In Maine, a full-out assault on open government…

As the Portland Press Herald put it, “The public’s access to government information is under attack in Maine.” To wit:

The Legislature will take up several bills this session that would further puncture the state’s open-government law, snatching from public view information that is now considered part of the public’s right to know.

If approved, the measures will reinforce Maine’s national reputation as a place where transparency and government accountability rank behind privacy and other powerful interests.

The proposals include bills that would block access to information about individuals who hold concealed-weapons permits, allow police to withhold transcripts of 911 calls, and shield the email addresses of citizens who sign up to receive notifications from government groups.

If adopted, the proposals would lengthen the list of 483 exemptions that previous legislatures have already carved out of to the right-to-know law. Many more exemptions are woven into the governing statutes of various state agencies.

These exemptions, combined with a weak and costly appeals process for the denial of public records, and what some describe as a cultural reluctance to expose personal information collected by public officials, have positioned Maine as a state that does not value transparency.

“I don’t think of Maine when people ask me which states are shining examples of sunshine,” said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Sigmund Schutz, a Preti Flaherty media attorney whose clients include the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, describes Maine’s open-government law as “all over the place.”

“It’s good in some places, but really bad in others,” Schutz said.

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, adopted by the Legislature in 1959, stipulates that all records are public so long as they are used in the transaction of governmental business. But through liberal use of rulemaking, state lawmakers have reduced “all” records to “some.”

Open to public inspection are records such as tax assessments; visitor logs for state offices, including jails; the schedules of elected officials, including the governor, attorney general and the secretary of state; arrest logs; and transcripts of emergency dispatch calls.

But the Legislature has made myriad changes to the law to exempt documents from public view. Many exemptions have been made to protect personal identifying information during sensitive interactions with government, including information about who receives government assistance or data that could identify crime victims or impede police investigations.

Other exemptions are more arcane. One, adopted in 2001, shields the list of growers using genetically engineered plants. Another proved self-serving for state lawmakers, who voted in 1991 to shield their “working papers,” or communications related to the drafting of legislation. Gov. Paul LePage, citing legislators’ exemption, tried to obtain the same privilege in 2011, but the proposal was rejected.

Lawmakers periodically offer bills to strengthen the law, but those proposals face long odds, often traceable to the push-pull struggle between privacy and transparency.

Bunting, of the freedom of information coalition, said that unlike heavily populated states, Mainers’ close proximity to their elected officials and their government may make them more inclined to let government and its records remain private, or in some instances become that way.

“In a state like Maine there is a shorter distance … between the people and those city councils, school boards and lawmakers who see any liberalization of transparency laws as a threat,” Bunting said.

Much more here in this excellent report…..

Maine rejects terrible FOI exemption…

The Maine House of Representatives decisively rejected an attempt to create a dangerous exemption to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which guarantees access to public records. From the ACLU:

LD 1805, “An Act to Implement Recommendations of the Right to Know Advisory Committee Concerning a Public Records Exception for Proposed Legislation, Reports and Working Papers of the Governor,” would have allowed the governor to hide from public scrutiny records relating to the decision-making process within his office.

“Transparency is fundamental to a healthy democracy. This bill would have created a significant exemption in Maine’s freedom of access laws and shielded the governor’s office from appropriate scrutiny,” said Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “We are grateful that the House has voted to reject this new and unnecessary exemption. The public has a legitimate right to access records, whether they are held in the governor’s office or any other part of state government.”

The House voted 98-47 against the bill.

“Today, lawmakers from all parties affirmed the importance of open government,” said Alysia Melnick, Public Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Maine. “With a governor’s broad authority to set the legislative agenda, introduce bills, create public policy and implement laws, it’s critical that information about executive operations and decision making be subject to public review.”

Want to Know Your Kids’ Teachers’ Ratings? Tennessee Doesn’t Want You to…

In a classic example of cloak-and-dagger lawmaking, a Tennessee legislative committee tacked a secrecy provision onto a completely unrelated piece of legislation with no advance notice to anyone

Tennessee lawmakers want to close the door on teacher performance to parents and the media, keeping all aspects of educators’ new evaluations confidential.

A new measure is drawing praise from the state’s largest teachers union and disappointment among some observers. In a time of massive education reform, opponents say, parents and the public should get to see how it’s working.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to advance SB1447, sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. The bill will be heard in a House subcommittee today.

The vote came as a surprise to many. An amendment to keep teachers’ scores confidential was tacked onto a bill that would have done the same for licensure tests administered by the state Department of Commerce and Insurance.

So, let me get this straight: revamp the way teachers are evaluated, then shield the whole thing from the consumers of the education system. Yeah, that makes a TON of sense…

A nice blog post on just how deep the skullduggery went here.

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Exemption for professors dies a quiet death in Maryland…

A bill introduced in the General Assembly to shield professors at state universities from politics-driven public record requests has been withdrawn after its House sponsor concluded no new law was needed.

The Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, which had opposed the bill at public hearings, hailed the decision by Del. Sandy Rosenberg as “good news.”

Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, had introduced a bill that would have broadened the categories of information that universities could deny in response to requests under the state’s Public Information Act.

He said the legislation was prompted in part by a case in Wisconsin where the state Republican Party sought the emails of aUniversity of Wisconsin history professor in an attempt to show he had misused his position to intervene in a nationally watched dispute in that state over the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Once released, the emails failed to support the GOP’s suspicions, but some academics said such requests could have a chilling effect on professors who wanted to weigh in on public issues. Rosenberg said the purpose of his bill was to protect academic freedom from “requests that appear very political in nature.”

John J. Murphy, executive director of the press association, said his group — which represents media outlets including The Baltimore Sun — thought the bill went too far.

“We thought the current law as it now stands protects academics from harassment,” he said.

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Virginia General Assembly Passes the Lobbyist Privacy Protection and Corruption Stimulus Act….

Well, they may as well have named this mind-bogglingly bad bill that, for it will effectively provide the most secretive and untraceable communications (read influence-peddling) channel in any state anywhere. This is the single worst FOI exemption I have seen in years:

People filing Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests may not be permitted to know the identity of a person or entity who is communicating with policymakers under new FOIA exemptions, which sailed through the General Assembly on Thursday.

House Bill 141 would shield information about anyone who contacts a public official unless the conversation includes mention of a public business transaction. Email records obtained under FOIA will no longer feature information identifying people who talk with local lawmakers.

People who support government transparency say the proposal provides cover for corruption, because lawmakers could redact the name of a lobbyist as easily as they could black out that of a concerned constituent.

Um, yeah. And I can think of a million and one ways in which such an exemption will run directly counter to any notion of accountability. Imagine the FOI request that yields a treasure trove of seemingly unethical conduct on behalf of a public official….but no one knows who the secret party on the other end of the conversation is! Lobbyists, cronies, and all sorts of money peddlers must be licking their chops. 



Wyoming Works On An FOI Bill…Improvement or Setback?

As always, it depends on how the sausage is ground:

State senators approved a public records bill Monday after changing it to keep secret from the public many documents that show how elected officials make decisions.

The bill — Senate File 25 — also would prohibit the public from seeing correspondence that is sent to less than a majority of a political body…

As approved by senators Monday, the bill would prevent any member of the public from seeing documents related to “pre-decisional” or “deliberative” communications. That designation would apply to anything from advisory opinions to suggestions from experts, staff or anyone else…

The joint judicial committee this fall advanced a bill that did not contain any restrictions related to deliberative documents or provisions to keep secret the documents sent to less than a majority of a board.

In South Carolina, They Want to Give ‘Discretion’ to Law Enforcement…

Yeah, I wonder how this would work out?

Raising the hackles of watchdogs throughout the state, Rep. Chris Murphy of Summerville has proposed amendments to the state’s Freedom of Information Act statute “to protect the integrity of the criminal trial process” and to bring it in line with federal and neighboring state laws.

The amendment, concerned primarily with law enforcement, was introduced Feb. 7 and currently sits in the House judiciary committee. The original law was passed in 1976.

Here is what the amendment does:

  • Adds “Information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution” to the list of items that may be exempt.
  • Removes the word “relationships” and rewrites a section as: “Correspondence or work products of prosecutors or other legal counsel for a public body and any other material that would violate attorney-client privileges or undermine the open communication among victims, law enforcement, and prosecutors.”

Gun Secrecy Bill Dies in Virginia…

Miracles never cease

A state Senate committee has killed a bill to close concealed-weapons permit information to public view.
Del. Mark Cole, R–Spotsylvania, said he brought the bill because he doesn’t think concealed-carry permits should be public, the way marriage licenses and divorce decrees are.

“This would treat the concealed-carry permit info similar to how we currently treat things like driver’s licenses,” which are not open to the public, Cole said.

His bill, which had already passed the House, was supported by gun-rights groups, which say publicizing the information could endanger those who get concealed-carry permits for protection.


Why On Earth Would We Make Performance Reviews of Principals Secret?

A bad idea percolates in Arizona..

Advocates for government transparency are objecting to language in an education bill that would prevent the public from reviewing school principals’ performance appraisals.

At present, whether the public has access to those performance appraisals depends largely on the policies of individual school districts.

But HB 2823, authored by Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, would specifically exempt principals’ evaluations from public disclosure. The language is part of a larger bill addressing teacher and principal performance appraisals and incentives.

“The public has a great interest in how our schools are doing,” said David Cuillier, interim director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.

“Every group out there thinks their group is special and deserves an exemption,” said Dan Barr, a Phoenix attorney who represents media organizations. “To shield from public view the performance reviews of public school principals doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Based on concerns raised about principals’ evaluations, Goodale said she will review that language with attorneys to make sure the bill doesn’t overstep current law. She didn’t respond directly to questions about the intent of the language other than to say the goal wasn’t interfering with the public’s right to know.

Economic Development Secrecy At Stake in Tennessee…

Secret economic development…always a bad idea, rears its ugly head in Tennessee:

A bill that would restrict access to economic development records is drawing fire, with critics arguing it could open a door to corruption.

A measure proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam to clear up disclosure laws has hit a barrier in the state Senate, amid persistent questions about whether it will actually conceal crucial economic development records from the public. The measure is scheduled to come up for debate again this morning.

Supporters say the bill will give staffers at the Department of Economic and Community Development better access to sensitive corporate information. But critics say the bill would invite abuse by making secret even the names of who owns companies receiving public subsidies…

Critics say the bill, SB 2207, would go too far. The measure lists several groups of corporate records that would be exempt from disclosure, including “organizational structure and ownership.”

Despite that language, ECD officials say the names of the entities receiving grants would still be disclosed to the public. The State Funding Board, which includes the state comptroller, also would have access to sealed records, including ownership structures.

But opponents say the provision would make it easy for state officials, associates and others to use shell companies to receive public grants in secret.