What’s the Worst FOI Fail of 2011? Nominate it for the Black Hole Award…

Society of Professional Journalists

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The Society of Professional Journalists is seeking nominations for its Black Hole Award.

The Black Hole serves as the counterpoint to the Sunshine Award, highlighting particularly heinous violations of the public’s right to know. By exposing the bad actors, we hope to educate members of the public to their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with the people’s right to acquire government information so that they may hold their elected officials accountable and enhance self-governance. 

The recipient of the 2011 Black Hole Award was the Utah Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert for passage of the most regressive freedom of information legislation in recent history. After the award was “presented,” the measure was repealed before it became law.

“The first Black Hole award given by the society had tremendous impact,” SPJ Freedom Of Information Chair and Utah FOI advocate Linda Petersen said. “The award’s real power is the exposure it gives to those practices by some elected officials that seek to undermine, and in some cases, eliminate open government. Like Utah’s law that was repealed, most of them can’t stand the light of that exposure.”

In addition, SPJ handed out dishonorable mentions to five other government entities for their secrecy.

 Here are the conditions nomination should meet:

1. Violation, in spirit or letter, of any federal or state open-government law. This would mean either a clear violation of the statute governing access to public records or public meetings, or using an ambiguity or loophole in the law to avoid having to comply with the law. For example, conducting multiple meetings with small groups that do not constitute a quorum, e-mail discussions outside the public view, or charging unreasonable amounts to copy documents.

 2. Egregiousness. In order to maintain the effectiveness of the Black Hole award, it should not be given for just any openness violation. There needs to be a demonstration that this was not an isolated incident or done in relative ignorance. Recipients should know they are trampling on the public’s right, placing personal or political interests ahead of the public good or endangering public welfare. Examples might include an agency or official who attempted to keep information secret to avoid embarrassment or hide misdeeds.

3. Impact. The case should be one that affects the public rather than an individual. We want to avoid using the award to settle vendettas against recalcitrant bureaucrats. Essentially we want to see a case where their withholding the information hurt the general public rather than an individual, or its release would further public welfare.

The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee is seeking nominations from local SPJ chapters, SPJ members, other journalists and private citizens. The recipient or recipients will be announced during Sunshine Week, the second week of March.

Deadline for nominations is Monday, Feb. 21. If possible, nominations should include, where possible, supporting documentation to allow SPJ to determine if the criteria have been met. The documentation can include any of the following, although the more documentation the better: 

• News coverage of the violation.

• Public records chronicling the dispute.

• Legal papers if there was a lawsuit or other legal action involved in the matter.

• Any expert opinion from an attorney, official or open-government expert that the violation occurred.

• Contact information for the parties involved to allow the committee to obtain more information if needed, including from the government official.

Please email nominations to FOI committee member Mike Farrell, farrell@uky.edu, or mail them to the address below.


Mike Farrell, Ph.D.

Director, Scripps Howard First Amendment Center Associate professor, School of Journalism and Telecommunications

144 Grehan Building

 Lexington, KY 40506-0042




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We have a Sunshine Week winner!

A Washington state woman who used the courts to force the disclosure of public records that revealed corruption in her county auditor’s office is the winner of the 2011 American Society of News Editors Local Heroes contest.

Gloria Howell of Stevenson, Wash., is one of three citizens recognized by ASNE in its national contest honoring individuals who fought tirelessly last year to make their state or local public institutions more open and accessible. The announcement of the Local Heroes kicks off Sunshine Week, which began yesterday.


Howell will accept her award at the ASNE Convention, April 6-9, at the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina.


Howell, a former Stevenson school board member, got involved after her daughter, Angela Moser, was allegedly fired from the Skamania County auditor’s office for theft and because of her concerns about irregularities in ballot processing and alleged misuse of public funds. Howell filed suit to obtain the records. The suit resulted in a criminal investigation by the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office, a criminal referral to the Washington State Attorney General, an investigation and report by the Washington State Auditor, and the resignation of Skamania County Auditor Michael J. Garvison.


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Sunshine Week Linkapalooza!

LOTS of Sunshine Week stuff today, as the festivities are leavened with a fresh batch of outrage over some terrible legislative proposals…

Back to Utah’s (or Utahkistan, as one wag called it today), here is a nice page that keeps track of everything related to HB477.

And SPJ handed out its first-ever Black Hole Award to….Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for plunging their state into an abyss of secrecy through the most regressive piece of freedom of information legislation in recent history.

In Maryland, someone FINALLY has begun paying attention to the dreadful HB37, currently in the Maryland State Senate and awaiting a final vote, which seeks to limit the ability to procure records in the public domain with expensive fees, redaction of vital metadata and access determined by third-party custodians acting in the interest of government.

Ohio’s auditor vows to ramp up scrutiny of compliance with that state’s access laws…

The Cleveland Plain Dealer certainly gave him something to work on, as its Sunshine Week audit shows the City Hall moves at a glacial pace at granting FOI requests:

Cleveland City Hall is notorious among Plain Dealer reporters and others in town for its slow response to records requests, so for Sunshine Week, we decided to use the records law to measure just how slow Cleveland is.

On Feb. 2, we asked City Hall for records that track public-records requests. We’re still trying to get all the information.

Illinois lawmakers are celebrating Sunshine Week by trying to limit the number of requests citizens can make, in the latest state attempt to punish “vexatious” users.

The Seattle Times runs a nice column on bringing the federal FOIA into the digital age…

And finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the effectiveness of FOIA today with some of the FOI movement’s best and brightest testifying.

Whew! That is a busy day in the land of Sunshine…

A Sunshine Week Grabbag of Goodies…

In Webster, New York, the Penfield Post did a nifty county audit:

More than 1,500 Freedom of Information requests were filed with town and village clerks in a dozen Monroe County towns in 2010.

Requests ranged from only 10 in East Rochester, to 550 in Greece, and together they tell a tale of what residents, businesses and law firms are want to know about local municipalities.

Sunshine Week, a national celebration of open government and freedom of information, runs from March 13 to 19. To take a look at open government access and involvement locally, Messenger Post reporters tested access to local FOIL records. Each town and village received requests for access to a log or file of the FOIL requests from the year.

Five of the local government municipalities kept a log, and the remaining towns and villages invited reporters to go through the files, looking for who is requesting what in each area. E-mails, memos, calendar items, police reports, building permits, meeting agendas and minutes, among other items were included.

— Five Gannett newspapers joined forces to conduct a local audit of school districts through the region:

Reporters filed Freedom of Information requests asking for two years’ worth of records about legal settlements, as well as reports sent to other agencies, such as the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services. Reporters also asked for records for the current school year about medications or treatments administered to students on a group or individual basis.



Knight Open Government Survey: The Ship of State, She Turns Slowly…

The 2011 Knight Open Government Survey is out to kick off Sunshine Week, and it contains all kinds of interesting data. Here is the lede of the release:

On his first day in office in January 2009, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum instructing federal agencies to “usher in a new era of open government.” In March 2010, however, the 2010 Knight Open Government Survey found that only 13 out of 90 agencies had actually made concrete changes in their FOIA procedures. The resulting national headlines sparked a new White House call to all agencies to show concrete change.

It’s worth noting that no entity in the United States has done more to assist the FOI movement than the Knight Foundation. During this Sunshine Week, they deserve our thanks, and our praise. I shudder to think where we’d be without their support.

The full release, which will take you to the really interesting full survey, is here. And below is the chart summarizing the findings.

The Knight Survey Ratings At A Glance


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A Few Tidbits of Openness On a Sunday….

A nice Sunshine Week column in the Salt Lake Tribune provides an interesting perspective by comparing the writer’s experience with the state’s pre-HB477 law with California’s…

The Cape Code Times launches its Sunshine Week coverage with a great little local audit:

A review by the Cape Cod Times shows compliance with the Massachusetts Public Records Law varies from town to town and, in some cases, from department to department within a town hall.

And don’t get through the day without reading this fabulous column in the Times on how data — and access to it — can improve all of our lives! This is SUCH an important point. When people want to hide data, we need to remind them every time that they are squelching the innovation that made our country great. And we should remind people, over and over, that this data is OURS.

National experts in public records law say the disparity in access is common.

The Times sent four reporters, posing as average citizens, to eight Cape towns on March 3, to see how they would be treated in their pursuit of public documents. They requested one day of the police log, a list of delinquent personal property taxpayers, the school superintendent’s contract and one month’s worth of correspondence — both letters and e-mails — sent to selectmen and town councilors.

And don’t miss this great piece in the Times today on the unpredictable uses of government data in the private sector. The point made here is well worth repeating to the lords of darkness: access can lead to new discoveries, new applications, better technology!

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Some good, some bad in AP Sunshine overview

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The full story is here.

More openness in government. Lawmakers across the country, including the Republicans who took control in many states this year, say they want it. But a survey of all 50 states by the Associated Press has found that efforts to boost openness often are being thwarted by old patterns of secrecy.

The survey did find signs of progress in a number of states, especially in technological efforts to make much more information available online. But there also are restrictions being put in place for recent electronic trends, such as limits on access to officials’ text messages.

The AP analysis was done in conjunction with this year’s Sunshine Week, an annual initiative begun in 2002 to promote greater transparency in government. To observe Sunshine Week, which runs today through March 20, AP journalists in all 50 statehouses reported on both recent improvements and the obstacles that still exist in many places.

First, the positive: In Alabama, where Republicans won control of the Legislature for the first time in 136 years, lawmakers can no longer bring up budget votes without warning. And Budget Committee meetings are now streamed live online. In the past, legislative leaders typically wrote state budgets in private.

“The public and the press can know where the dollars are being spent and why they are being spent,” Republican House Budget Chairman Jay Love said of the new practices.


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