ProPublica Takes a Look at Obama Transparency, or Lack Thereof

A nice analysis piece from my pal Jennifer LaFleur:

After eight years of tightened access to government records under the Bush administration, open-government advocates were hopeful when Barack Obama promised greater transparency.

Four years later, did the president keep his promise?

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a consortium of right-to-know groups. “I think they’ve made progress, but a whole lot more remains to be done.”

The rest of the piece is here.

Gun permit secrecy spreads to Arkansas…

Arkansas’ state senate has passed a bill banning the release of gun owners’ names and ZIP codes, the only information currently available to seekers of public records under the state’s Freedom of Information law.

“Republican state Senator Bruce Holland, the bill’s sponsor, said he introduced the legislation after a constituent contacted him with concerns about the Journal News’ actions,” Suzi Parker reports. The suburban New York paper published a map of local gun-permit holders in late December, a move that caused New York state to tighten access to the records. The Journal News removed the map last month.

Nicholas Stehle of the gun-advocacy group Arkansas Carry said the names and ZIP codes of gun owners are “more information than I’d be comfortable sharing if I were a single woman with an abusive ex-husband.” Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe opposes the bill, which now goes before the state house of representatives, in which Republicans have a small majority.

On Monday, Arkansas approved a law allowing people to bring guns into churches.

Yes. Ask Legislators to Voluntarily Release E-mail. That’ll work….

I admire the idealism here, but wow…

Utah State Senators on both sides of the aisle are trying to make it easier for the public to see what is in legislators’ email inboxes.

Sens. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Curt Bramble, R-Provo, have both submitted requests for bills that would deal with legislator’s emails. The efforts were inspired by the fight for documents related to the Legislature’s 2011 redistricting plan, which were being held back until the Utah Democratic Party paid almost $10,000 to cover the cost of putting the records together.

Lawmakers eventually released the documents after news outlets, including The Salt Lake Tribune, requested the documents under the Government Records Access and Management Act, commonly known as GRAMA.

“GRAMA is not working for journalists, the public or the Legislature,” Dabakis said.

Dabakis, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman, said he is working with Bramble on a way to improve access to records, especially email. He says the 1992 law was written before email and electronic communications became prevalent, and the rules should reflect that reality.

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…

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.

Gun permit issues pop up in North Carolina…

The battle over gun permit data in New York spreads to another state:

A Gaston County commissioner wants to put personal information contained in gun permits – now part of the public record – out of public view.

At Thursday night’s board of commissioners’ work session, vice chairman Tracy Philbeck introduced a measure asking the county’s legislators to change the current law.

Sheriffs’ offices in North Carolina are required to maintain records of handgun purchases issued by their offices, and those records include information such as names, addresses and ages. The public has access to this information, and Philbeck wants that stopped.

“In light of recent events, the media has taken advantage of the public records law and abused it,” he said, referring to news reports that followed incidents such as last month’s shooting at a Connecticut school. “This information should not be used to criminalize or defame gun owners.”

As an example of abuse he mentioned Raleigh-based WRAL-TV’s story last summer about concealed-carry permit holders. He said the story included an online database of public information that allowed people to search street names in the station’s 22-county viewing area for permit holders.

Philbeck believes that people who go through the application process and legally obtain a gun “should expect some form of privacy.”

He wants county commissioners to support legislation that would exempt handgun purchase permits and concealed-carry permits from sheriffs’ office lists accessible by the public at large.

Philbeck said Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger “is in full support of this action.”

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Navy Times, with a major assist from the Yale FOI Law Clinic, for the win!

Yale’s newish FOI clinic already is demonstrating the potential for such collaborations to make a real difference in FOI litigation:

Navy Times has won an important ruling in its legal challenge to force U.S. Strategic Command to release investigative reports into an allegedly abusive Navy official.

In 2011, William H. McMichael, then a Navy Times staff writer, asked STRATCOM to release an Inspector General report detailing the conduct of Capt. Bill Power, the command’s then-director of logistics, who had been accused of abusive behavior by subordinates.

But each of three Freedom of Information Act requests was denied by STRATCOM officials, who refused to confirm or deny the existence of the records under an exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act normally applied to state secrets.

Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic took up the fight on Navy Times’ behalf, challenging the Navy’s determination in the U.S. district court for the District of Columbia.

The Yale group argued that the Pentagon’s refusal to acknowledge whether the report existed was a misuse of the cited exemption. They argued the IG report into a senior official’s conduct should be a matter of public record, noting that STRATCOM employees knew of the probe and that Power had even told some of his 49 employees about the report’s conclusions.

The judge sided with Navy Times.

 

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