A Heartwarming Tale of FOI Activism, Nine Years in the Making

This story infuriates me on one level, and thrills me on another level. The doggedness and unwillingness to give in is truly inspiring. The government’s stonewalling and delay tactics….argh!

Glen Milner wanted to know the dangers posed by the Navy’s Indian Island munitions facility near Port Townsend, Washington. So in 2003, he filed a Freedom of Information request.

Milner, who lives about 50 miles south of the ordnance depot, finally received documents outlining those risks — nine years later. To get there, the citizen activist needed the help of the U.S. Supreme Court to obtain information about the hazards of living near the arsenal…

Milner wasn’t deterred when the Navy denied his request and rejected his appeals. He notifiedDavid Mann, his Seattle-based attorney, that the Navy was denying his requests for ordnance blast-zone maps by using an exemption related to personnel rules.

There are nine exemptions to FOIA, including provisions to protect trade secrets, information related to supervision of financial institutions, and matters of national defense.

“My response was, ’I’ll take that case,’” Mann said. Mann worked pro bono and is now negotiating a fee settlement with the Navy.

After two court decisions upheld the Navy’s argument, Milner eventually wound up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Earlier court rulings had interpreted Exemption 2, the one cited by the Navy, as allowing the department to withhold documents beyond matters simply relating to hiring or firing or performance reviews. The Navy argued that the restrictions could also include safety-review documents because their disclosure could threaten the security and safety of personnel…

Oh, but that’s just the beginning of this saga! Read the whole tale here.


Every Quote by the Citizens in This Story Should be Bronzed…

Who makes the majority of FOI requests? People like these:

The Iowa Supreme Court this month will review an open-records case involving Riverdale residentsAllen DiercksMarie Randol and Tammie Picton, who for the past eight years have repeatedly fought their city for access to government records and meetings.

The trio of residents has sued the city three times, while the city has taken the residents to court at least four times — all in the name of open records and whether certain information should be made public.

“Riverdale has been kind of a lightning rod for this,” said Davenport attorney Michael Motto, who represents the City of Riverdale in the Supreme Court case. “They want to do the right thing.”
And again later:
“It was becoming a knock-down, drag-out, so the only option we had was to sue,” Randol said. “Lawsuits in this state are costly and not everybody can do it. It’s up to the private individual to come up with the funds to sue. And that’s downright ridiculous.”
Diercks questioned why residents have to uphold Iowa’s open records and meetings law on their own. He said trying to fight for public records is “horrible” and urged the creation of a new entity that isn’t politically involved to intervene and enforce the law.
“Here’s why I wanted budgets and things: …the city has increased my property taxes 109 percent in one year,” Diercks said. “As a private citizen, you’ve got to keep tabs on these things.”
Amen, brother. Amen.

A Column Celebrating a Citizen FOI Warrior….

My pal Joel Campbell does something more columnists should do: highlighting a local FOI warrior. We need to do more of these sorts of stories extolling the virtues of citizen requesters!

Sitting in front of the State Records Committee on Thursday, Dan Schroeder deftly sorts through documents and cites the law as he responds to arcane legal points about why the Utah Attorney General’s Office won’t give him access to a closed investigation into the dubious Envision Ogden scheme.

Without a closer look, a casual observer might assume Schroeder is a trained lawyer with years of experience using Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). In reality, Schroeder is a physics professor at Weber State University whose “hobby” is challenging Ogden politicians. Utah could use more people like Schroeder.

Depending on whom you talk to, Schroeder is either a publicity monger or a watchdog on the steps of Ogden’s City Hall. Schroeder likes to say he investigates things that journalists neither have the time for nor the expertise to understand. He posts much of what he finds on a blog called Weber County Forum.

Schroeder has acquired a record of shining light on the actions of Ogden’s elite.

Need a Citizen’s Story About Why FOI Matters?

Here’s a good one:

Mike Frank did not file the complaint against Col. Jeffrey Smiley, the Alabama Air National Guard commander of the 187th Fighter Wing, but he’d been interviewed during the investigation of it and then heard nothing.

Long after the investigation, Frank, a retired colonel who spent 26 years with the 187th after six years in the Air Force, said neither he nor the others who had been interviewed had been told what happened.

He said he doesn’t believe they ever would have found out if he had not decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to request the Inspector General’s report.

The 57-year-old retiree, who admitted that he had had a tough working relationship with Smiley, said he considered some of the allegations being investigated — that the wing commander used an F-16 fighter jet for personal trips and received nearly $96,000 in undocumented overtime — to be serious violations.