Good Intentions Breed Bad Potential Outcomes in Colorado…

Freshman Rep. Brittany Pettersen’s House Bill 1041 (pdf) seeks to heighten public accountability by updating the Colorado Open Records Act. Her measure would prevent officials from requiring that people who ask for public documents review them in person before receiving copies. It was a legislative update activists applauded, until they read the bill, which they now decry as being ambiguously worded and ripe for abuse.

“It’s been a frustrating experience, even if it’s all part of the process,” said Pettersen. “It’s unfortunate, I think, on one level, because lawmakers in the future may be less willing to take up issues related to the Open Records Act and, on another, because the activists are right to see larger issues that need addressing.”

Marilyn Marks, founder of Aspen-based Citizen Center and a lightning-rod figure for controversy tied to records access, originally supported Petterson’s effort but is now leading the charge against it. In a letter to the editor published in the The Colorado Statesman last week, Marks called Pettersen “petulant” for not meeting with activists, and called House Bill 1041 an “anti-transparency bill.” She believes lobbyists have worked to include language in the bill that would make it possible for obstructionist records custodians to charge high fees to records seekers and shut down meaningful document review.

Veterans of battles over the Open Records Act are unsurprised by the suspicions rising up around the bill in the activist community.

Steve Zansberg, a top media attorney in the state and one of the architects of the bill, said it makes sense that government accountability champions like Marks guard their right to access vigilantly and are wary of any proposed changes to records laws — even changes they may have initially supported.

“I understand folks who have had bad experiences with records custodians and so come to the bill with suspicions. They see vague language and they view that vagueness as a ‘trap for the unwary,’” he said. “But all language is susceptible to abuse. No legislation will work 100 percent of the time to protect against bad faith.”

Katie Fleming, Colorado associate director of government accountability group Common Cause, was also not surprised by the heat the bill has drawn.

“The Open Records Act is one of the most effective ways the public has to hold officials accountable and to make sure laws are working. It’s just going to generate lots of interest every time you talk about it,” she said.

Read more here.

Cincy Enquirer Before State Supremes on Conviction Records Denial

The Cincinnati Enquirer is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to order a Butler County judge to release thousands of criminal-conviction records it contends are being illegally withheld.

A judge has routinely – and immediately — sealed the convictions of some offenders, principally students at Miami University in Oxford, for 14 years, according to the newspaper.

Problem is, the records were illegally sealed and, as such, remain public records, The Enquirer argues in its filing with the Ohio Supreme Court.

The judge has been sealing records of criminal convictions by citing a section of state law that permits those found not guilty or against whom charges are dismissed to petition to seal such records.

Of course, the cases being disputed by newspaper involve convictions and different law comes into play. First-time offenders are entitled to petition a judge to seal a conviction after one year for a misdemeanor and after three years for certain non-violent felonies.

The Butler County prosecutor, who represents the judge, has said the court records cannot be provided because they have been sealed and have shed their status as public records.

However, the newspaper is arguing before the justices that since the records were illegally sealed, they never have been defrocked of their status as public records under court rules and state law.

We’re No. 7! We’re No. 7!

I want a big foam finger.

Fabled Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” If that is in fact the case, then the world as a whole is a pretty grimy place, according to the latest edition of the Open Budget Survey.

The biennial report, published by the International Budget Partnership, tracks government spending transparency across the globe. Of the 100 countries assessed in the survey, 77 “fail to meet basic standards of budget transparency,” with the average score a lowly 43 out of 100 points…

the U.S. comes in seventh in the Open Budget Survey’s rankings. As the Washington Post’s Wonkblog explains, “overall, the document is a pretty strong vote of confidence in the federal government’s transparency efforts.”The Wonkblog goes on to say that the U.S. gets knocked down for its lack of a pre-budget statement, lack of details in reviews of prior expenditures and, most importantly, a total lack of a “citizens budget,” which the IBP explains as being “accessible, nontechnical presentations of budget information.”

The U.S. and its neighbors scored well overall, as the Guardian explains, with western Europe and the U.S. averaging75 out of 100 points, while the Middle East and North Africa managed to average just 18 out of 100 points. In a race to the bottom, Qatar, Myanmar and Equatorial Guinea rank dead last.

The IBP gathers its data through a series of 125 questions answered by independent researchers in 100 countries, which account for a population of 6.1 billion, or 89 percent of the world’s population in 2010. And while the survey paints a rather dismal portrait of government transparency in general, IBP states that the study has seen “steady, albeit incremental, progress over the four rounds of the survey since 2006,” with the average score of 40 countries with comparable data sets jumping from 47 out of 100 when the survey began up to 57 out of 100 in 2012.

Bed Bugs and the Pathology of Secrecy

An adult bed bug (Cimex lectularius) with the ...

An adult bed bug (Cimex lectularius) with the typical flattened oval shape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a textbook example of why sometimes secrecy seems like the right thing, when in fact it is precisely the wrong thing…

A bill that would shield certain bed bug data from public records law in an effort to encourage voluntary reporting passed in the House this morning.

House Bill 2131, which now heads to the Senate, passed on a 55-1 vote.

Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, said that bed bug infestations are a growing health concern in Oregon.

“Here’s the bill that you have been itching to vote on,” Kennemer told lawmakers on the House floor.

Under the bill, bed bug infestations reported by pest control operators to a public health authority would be kept confidential. The location of the infestation, identity of the property owner and information describing the infestation would be exempt from public records law.

Public health officials say that it would encourage voluntary reporting for data that is currently difficult to gather.

Pest control operators are not required to report bed bug infestations. If the information was released to the public, it could jeopardize the operator’s business with clients, supporters say.

“Collecting this new data allows public health (officials) to make data-driven decisions about prioritization of scarce resources for bed bug education, mitigation and assistance,” Kennemer said.

So, to translate: we have a public health concern. It could cause very real shame to those who have an infestation…so, if we keep this information from the public, it will incentivize those in arrears to clean up their act.

Nothing — absolutely nothing – supports that assumption. Logic defies it. And yet it emerges over and over in FOI issues: “hide it, and it will get better…” I am itching just thinking about it.

 

A Riveting Tale of Illicit Email Use…

You just KNEW it was a problem…but the saga in Mew Mexico lays bare the reality of the chicanery inherent in state FOI laws that remain silent on the issue of using non-governmental email accounts:

In June of 2012, the political press corps in New Mexico acquired a batch of interesting emails written by some of the highest-ranking members of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s staff. The emails were being released by Michael Corwin, a Democratic operative who once worked on opposition research for former governor Bill Richardson.

The documents did not cast Martinez’s administration in the best light: They showed administration officials compiling lists of non-union teachers for the governor’s outside political director, moving meetings with lobbyists to locations considered more discreet, and planning fishing trips with industry executives. Many of these emails involved state business—but they were sent from officials’ private email accounts.

Soon, reporters obtained hundreds more emails, all showing public business being conducted from Yahoo, Gmail, and political PAC accounts. Many of the emails came from Corwin, who said he gained access to them through a source who had bought the Internet domain Gov. Martinez used in her 2010 campaign—and all its related contents, including records of emails sent after the campaign had ended from related PAC accounts.

It’s a heck of a story. Read the rest here.

As the story concludes…it’s an ongoing problem:

The New Mexico officials’ use of private email is just one example of public servants trying to dodge scrutiny by conducting government business in a digital space they believe is safe from the public eye. Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal have all gotten in trouble for it. In Washington, DC, a lawsuit just pushedthe city council to stop the practice. Local officials have tried it in Texas and California as well. And while the majority of states have ruled that these private emails count as public records, as the Santa Fe Reporter’s experience shows, it’s not always that simple to get ahold of them.

Someone in Topeka got a wee bit happy with the redaction Sharpie…

This is just a hoot…and it underscores a point I make all the time: when you are denied access to information, it is a story in and of itself! Look how much mischief these reporters are making:

Topeka city manager Jim Colson’s emphasized commitment to transparency isn’t evident in the city’s response to information requests.

Colson repeatedly has expressed the importance of government transparency since taking office in August. A recent test of that transparency resulted in the city releasing dozens of pages of redacted emails.

The results have been similar in multiple other Kansas Open Records Act requests made by The Topeka Capital-Journal in the past few months, as access to police reports and other information was denied.

The Capital-Journal requested — and paid $260 toward — access to emails from Colson’s first 15 weeks in office. Instead, the newspaper was charged $182 for one week of emails, nearly all of which had the text completely blacked out.

Topeka staff members, including Colson, said the request was too broad and called it a “waste” of city resources.

The response has solicited criticism from open government advocates and city council members.

“This kind of reaction to an open records request is the kind of response you would expect from a totalitarian regime, not the city of Topeka,” said Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. “We understand there are some reasons for e-mails to be redacted, such as protected discussions of legal matters and some personnel information, but more than 75 percent of the pages were blacked out. That is incredible.”

Other requests made within the past three months that have been denied by the Topeka city attorney’s office include:

■ Access to videotapes seized by the Topeka Police Department relating to the Dec. 24, 2011, fatal shooting of a Hudson Liquor store clerk. The request was denied despite the case having been concluded with the killer’s sentencing in November.

■ Documents the Topeka city attorney’s office has produced since May 2004 addressing whether Topeka’s city council-manager form of government was approved in an illegal vote. The request was denied because the only documents responsive to the request were internal drafts.

■ Three requests made within the past month of defensive action reports from the Topeka Police Department. Two were denied, and one was returned with the officers’ names redacted. A court ruling in a recent Topeka Capital-Journal lawsuit indicated the department couldn’t strike out the officers’ names, but the decision only applied to that case.

Much, much more redaction here. And if you want a peek look at these blacked-out records!

Missouri Lawmakers Get to Work on Sunhsine Bill…

What began as a debate Monday on a bill to reinstate expired security exemptions in the Missouri Sunshine Law turned into an attempt by one senator to expand access to records.

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, brought up Senate Bill 139 for debate on the Senate floor Monday afternoon. Under Kehoe’s bill, exemptions for security planning and response guidelines by governmental bodies will be put back in place. The exemptions, put in place more than 10 years ago following the September 11 attacks, expired at the end of 2012.

Only a few minutes after debate began, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, took to the floor to offer an amendment to, in his words, strengthen the law. The amendment makes it easier to sue public bodies for violations of the law and requires 48 hours notice of public meetings, rather than the current 24 hours….

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis, introduced an amendment to the amendment to require closed meetings to be tape-recorded. The tapes would only be reviewable by a judge when trying to determine if a violation of the Sunshine Law had occurred, Sifton said.

The bill also reinstates the security exemptions.