Illinois Moves to Slow Down Frequent Requesters

The State Journal-Register has the story:

People who frequently file Freedom of Information Act requests would have to wait longer for their requests to be fulfilled under a bill that passed the Illinois Senate on Monday.

House Bill 1716 allows public bodies to take up to 21 days to respond to FOIA requests by people who have filed more than 50 requests to the same public body, more than 15 requests in a month and more than seven requests in a week.

Once the initial response is sent out, public bodies can fulfill the request, based on its size and complexity, within a “reasonable” amount of time, unless the information is exempt from disclosure.

The bill would not apply to the news media or non-profit or scientific organizations.

The legislation is needed because some frequent requesters, who still may have good intentions, “bog down local governments and deprive taxpayers and other inquiries of due consideration,” said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, the bill’s sponsor.

The legislation also removes a requirement that the attorney general’s public access counselor pre-approve a public bodies’ decision not to release information covered by certain exemptions in the law. It also allows fees to be charged to commercial requesters whose requests will take more than eight hours to fulfill.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan supports the bill, while the Illinois Press Association was neutral. The Better Government Association and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform testified against the bill.

A New Book On The Father Of Federal FOIA…

Thanks to The Miami Herald for letting me know about this great new book!

The late Sacramento congressman John Moss led a right-to-know revolution whose contours he never could have imagined.

Now, this one-time appliance salesman and unlikely author of the Freedom of Information Act is the subject of a new biography. Penned by a former staffer, published by a university press, the book mirrors the life of an admirable if sometimes stodgy lawmaker.

“I think Moss accomplished so much in his life,” author Michael R. Lemov said, “and yet he’s almost forgotten now.”

Titled “People’s Warrior,” Lemov’s book sketches Moss’s early travails that included a mother who died when he was 12, an alcoholic father who abandoned the family and a prematurely ended Sacramento Junior College education.

The book conveys, as well, the formality of a public figure who, even now, the 76-year-old Lemov still periodically refers to as Mr. Moss.

“I never called him John,” Lemov said. “Maybe ‘Mr. Chairman,’ once in a while.”

But mostly, policy and legislative politics dominate the 237-page book set for a July 1 release. Two signal accomplishments stand out.

In 1966, after more than a decade of laying the groundwork, Moss muscled the Freedom of Information Act across the finish line. It’s made a difference. Last year, Moss’s legislation was used in 597,415 separate FOIA requests filed with federal agencies.


Read more:

An Emotional But Wrongheaded Proposal…

No one, for even a moment, wants to downplay or minimize the death of a police officer. But this sort of thing is a slippery, slippery slop, as the Columbus Dispatch points out:

State Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Fairlawn, plans to introduce a bill to that effect, banning release of the dash-cam video in any incident in which a police officer is killed. Someone posted a suggestion for the legislation on LaRose’s Facebook page, coupled with criticism of the senator for voting for Senate Bill 5, which limits collective-bargaining by public employees. The Fraternal Order of Police has been on the warpath against lawmakers who voted for the bill, recently pulling its endorsement of lead sponsor Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro.

LaRose agreed with the constituent’s idea, saying that he wants to ensure that the families of officers killed in view of cameras never have to confront that footage anywhere.

The senator says he wants to balance the officers’ right to privacy with First Amendment concerns, and is considering allowing police to redact the moment of death while still releasing the video, or else requiring people to go somewhere to view the video – no copies.

This is a perilous path. Once police are allowed to redact that portion of video, not much stands in the way of arguing that incidents in which an officer is injured should be off-limits. Or perhaps when anyone is killed or injured. This would put these most vital functions of public-safety forces off-limits to public scrutiny.

A Constitutional Access Provision Dies in North Carolina…

Sad news from Raleigh…

The House Rules Committee on Wednesday eclipsed an effort to write open government into the N.C. Constitution.

The proposal would have enshrined the right of people to inspect public records and attend public meetings in the N.C. Constitution. Any restrictions to those rights would have to be passed by a supermajority, or three-fifths, of both the House and the Senate.

Charles Broadwell, publisher of the Fayetteville Observer and president of the N.C. Press Association, asked Rules Committee members to support what has been dubbed the “Sunshine Amendment.”

“We do not see this as a press bill,” Broadwell said. “This is about the right of the people and open government.”

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, pleaded with committee members to support the proposal. “If you support open government, vote for the bill,” LaRoque said. “If you don’t support open government, don’t vote for the bill.”

Some committee members, however, questioned whether the proposal ought to be placed in the N.C. Constitution.

“I’m not a big fan of constitutional amendments,” said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange. “It’s just not good public policy to put this in the constitution.”

Today’s Logical Leap of the Day, Brought to You By WSB-TV

This is a gem. From WSB in Atlanta:

The State Attorney General Sam Olens told Channel 2 Action News that someone is using a local student to request information that could aide in a terrorist attack on local law enforcement.

The Georgia International Law Enforcement Program at Georgia State University is a program that sends local officers abroad to learn from international officers, including Israelis, about fighting terrorism. Officers also teach international officers about civil rights and how to deal with protesters.

Recently, a Georgia State student group, the Progressive Student Alliance, submitted an open records request asking for information on the GILEE program, including the names of officers, where they were training and what, specifically, they were learning.

Olens told Channel 2 Action News anchor John Bachman that information was not only sensitive, but could be potentially deadly.

Tim Dalton with the Progressive Student Alliance told Bachman, “I’m not a terrorist. I’m a student. I’m a student that is concerned about programs in my community, which is the Georgia State community.”

And from there, we have the leap:

Olens told Bachman what the group is requesting goes beyond basic knowledge of the program and poses a security threat.

“Students have the right to expression, they have rights under the First Amendment like everyone else, but when you are specifically asking for data that explicitly harm law enforcement, that is no longer naive or innocent,” said Olens.

Olens suggested someone is using the Georgia State students to obtain this information.

Bachman asked Olens, “Who has been prompting these students to make these request?”

“I’m not going to speculate,” replied Olens.

“But do you think it’s somebody bigger?” asked Bachman.

“Absolutely. Students don’t wake up one morning and say I wonder where the Dunwoody police officers are receiving training in Israel on terrorism. I wonder where the bus starts from and goes to on day four of the program. I don’t think that is something a student groups comes up with,” said Olens.

So, we have a student group asking about the propriety of a campus-based entity that sends law enforcement officers from the Atlanta ‘burbs off to foreign lands to teach and learn. Could it be cover for a nice junket? Sure could? Could it be a completely legitimate, heart-warming story about officers training officers? Sure could. That’s called scrutiny, boys. It’s a really good part of democracy…keeps people accountable and all that.

The leap was buried so deeply, though, that it takes a minute to find. Do you see it?

“…someone is using a local student to request information that could aide in a terrorist attack on local law enforcement.”

Really? How? By releasing information about the groups who have already been on the trips? How does that endanger a soul? The only argument that can close that hole is the time-worn trope that ANY release of ANY information about this suddenly top-secret operation endangers them IMMEDIATELY. I ain’t buying.

Oh! and the best part? Look at the cutline under the video:

Students Ask For Information That Could Aid Terror Attack

Wow. Way to swallow the BS, WSB.


Oh, Good. Secret Police! Just What We Need. Banana Republic, Anyone?

A police officer in Chicago posing on a Segway...

Image via Wikipedia

From Texas, quite possibly the worst FOI exemption of the year!

The Texas Senate approved legislation Tuesday banning the release of police officers’ photos in most cases, a bill open government advocates opposed.

House Bill 2006, by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, next heads to Gov. Rick Perry.

It specifies that an officer’s photo can be released by a police department if the officer has been charged with a crime, if the photo is evidence in a court case and in a few other instances.

The Houston Police Department pushed hard for the bill, saying releasing officers’ photos to the public would endanger undercover officers or those targeted by gangs. Under current law they can keep police officers’ photos out of public view, but an officer must sign an affidavit. Police officials said that can be an administrative nightmare.

And if a police officer is involved in a newsworthy incident, but has not yet been charged? Secret. The police officers who, hypothetically, enter the wrong home on a search arrant and tear the place up, then leave? Secret. The officer whose intervention in a dramatic search-and-rescue effort saved the day? I am guessing…not so secret.

This is utterly ridiculous. Sure, there are rare cases in which an officer’s name, in an undercover situation, needs protection. But in 99% of police interventions, there is not a thing in the world that is the least bit private about who the taxpayer-funded, public figure toting the gun and the badge is.

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More Coverage From The First Global Conference on Transparency Research

Nice coverage here:

The end product of a “Wikileaks World” may not be greater openness or effective repression, but more pervasive “spin.”

That is the message a leading British researcher and author brought to the first Global Conference on Transparency Research, being held at Rutgers University-Newark.

“There doesn’t seem seem to be much to stop the replication of the Wikileaks business model,” said Christopher Hood, the Gladstone professor of government and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

But Hood told 120 academics, activists and policymakers from around the world, other groups can expect the same sort of legal actions, cyber-attacks and economic reprisals that the secretive non-profit felt after releasing of documents and videos embarrassing to governments and corporations.

Those institutions are likely to chart mixed courses of correcting problems, cracking down on whistleblowers or ignoring such revelations, Hood said. But most will likely “depend more and more on spin doctors who can shift the public agenda and create distractions,” he said.

The intersection of such issues, and the effectiveness of the many possible responses, is what drew attendees of varied disciplines. backgrounds and outlooks to Newark for frank and useful discussions.

Connecticut’s Governor Has A Bad Idea…

The Hartford Courant could have slugged this editorial simply as NOOOOOOO!

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to fold the FOI Commission into a new super-watchdog agency. Consolidations do save money, and The Courant has endorsed the merger of the state’s economic development agencies. But the watchdogs should be kept separate — especially the FOI Commission, which defends citizens’ interest in seeing details on how government works.

The governor would merge the FOI Commission, the state Elections Enforcement Commission, the Office of State Ethics, the Judicial Review Council and the Contracting Standards Board into an Office of Governmental Accountability. None of these watchdog agencies should be exempt from cost-cutting. Perhaps they could share office space and copying machines. But their staffs should be independent.

Most of all, the Freedom of Information Commission should be on its own. It serves as a check on all of government, including the other watchdogs.

The merger could create conflicts of interest. What if, for example, the new head of this super-watchdog agency (who might be appointed by the governor) is the subject of an FOI request? What if the governor who appointed him or her is FOIed?

The FOI Commission is all about openness. The other watchdog agencies, however, must sometimes be sensitive to privacy matters. Judicial Review, for example, is respectful of judges’ confidential discussions on individual cases. This is a bad match with FOI.

That is a massive understatement. The state’s FOI Commission is a national model for independence and efficiency, and to consolidate within other watchdogs will create an endless conflict of interest.

Want To See Romneycare E-Mails? Good Luck…

Governor Mitt Romney of MA

Image via Wikipedia

A nice look at a time-honored headache: the governor’s e-mails…

For politicians, there is one time-tested method for thwarting public records requests: stall and stall and, when in doubt, stall.

This January, for instance, Alaskan officials finally responded to September 2008 requests for former Republican Gov. Sarah Palin’s emails, promising to release the files by the end of May 2011. By then the wait will have lasted longer than the time Palin spent in office.

If dragging out the release date proves ineffective, officials can also stall by requiring a pretty penny from the requester. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, before he announced his decision to not run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, tried to chargeMother Jones upwards of $60,000 for the privilege of viewing his emails and travel logs.

But Republican presidential nominee frontrunner Mitt Romney has a diametrically different, more ingenious approach to public records: the document dump.

In January 2007, as the onetime Massachusetts governor was leaving office — and preparing for his first presidential run — he and his staff were required by law to transfer much of their work product tostate archives. Romney’s administration responded by handing over materials measuring approximately 700 cubic feet. The boxes covered everything in his four-year term — from legislative documents to legal counseling to travel records.

If one wants to search out all of Romney’s emails on, say, health care reform, good luck finding anything. Not every document was necessarily put in order, nor even labeled.

The clincher:

“There’s no discrete series of emails,” he adds. “We didn’t take any electronic or digital files.” Romney’s emails were printed out and stuffed into cartons.

Finding and collating emails on any given subject means digging through hundreds of boxes. In fact, if you request the full file on the creation Romney’s state Health Connector, expect at least a very long delay. You might get those materials by 2016.

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Transparency: This Generation’s Magna Carta?

Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation — a great access advocate at a great access advocacy shop — attended the first Global Conference on Transparency Research at Rutgers University-Newark, which brought together two hundred transparency researchers from around the world. Thanks to a post-surgical travel ban, I missed it, doggonit, but I thought I’d pass along his great post, here.

It’s well worthy your time.