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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Big FOI win in Wisconsin!

Kudos to my friend Christa Westerberg!

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Star-Times in a public records dispute with Juneau County.

In a 4-3 decision issued Tuesday, the high court let stand a 2011 appeals court ruling that granted the newspaper full access to legal bills issued by a Milwaukee law firm and paid by the county’s insurer.

“Today, the court affirmed the public’s right to information and the presumption in the open records law that the public has a right to government information except in extremely limited circumstances,” said Madison attorney Christa Westerberg, who argued the newspaper’s case.

Matt Meyers, who became general manager of the Star-Times and several other newspapers north of Madison a year after the suit was filed, said he was happy with the decision and appreciative of Westerberg’s work but disappointed that it sometimes takes lawsuits to ensure access to public records.

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