Virginia unleashes the worst FOI bill in recent memory…

Make no mistake about it: this bill is an unmitigated disaster, an epic reversal of the presumption of openness that forms the basis of public records law. If you know anyone in Virginia interested in access to information, please help sound the alarms, for this is as bad as it gets!

A bill speeding through the state legislature upends a major tenet of information access, say the foes of the measure.

House Bill 1524 seeks to reverse the “open unless closed” presumption of the Freedom of Information Act to make the law “closed unless open,” according to Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Rhyne and Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, spoke out against the bill when the senate FOIA subcommittee took up the legislation Wednesday. The panel reported the bill to the Committee on General Laws that meets on Monday…

Current law states that information related to children participating in state or local parks and recreation department programs is public record unless a parent opts out of disclosure, according to Rhyne. Such departments began providing “opt out” boxes on registration forms for parents to check off for their children since the state enacted the law in 2004.

“This one flips [the presumption] on its head so that the default rule is these records about children in parks and rec are closed unless somebody flips the switch to make them open,” Gernhardt explained.

Stanley stated in an email Wednesday that, under FOIA, records and meetings remain open unless specifically stated as an exemption. Even then the custodian of record may choose to release the information. Likewise a public body can choose not to close a meeting. Such rules pertain to information in school directories, according to Stanley.

“Unfortunately, the senators that heard testimony this morning were voting with their hearts (it was all about the children) instead of trying to understand the code section (2.2-3705.7-22) that already gives proper protection to the participants as long as the opt out box is checked on the registration form,” Stanley states.

Rhyne and Stanley also have testified that such a change to the philosophy of FOIA could set a precedent and open the door for similar alterations, Gernhardt said. The attorney indicated he couldn’t predict whether such legislation would lead to further changes in the state law.

Del. Ronald A. Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored the bill in the house where it met almost no opposition. The House of Delegates on Jan. 25 passed the bill by a 96-1 vote. Delegates representing the Northern Shenandoah Valley voted in favor of the bill’s passage. Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, did not vote.

No incidents have been reported since 2004, according to Rhyne, who, in a coalition newsletter, also refutes claims that this legislation would enhance protection for children. Games and practices are held in public places; rosters and schedules are freely distributed and shared with participants, according to Rhyne. Schools often provide directory information for all children whose parents have not opted our and then share that with school families. In fact, the Family Educational and Rights Privacy Act stipulates that director information is open to the public.

Parent-teacher associations routinely share children’s contact information to vendors of school-related products and services. Newspapers publish honor roll lists and congratulatory messages that name children, Rhyne notes. Commercial entities often share children’s contact information through magazine subscriptions and video game registration. Privately run sports leagues publish participant information that coaches, teachers or vendors can use, according to Rhyne.

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.

Now here is an SEO-friendly FOI story: Washington Man FOIAs Stripper Info

This ought to do wonders for my analytics:

How much is too much information?

A Tacoma man is asking for a pile of personal information on adult dancers throughout Pierce County.

Despite his criminal past, Robert Hill claims he is legally entitled to know what the dancers look like and potentially where they live.

In an exclusive interview inside a holding cell, Hill revealed why he wants this information so badly.

“Anything that combines sex, money and politics — I’m on it,” Hill said.

Hill said he wants to help adult dancers in Pierce County become big stars with social media.

“They can absorb it, they could ignore, they could act on it. Until they hear it, they’re not able to benefit from me,” he said.

Want more? Sure you do. Read the whole story here.

Nebraska Lt. Gov. Resigns in Wake of FOI-driven news…

Wow. This is a really obvious example of why transparency of things like taxpayer-funded cell phones is an important thing:

Rick Sheehy’s long, late-night cell phone calls most often were directed at two former elected officials, both widely known in their communities.

An investigation by The World-Herald found that Sheehy’s most recent flurry of calls was directed at Michele Ehresman, the former head of the Holdrege Chamber of Commerce and a former school board president there.

Ehresman, 40, who was recently divorced, did not respond to numerous requests for an interview in recent days…

An investigation by The World-Herald discovered that Sheehy made 2,300 late-night telephone calls to the women on his state-issued cellphone, many of them long conversations held in the wee hours of the night.

Many of Sheehy’s long conversations with the women were held late at night or in the early morning hours. Sometimes, he would call more than one woman a night, sometimes three different women.

Nice FOI get by the Texas student paper…

The Daily Texan broke some news today thanks to some reporter’s brilliantly simple FOI request:

Texas co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite engaged in “inappropriate, consensual behavior with an adult student” in 2009, according to a statement released by UT men’s head athletics director DeLoss Dodds on Friday night.

The incident took place during the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, when Applewhite served as running backs coach. The identity of the student was not revealed…

The story was made possible thanks to an FOI request for a letter from UT’s athletic director to Applewhite outlining his punishment for the incident: the department froze Applewhite’s salary for the rest of the year and required him to schedule an initial session with a licensed professional counselor.

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.