Irony Alert! Georgia Lawmakers Close Hearing…on Sunshine Reform!

Because Georgia lawmakers are catching a ton of flak after a witness who equated domestic partner benefits with the End Times apparently has…well, received some less-than-flattering response, the organizers of a hearing aimed at making government more open (?) closed a hearing and banned video coverage. Seriously.

Before voting Monday to advance an overhaul of the state’s open government law, a House subcommittee voted to banish the taking of photographs and video from the hearing.

Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, made the motion, saying that video taken at a prior hearing had been put on the Internet and used to harass a witness.

Willard later identified the witness as Tanya Ditty, state director of Concerned Women for America, who testified in opposition to House Bill 630, which would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from discrimination in the public workplace.

Ditty said one reason her group opposed HB 630 is that it would extend the same protections to a variety of sexual orientations, including pedophilia and necrophilia.

After the hearing, Wendell said he cherishes the right to free speech and said the Judiciary Committee will hear testimony from any witness, regardless of his or her opinions and positions. But he said he was upset at what happened with Ditty’s testimony going viral on the Internet.

“This seemed to me to be more about intimidating people,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

At the hearing, Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, said those taking videos of witnesses needed to act responsibly. But he said he opposed Willard’s motion because it infringed on the freedom of the press.

“We do have a Constitution … and that kind of interferes with that,” Bruce said of the motion.

If you choose to appear at a public legislative hearing and make your group’s views extremely public, then, to paraphrase the United States Supreme Court, you have thrust yourself into the vortex of public opinion…shame on the pols for a cowardly reaction to a perfectly predictable response.

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Iowa Court Says UofIowa Settlement Agreement is a Public Record

In a victory for government transparency,a judge has ordered the University of Iowa to release

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a resignation agreement with a former medical employee who filed a lawsuit trying to keep the document and his own identity a secret.

District Judge Thomas Reidel agreed with The Associated Press that the settlement was a public record under Iowa law and said the public has a right to know the details, including a $100,000 bonus offered if he left the university’s employment before a specific date. He dismissed claims by the former College of Medicine employee _ identified in court records only as “John Doe” _ that the record was a confidential employment contract.

Reidel ordered the document to be released immediately in his ruling last week, but that process wasn’t completed Monday, meaning Doe’s identity and reason for resigning remain shielded from the public for now. Doe could also seek to suspend the ruling and appeal. His lawyer didn’t immediately return messages.

When released, the document is expected to shed light on the school’s handling of a messy personnel dispute during a period when other cases were under scrutiny. The medical school was criticized for moving too slowly last year to get rid of a doctor who was charged with faking his own stabbing in Chicago and investigated for viewing child pornography. Another doctor suspended for unprofessional behavior has filed a lawsuit accusing medical school officials of discrimination and retaliation.

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When Someone Asks You Why Transparency Matters…

You can point them to stories such as this

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Millions of dollars in White House money has helped pay for New York Police Department programs that put entire American Muslim neighborhoods under surveillance.

The money is part of a little-known grant intended to help law enforcement fight drug crimes. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush and Obama administrations have provided $135 million to the New York and New Jersey region through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, known as HIDTA.

Now, this is no more the White House’s conscious decision than it is simple right-hand-oblivious-to-what-the-left-hand-is-doing-itis, but the effect is the same: administration officials furiously trying to walk back a meme they’d rather never have started.

And why? Well, all because it’s a non-accountable grants program with little to no oversight and a ton of conflicted decision makers. This is the state of federal grants like these. This is not new. It was inevitable.


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Deportation Cases Drop By A Third, According to TRAC

FOI at Work:

The number of deportation cases filed by federal immigration officials dropped by nearly a third in the first three months of the fiscal year, according to a report by the Syracuse University Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

The drop recorded in the last three months of 2011 may reflect the Obama administration’s plan to focus its deportation efforts by weighing a variety of discretionary factors, including whether the person is a veteran, came to the U.S. as a child or is a college student, according to the report. But experts said it’s too soon to say if deportations overall will decline.

From October through December, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiated 39,331 deportation cases in immigration court, down from 58,639 the previous quarter, the report says. Filings are typically lower during the holiday months, but even adjusted for the seasonal drop-off the numbers are significantly lower, according to the authors.

Immigration officials said they have not had the opportunity to review the data to verify their accuracy but added that the numbers don’t fully encompass the ways in which a person can be deported. The report, said ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen, is focused only on submissions for deportations made to immigration courts.

“It ignores the fact that ICE regularly removes individuals without going through formal [immigration court] proceedings utilizing voluntary, administrative, expedited and stipulated removals as well the reinstatement of old removal orders,” she said.

Virginia General Assembly Passes the Lobbyist Privacy Protection and Corruption Stimulus Act….

Well, they may as well have named this mind-bogglingly bad bill that, for it will effectively provide the most secretive and untraceable communications (read influence-peddling) channel in any state anywhere. This is the single worst FOI exemption I have seen in years:

People filing Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests may not be permitted to know the identity of a person or entity who is communicating with policymakers under new FOIA exemptions, which sailed through the General Assembly on Thursday.

House Bill 141 would shield information about anyone who contacts a public official unless the conversation includes mention of a public business transaction. Email records obtained under FOIA will no longer feature information identifying people who talk with local lawmakers.

People who support government transparency say the proposal provides cover for corruption, because lawmakers could redact the name of a lobbyist as easily as they could black out that of a concerned constituent.

Um, yeah. And I can think of a million and one ways in which such an exemption will run directly counter to any notion of accountability. Imagine the FOI request that yields a treasure trove of seemingly unethical conduct on behalf of a public official….but no one knows who the secret party on the other end of the conversation is! Lobbyists, cronies, and all sorts of money peddlers must be licking their chops. 



A Group of Openness Warriors Sues the CIA for Stonewalling

A wide-ranging class-action lawsuit was filed Wednesday challenging the Central Intelligence Agency’s practices for handling requests for its records from journalists, national security researchers and the general public.

The suit, filed in federal court in Washington, alleges that the CIA has thrown a series of unlawful hurdles in the path of Freedom of Information Act requesters, such as requiring that requesters commit to pay all fees in advance regardless of the amount, charging for automated searches that involve no actual employee time, and refusing to release records in electronic form.

Want to Read a Great Column on Why FOI Matters?

Look no further than here. This, people, is why access to government information is no luxury, and can never, ever be taken for granted.

BAck to the FOI Drawing Board in Utah…

After an infamous backfire on FOI reform, Utah pols are back to work, this time with a much better, collaborative process:

Last year, an attempt to change Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act led to a raucus Capitol Hill rally, outraged editorials and citizens throughout the state up in arms.

This year, the effort to amend the public records access law, known as GRAMA, met with no opposition as the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 6-0 Tuesday to send SB177 on to the full Senate.

Those “new tools” include provisions for the online training and certification of public officials charged with responding to the GRAMA requests from the public. Those officials would have to recertify once a year.

The bill would also create an ombudsman to help both those trying to make requests and the state agencies responding to them.

But Petersen said she was also concerned about how the ombudsman would be funded. A similar pornography ombudsman in the Attorney General’s Office was funded for two years, but hasn’t been since, she said.

The new GRAMA bill results from a working group set up to look at the contentious issue after the Legislature passed then repealed last year’s HB477 in a special session. The new proposal only deals with issues on which the working group came to a consensus, said Sen. Curt Bramble, the bill’s sponsor.

One member of the working group, Jeff Hunt, an attorney for the Utah Media Council, praised the final product.

The proposal clarifies the difference between which records of public official public and which are private, Hunt said. It also strengthens the “balancing test,” he said. That’s language in the law which says that if the benefit to the public of releasing a record is “equal or greater than” the benefit to a private party, the public interest trumps private interest.

Wyoming Works On An FOI Bill…Improvement or Setback?

As always, it depends on how the sausage is ground:

State senators approved a public records bill Monday after changing it to keep secret from the public many documents that show how elected officials make decisions.

The bill — Senate File 25 — also would prohibit the public from seeing correspondence that is sent to less than a majority of a political body…

As approved by senators Monday, the bill would prevent any member of the public from seeing documents related to “pre-decisional” or “deliberative” communications. That designation would apply to anything from advisory opinions to suggestions from experts, staff or anyone else…

The joint judicial committee this fall advanced a bill that did not contain any restrictions related to deliberative documents or provisions to keep secret the documents sent to less than a majority of a board.

Arkansas Supreme Court: Police Use-of-Force Records Are Public

Reports from police officers that explain why they use force against someone are not exempt from the state’s public record law, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The opinion from the state’s highest court came months after an attorney, Keith Hall, requested use-of-force reports in the case of an off-duty police officer who allegedly hit his client outside a Little Rock restaurant.

When Hall didn’t get the records he asked for, he filed a petition against Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas, claiming that Thomas violated the Freedom of Information Act.

Thomas argued that the reports are exempt from the public records law as employee-evaluation or job-performance records.

The matter made its way to a circuit court judge, who said the reports are not exempt from the public records law.

Thomas appealed that judge’s decision and the Supreme Court granted his request for a stay in the case.

In Thursday’s opinion written by Associate Justice Robert L. Brown, the Supreme Court sided with the lower court judge and said the use-of-force documents are public record.