are veritable fishing nets. A bit later:

In Wisconsin, for example, any public employee — teacher, cop, janitor, or food server — can be the subject of an open records request. No reason is required for an open records request, no justification or evidence to support suspicion of wrongdoing.

Again, the mind reels. So…isn’t this precisely, exactly what FOI laws should do — allow us to access the records of any governmental employee who merits scrutiny? This “I am just a police officer..I am but a lowly city planner…” meme has been used for ages to try to make FOI some sort of only-the-execs province. Problem with that? Well, yes. The mayors and police chiefs and school superintendents are not stupid, so they’ll just house the records with “non-subject” personnel. Come on!

“No reason is required for an open records request, no justification or evidence to support suspicion of wrongdoing,” the author writes, indignantly.

Huh? Of course there is no reason required! What? So I walk in to a county clerk’s office and the following occurs:

ME: Hi, I was wondering if I might see some property tax records…

CLERK: Why?

ME: I am an interested citizen?

CLERK: No. I need a reason…

ME: Oh, OK. Well, I suspect that some powerful, well-connected elites in this town have property tax rates lower than mine.

CLERK: (Ignoring me, while dialing 911)….

It gets even better from here, folks, trust me. I’ve seen this many times before, typically from inside government offices: FOI Mania. The fervent, if delusional belief that openness surely shall spell doom if left to the diabolical requesters!

Then there was this one, entitled “The Freedom to Snoop,” by the otherwise rational Clarence Page, another victim of FOI Mania:

Why is the Mackinac Center interested in professors’ TV viewing habits? The center’s request doesn’t say. The right of the public to see public records is viewed as so fundamental under FOIA provisions that the filers don’t have to say why they want to see the files.

Well, Mr. Page, that’s because, um…well, it is so fundament

al that filers don’t have to say why they want to see the files. See the above discussion for more detail, including a docudrama between myself and fictitious clerk, but sheesh…

But wait, folks! There is more! The Washington Post devoted the collective brain power of its entire editorial board to this gem, “Using Open Records Law to Harass Scholars.”

This, people, is FOI Mania at its finest, a state-of-the-art discourse on the apocalyptic visions of openness run amock:

In a statement defending the action, the state party’s executive director, Mark Jefferson, decried the “concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government.” But Mr. Jefferson’s statement ignores the important difference between an ordinary public official and a professor who happens to be paid by the state. The better argument was made by the American Historical Association. It noted that historians “vigorously support” open-records laws but that the law was being misused “to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

So, again, if we like your FOI request, it’s a good one, and if it lacks a valid “reason,” we don’t? Is this really the standard the Washington Post wants to apply to FOI?

Not me. It’s a public record. I have a right to it. End of story.

If Professor Cronon, as everyone says, has done nothing beyond the purview of academic research and banter, guess what? There will be no FOI-driven documents worthy of use. If he was using his post at a taxpayer-funded institution to organize or electioneer, guess what? That’s newsworthy.

Already famously thin-skinned and disliked by huge swaths of the populace, must we academics now also demand privileges that no cop, or teacher, or fireman, can enjoy?

 

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The New York Review of Books Weighs in On Cronon…

Another day, another take on the UW-Madison e-mail saga. Here is a critical graf:

The tumult and the shouting have also obscured a second crucial point, that Freedom of Information Acts, as Cronon himself states, are precious tools of American democracy. And anyone, as the Republicans claim, has the right to invoke them. But that doesn’t mean that it is always right—ethically right, for example—to do so. Again and again in recent times, Republican operatives have used fragments snatched out of context from emails—as they have used fragments snatched out of context from recorded conversations—to smear scientists, scholars and activists of whom they disapprove. There is every reason to assume that the Wisconsin Republicans are demanding these emails not because they seek to ensure “accountable government” but because they hope to find dirt—or something they can portray as dirt. That’s not the kind of accountability that Freedom of Information Acts were written to promote.

Whoooooaaaaaa, Nelly! This is a meme often trotted out by recalcitrant county commissioners, blustery police chiefs and other Friends of Darkness: “this request is just fishing for dirt!”

No, no. If we start labeling FOI requests we like as virtuous and about accountability, and all others as “dirt,” we start down a very dark path. The more I think and read about this issue, the more I come back to my principles: it’s a public record. End of story.

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A Year Later, Attempts to Weaken Illinois FOI Law Loom…

From the Chicago Tribune:

A little more than a year after Illinois lawmakers rewrote open records laws promising a new era of transparency and accountability, frustrated mayors, school superintendents and police chiefs are back in Springfield, looking to undo many of the provisions.

More than three dozen bills — from minor tweaks to major overhauls — were filed this year to change the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), most with the goal of reducing access to records.

“Look, we are not trying to stop any legitimate claims for information,” said Alsip Mayor Patrick Kitching, who asked his state senator to file a bill that could limit the rights of political enemies to inundate agencies with records requests.

“It gets to a point where people in the office can’t do the public’s business. We’ve been paralyzed by someone who is using FOIA as a weapon,” Kitching said, referring to a stack of 90 records requests his village received one day last year from a former police chief and Village Board candidate locked in a bitter political feud with the mayor.

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