Texas Bill Would Allow Online Meetings…

Members of the Legislature and other governmental bodies could communicate in an online forum and not break the law under proposed legislation filed Thursday that would expand the Texas Open Meetings Act.

“Government should function efficiently and effectively, and the public should know as much as possible about what government is doing,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the author of Senate Bill 1297, said Thursday. “This bill uses technology to ensure that officials at every level of government can communicate when they need to.”

Currently, the Texas Open Meetings Act prohibits a quorum of local and state government boards from discussing government business unless it is in an open meeting that has been announced to the public. However, the act, which was first adopted in 1967 and revised in 1973, offers no guidance as to what is permissible in an online setting.

SB 1297 would allow for public officials to create online message boards that they could use to communicate government business. The boards would be available for the public to see.

The law would require all communication between officials to be in writing, which must be made available in real time. All postings would be required to be viewable for 30 days after posting, must be electronically archived for at least two years and are subject to Texas Public Information Act requests. No votes or official actions by the members of a board are allowed in these virtual arenas.

More here.

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…..

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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…