In Wyoming, university secrecy at any cost?

I’ll never quite get the secrecy argument where university presidential searches are concerned. These are huge taxpayer bills, and the chief executive officer of a public university seems to me to owe the public the opportunity to weigh in…

The Wyoming Legislature apparently disagrees with me entirely:

A state judge’s ruling last week that the University of Wyoming must make public documents containing the identities of the school’s presidential search finalists might become void if the state’s lawmakers approve newly introduced legislation.

On Thursday, one day after the state judge’s ruling, lawmakers introduced a bill that would keep documents related to presidential searches secret. The bill was unanimously passed out of committee today in Wyoming’s House of Representatives.

It’s not clear how the proposed legislation would affect the judge’s ruling. In his ruling, Judge Jeffrey Donnell set a Feb. 5 deadline for the university to release the finalists’ names.

Chad Baldwin, the university’s director of institutional communications, said if HB 223 becomes a law, it would prevent the finalists’ names from being released. Bruce Moats, an attorney who represented the media, called that a “$24 million question” and said he’s doing research to determine whether the law would override the judge’s ruling.

The bill, which amends the state’s public record inspection statute, would definitely affect future presidential searches at the University of Wyoming and community colleges in the state. All records or information relating to the search process would be made private if their release would identify a candidate.

In November, The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, The Casper Star-Tribune and The Associated Press filed a lawsuit against the university and its board of trustees seeking get access to documents including meeting schedules and itineraries that would reveal finalists’ names, Casper Star-Tribune Editor Darrell Ehrlick said.

Text messages would be subject to sunshine under South Dakota bill…

Three open government proposals drew a mixed reception from a legislative committee as the third week of the session came to a close Friday.

One bill, extending open meetings laws to cover email and other textual exchanges by members of public boards, passed on a 7-6 vote. It now heads to the full House of Representatives, where proponents said they anticipate a tough battle.

Another measure, opening up more information from complaints and hearings that might be derogatory toward individuals, was killed unanimously.

A third bill, clarifying current law, passed 10-2.

The textual exchange bill, House Bill 1113, was intended to make it clear that if public boards hold substantive exchanges and discussions about public policy by using email, text message or other electronic written communication, those exchanges are public.

A troubling bill in Wisconsin would cost FOI requesters dearly…

From the Department of Bad FOI Laws comes this nightmare:

[Wisconsin] Government agencies could once again attempt to charge hundreds – even thousands – of dollars to release public records about how police deal with and report on crime, under a draft bill in the Assembly. The bill also would allow agencies to extend those charges to other areas, such as records on taxpayer subsidies to businesses.

The proposal seeks to undo a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling last summer that found the City of Milwaukee could not charge the Journal Sentinel for the time its employees spent deleting from public records some information they considered confidential.

The lawsuit stemmed from a 2010 open records request based on a Journal Sentinel attempt to audit two weeks of incident reports for offenses such as assault, burglary and theft. The department, which had already produced copies of 100 incident reports for free, switched gears and told the news organization the additional 750 reports would cost about $4,000 and would take police more than nine months to produce.

While the lawsuit was moving through the courts, the news organization asked for much larger crime data files from the state Justice Department and the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office. Both agencies provided those records quickly and at minimal cost.

Ultimately, the Journal Sentinel reported that police had misreported thousands of violent assaults, rapes, robberies and burglaries as less serious offenses, and failed to correct the problems or publicly disclose them.

A consultant hired by the Fire and Police commission largely confirmed the findings. The consultant, who for months publicly backed Police Chief Edward Flynn and his department’s handling of the flawed crime figures, said he found no evidence of conspiracy to alter the numbers.

The sponsor of the draft bill is Rep. Garey Bies, chairman of the Assembly Corrections Committee and a former chief sheriff’s deputy in Door County. Bies said he hadn’t talked with the department or its police officers union about the bill. He said he wrote it after learning of the Supreme Court decision and talking to local officials in his district, who were concerned about being saddled with unexpected costs.

“I don’t want to see the taxpayer stuck with a bill from someone who’s maybe on a hunting expedition,” he said.

He said that most redactions should cost little or nothing, and that if newspapers are seeking records that cost thousands of dollars to redact, they must be making broad searches. Asked specifically about the costs charged to the Journal Sentinel for the Milwaukee police records, Bies said the newspaper “maybe should have been keeping track of that to start with.”

Bies said that he had not checked with legislative leaders about whether they backed his idea and that he expected difficulty in getting it to the floor.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said that in the past government officials have abused the fees that are allowed under the law. He predicted more would do so if the Legislature provided another avenue for charging fees.

“We consider it a tax on the public’s right to know. Public officials are already paid to do their jobs,” Lueders said. “Why should they get paid extra when they get paid to do this job already?”

Make no mistake: this would represent a huge blow to FOI requesters, and would open a cavernous new loophole to state FOI regimes everywhere, as state after state will move to enact similar provisions. This is a DEFCON 5 threat, people…

An interesting take on transparency in China…

Media reports of the worst air pollution ever recorded in China’s capital Beijing, over the weekend of January 12-13 2013, have added urgency to a question that shadows China’s economic rise: how will the evolving Chinese state balance economic growth with increasing social pressure for better environmental management?

Yeling Tan offers clues to possible answers in her article  “Transparency without Democracy: The Unexpected Effects of China’s Environmental Disclosure Policy,” recently published by Governance. Conventional wisdom, said Tan in an interview, “is that transparency, accountability and democracy all move in the same direction.”

Her article re-examines the relationship among these concepts in the non-democratic context of contemporary China, and highlights some unexpected routes to improved outcomes, like pressure from multinational corporations (MNCs) that now use pollution data to monitor their Chinese suppliers.

“Information disclosure by itself won’t automatically lead to change,” said Tan, a doctoral candidate in the public policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In the article she analyzes the complex pathways through which the Chinese government’s 2008 Open Environmental Information (OEI) measures have impacted stakeholders such as citizens, businesses, and non-government organizations (NGOs) and MNCs.

Tan’s research for the article included three trips to China from 2009-2011, during which she interviewed academics, government officials, representatives of environmental NGOs and journalists to build a detailed picture of how the OEI regulations are being implemented in various cities and townships.

Connecticut Going the Other Way on Gun Records?

Now THIS is interesting…

The names and addresses of about 170,000 handgun permit holders in Connecticut, now kept confidential by law, could be made public under a proposed bill that pits gun owners against would-be reformers in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven, co-chairman of the legislature’s public safety committee, would make public the names and addresses of permit holders under Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act — and would reverse lawmakers’ decision to protect that personal information from disclosure nearly two decades ago…

So proud of he D.C. Open Government Coalition…what great work, and what a signal victory!

D.C. Councilmembers and staff cannot avoid the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by doing business on personal, rather than government, email accounts, the Council of the District of Columbia agreed today in settling a lawsuit brought by the D.C. Open Government Coalition.

The Council had previously denied the D.C. OGC’s request for government-related emails sent or received by Councilmembers from their personal email accounts. The OGC filed the suit in October challenging the Council’s position that such emails are off-limits to requesters, even if their subject matter concerns official business.

“We commend the Council for taking action to address the problem highlighted by our lawsuit,” said James A. McLaughlin, Co-chair of the OGC’s Legal Committee. “This settlement closes a potential loophole in the District’s public-records law, and it makes Council more transparent and accountable.”

The D.C. FOIA provides the public a right to access records about government activity. In response to D.C. OGC’s request, the Council initially stated that it would provide emails originating from government accounts only, but would not search Councilmembers’ private accounts. The Council has reversed that position in response to the OGC lawsuit.

The settlement states that, in response to a request, the FOIA Officer must take steps to identify and collect emails from a Council employee’s non-governmental accounts “if there is a reasonable basis to believe that some or all of the reasonably described records … are to be found” there.

Going forward, the Council adopted new rules requiring Councilmembers and their staffs to use government email accounts for government business, and if business should occur on personal email, to ensure those messages become government records. This policy mirrors Mayor Vincent Gray’s July policy directing all D.C. employees to use their government email accounts for government business.

As Missouri Sunshine Law Turns 40, Changes Proposed

For the 40th anniversary of the Missouri Sunshine Law, Sen. Kurt Schaefer is pushing a bill to limit closed meeting discussions by public officials and make it easier to prove when violations have taken place.

Schaefer, R-Columbia, has sponsored some of the proposed changes to the state’s open-records law for each of the past two years and expects more action this year as lawmakers also address anti-terrorism exemptions that expired at the end of 2012…

Under Schaefer’s proposal, which has not been scheduled for a hearing, public bodies would be required to include summaries of closed-meeting discussions in the minutes of those meetings. In addition, closed meetings to discuss litigation or potential litigation could only take place after a lawsuit has been filed or after a credible threat of a lawsuit over a specific action has been received.

To make enforcement easier, government agencies or boards that violate the Sunshine Law would be hit with a mandatory fine of $100 rather than a discretionary fine of as much as $1,000. When a knowing violation is proved, the proposal awards attorney fees to the party bringing the enforcement lawsuit. Under current law, a judge is allowed to award attorney costs but not required to do so.

Enforcement now, Schaefer said, “is a fairly complicated process that I don’t know that government entities really fear.”