The Vermont Legislature has some work to do…

As this decision makes clear, Vermont FOI law provides no right of access to law enforcement investigative records — even after the case is closed! That’s a wee problem, folks…

The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday granted a partial victory to the Rutland Herald in the newspaper’s effort to get access to records concerning allegations that Rutland city employees viewed pornography at work.

The justices issued the second decision in as many weeks in the Herald’s access-to-records fights. It said the paper can get access to disciplinary records stemming from the investigation of city public works employees, but the names of the workers will be blacked out.

But it barred similar access to a probe of city police department employees. The court ruled those records were exempt from disclosure because they were linked to the detection and investigation of crimes.

At the same time, the court suggested the Legislature re-examine the exemptions from disclosure under the Vermont public records law to see whether some criteria could be set up to make police investigative records public.

Robert Hemley, a Burlington-based lawyer who frequently works on First Amendment cases and represented the Herald, said the court re-emphasized that under Vermont law as currently written, there is no public access to records relating to police investigations of specific crimes — even when the case is over.

Maine rejects terrible FOI exemption…

The Maine House of Representatives decisively rejected an attempt to create a dangerous exemption to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which guarantees access to public records. From the ACLU:

LD 1805, “An Act to Implement Recommendations of the Right to Know Advisory Committee Concerning a Public Records Exception for Proposed Legislation, Reports and Working Papers of the Governor,” would have allowed the governor to hide from public scrutiny records relating to the decision-making process within his office.

“Transparency is fundamental to a healthy democracy. This bill would have created a significant exemption in Maine’s freedom of access laws and shielded the governor’s office from appropriate scrutiny,” said Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “We are grateful that the House has voted to reject this new and unnecessary exemption. The public has a legitimate right to access records, whether they are held in the governor’s office or any other part of state government.”

The House voted 98-47 against the bill.

“Today, lawmakers from all parties affirmed the importance of open government,” said Alysia Melnick, Public Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Maine. “With a governor’s broad authority to set the legislative agenda, introduce bills, create public policy and implement laws, it’s critical that information about executive operations and decision making be subject to public review.”

A Great New FOI Classroom!

Passing along this wonderful post from Sunlight on a fabulous new FOI classroom project! Love to see this kind of stuff!

On April 11, 2012 ten University of Utah Honors students will launch a state-wide public initiative which, if successful, will forever change how Utah citizens interact with their local governments.  The initiative, called the Utah Local Government Transparency Project, (the “Transparency Project”) is the end result of eight months of study by the students in an Honors College Think Tank on Transparency and Privacy.  The Think Tank explored the often competing paradigms of privacy and transparency and heard from leading local and national experts in the area of open government and privacy  (including Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation)  to gain a comprehensive understanding of the complexities, nuances and challenges of balancing and reconciling these two competing interests.  We learned many things, including the fact that local governments in Utah, with some notable exceptions, lagged behind many of their counterparts around the nation in terms of transparency.  A study of 16 selected Utah local governments conducted as part of the Project demonstrated a wide disparity in government transparency practices and identified many transparency deficiencies.  From this in-depth study the Transparency Project was born.  As explained in greater detail below, the centerpiece of the Project is five transparency “best practices” for local governments to adopt.

Go, Utes! Go!

FOI At Work: the punishments for docs who wrote sick notes for Wisconsin protesters…

An interesting nugget, courtesy of FOI:

The state medical school disciplined 20 doctors and fined 11 of them up to $4,000 for handing out sick notes to demonstrators at last year’s labor protests, newly released records show.

The records, requested by the Journal Sentinel last year under the state’s open records law, show for the first time the extent of the discipline given to those doctors by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

In several cases, doctors in more senior positions within the school also had to step away from those roles for a period of four months over one year. All the doctors were warned that further actions could result in them being fired.

“In the future, you are expected to adhere to the appropriate standards of doctor/patient interaction,” the letters sent to doctors in May and June of last year read.

The discipline records show that the physicians disciplined in most cases insisted they had acted correctly even when accepting the discipline, saying they believed they were helping public employees under stress rather than writing fake sick notes to allow demonstrators to skip work and keep protesting.

A fine example of journalism doing untold damage to sunshine…

This kind of stuff makes my head literally ache: a story that allows a proponent of secrecy to make age-old arguments against open searches completely, utterly unchallenged by, well, fact…

Florida’s open records laws will impact the quality of applicants seeking the Duval County Public Schools superintendent position, according to the president of a national education nonprofit that trains school boards.

“It’s the biggest problem you have,” said Cathy Mincberg, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, “[is] how to deal with sunshine.”

Mincberg said the state’s open records laws will weigh heavily on candidates’ eagerness to apply for Duval’s position — particularly candidates with good relationship with their current school boards.

“They do not get up and apply for places where they are going to be humiliated,” Mincberg said. “Having your name out there is a humiliation because it says to your own board that, ‘I’m thinking about leaving you.’ ”

OK, so where to begin here? With the fact that all across the state of Florida, for decades, EVERY candidate in a similar position has faced the terror of a public search and somehow still mustered the courage to apply for a high-paying, taxpayer-funded, PUBLIC POSITION?!?!

Have any of the hundreds of other superintendents in Florida not walked the same path? Are we to believe that hundreds of the absolute best superintendent candidates in the state are instead teaching because they simply can not bear the scrutiny of a public search? That they are ignoring the higher pay, power and perks of the superintendent’s job for fear of the sunshine? Balderdash. Utter bunk. And not one source in the state of Florida offered the chance to knock this down?

I know a half dozen great sources they could have called. Heck, they do, too!

From Canada, another FOI dispute on campus…

From our neighbors to the north comes a fresh academic freedom/FOI dispute:

Amir Attaran speaking at an H1N1 conference at...

Amir Attaran speaking at an H1N1 conference at the University of Ottawa/ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A prominent University of Ottawa law professor has launched a grievance against a school administrator after she agreed to release documents related to his research under the province’s freedom of information law.

Professor Amir Attaran is outraged that the university would so readily abandon its defence of academic freedom.

Diane Davidson, the university’s vice-president of governance, told Attaran last week that the school had decided to accede to an order from the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner to produce the professor’s research-related expense reports.

Davidson refused Attaran’s demand that the university contest the production order in court.

“The defence of confidential information, within the limits prescribed by law, is a cornerstone of the academic freedom to conduct research,” Attaran writes in his notice of grievance. “It is disappointing that Ms. Davidson has chosen not to protect that freedom to the utmost.”

In an interview Wednesday, Attaran said the unredacted documents being released contained his credit card number, his home address and the address of his parents.

“It’s quite disgusting,” he said.

Davidson did not return a phone call Wednesday requesting comment.

Attaran has been a thorn in the side of the federal Conservative government for years, waging a series of successful court battles to gain access to documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees.

Last week, he won another round in that fight in the Supreme Court of Canada.

His work, which relies on federal access to information legislation, has put him in the national spotlight.

It has also made him the subject of information requests, presumably from political enemies hoping to damage his credibility.

University administrators, he said, had in the past protected him from requests for performance evaluations and expense reports.

In January, however, a series of sweeping information requests were filed. One demanded the subject line of all of his emails addressed to Parliament, the CBC or the Liberal Party.

Another requested all documents about him releasable under the freedom of information law.

Attaran believes the requests were politically motivated.

He wants the university to comply with the provincial access to information law in his case. But that law, Attaran said, includes an “exclusion” that places all records associated with a university professor’s research outside the reach of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

What’s more, he said, the law gives administrators the right to demand that any examination of records by the commissioner be done at the university.

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The silly constitutional challenge to open meetings law in Texas may never end…

It’s a fundamental flaw in the fabric of FOI: requesters stonewalled by government agencies square off with taxpayer-funded lawyers with all the time in the world on their hands…

Signaling their intention to go to court forever to withhold information from the public, lawyers for 15 city officials begin today trying to convince the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the Texas Open Meetings Act violates their freedom of speech.

The officials from Alpine, Wichita Falls, Pflugerville, Sugar Land, Arlington, Heath, Rockport, Leon Valley, Whitesboro, Hurst and Bellmead filed suit in 2009 contending they conduct public business in terror of violating the law.

In March of 2011, U.S. District Judge Robert Junell took 37 pages to call their contention nonsense. Junell said the Open Meetings Act was not vague, or too broad, or suppressive of free speech.

Oh, but why let a ringing judicial smackdown make you hold your meetings in public, when you can waste some more tax dollars dragging this out?

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