US Sunshine Week: Research, Legislation, Editorials, and Reporting

16 March 2017

Sunshine Week 2017 in the United States has generated many reports, advocacy articles and journalism about the FOIA. This selection includes only a representative selection of the many articles about FOIA in the states.

FOI Research: “Forecasting Freedom of Information,” the work of University of Arizona associate professor of journalism David Cuillier, a survey of 300 people–journalists, advocates, record custodians, technology companies, scholars and freedom of information experts–revealed lengthy delays, ignored requests, excessive fees and, in many cases, an unwillingness to consider producing government records because of outmoded technology. (See introduction and conclusions reprinted here in freedominfo.org.)

FOIA Audit: “Three out of five of all federal agencies are flouting the new law that improved the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and required them to update their FOIA regulations,” according to the new National Security Archive FOIA Audit.

FOIA Administration: “In its final year, the Obama administration spent a record $36.2 million on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records requested under the Freedom of Information Act,” according to an analysis of U.S. data conducted by the Associated Press.

Commentary: Jonathan Peters provides a FOIA overview in The Columbia Journalism Review, including an optimistic note:

Still, there are bright spots around the country: court decisions, laws, bills, and other efforts breathing life into FOI principles. And it’s important to recognize those successes where we get them, because it’s all too easy to feel discouraged by the persistence and scale of FOI challenges. Progress, however fitful, is being made.

United States: The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent letters to 55 different federal agencies asking about federal employees’ use of unofficial government communication methods, according to Federal Computer Week, writing about letters to the White House and to the agencies.

Senate: Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont) announces formation of a Senate Transparency Caucus with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb). The American Library Association awarded Tester with the James Madison Award for his work promoting open access to government information and transparency. He introduced a bill that  “will make all public records from the Executive Branch permanently available on the Internet in a searchable database at no cost to constituents.”

Legislation: The House Science Committee approves two controversial bills affecting the Environmental Protection Agency, including one, which would require the EPA to publicly post scientific research it uses to justify its regulations, the Morning Consult recounts. Also see Atlantic article, “The Transparency Bills That Would Gut the EPA.”

Awards: The Electronic Frontier Foundation presents “The Foilies,” our anti-awards identifying the times when access to information has been stymied or when government agencies have responded in the most absurd ways to records requests.

Analysis: Drawing on FOIA Mapper’s database of FOIA logs, here is Max Galka’s attempt at addressing these questions: who uses FOIA and why. Journalists account for only a small share of FOIA requests (just 7.6%).  The biggest users of FOIA are commercial businesses. Including law firms, commercial businesses account for 55.7% of all requests in this sample.

 

OGIS: The FOIA ombuds office issues its annual report. The Office of Government Information Services’ Alina M. Semo, the new director of the federal government’s FOIA ombuds office, talks about is and isn’t working with FOIA at 50 in a Muckrock interview.

OGIS: The American Society of Newspaper Editors and 11 other organizations in comments in response to proposed rules regarding OGIS’ own operating procedures, particularly with regard to the dispute resolution services it offers between FOIA requesters and executive branch agencies.

We argue that OGIS’ mediation services are not strictly bound by ADRA (Administrative Dispute Resolution Act.) and, in any event, there is no reason to say that these advisory opinions should not be relied upon by parties in subsequent disputes. Our concern is that these restrictions will mute the power OGIS has to truly force agencies to follow the law.

New Slogan: The Washington Post adds a new phrase beneath its online masthead this week — “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

Funding: A coalition of foundations including Democracy Fund, Knight and Rita Allen Foundations launch a joint fund to support creative ideas to address the question: how might we improve the flow of accurate information?

Commentary: “The digital revolution has left many governments and other public institutions in a reactionary mode,” writes Daniel Bevarly, Executive Director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

FOIA Wiki: A robust collection of FOIA resources provided by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and others.

Presidential Secrecy: A PBS Newshour report on presidential secrecy with an interview with Mary Graham, author of “Presidents’ Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power.”

Transparency Research:new report by The Washington-based watchdog group, Good Jobs First, finds that most of the nation’s largest local governments fail to reveal other basic information online, like what companies are benefiting, how much money they receive or whether they deliver on promises to create jobs, reports Governing.

FBI File Bot: Artist and activist Parker Higgins creates a program that monitors the New York Times obituary section. Anytime a new article appears, it automatically files a FOIA request for that recently deceased person. He calls it FOIA the Dead. The project’s Twitter account is (@foiathedead).

SELECTION OF STATE NEWS

Minnesota: “Secrecy is emerging as a reflex at all levels of government in Minnesota and across the nation. Mounting demands for corporate confidentiality, individual privacy and security have dramatically restricted the public’s right to know,” James Eli Shiffer writes in a comprehensive article in the Star Tribune.

New York Website Evaluation: Many local governments in Central New York could take more steps to ensure their websites are useful and transparent to users, a survey by the USA Today Network found.

Ohio Bible: The updated “bible” of Ohio Sunshine Laws is released by the office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Download a copy now, because the so-called “Yellow Book” is one of the best summaries of public-records and open-meetings laws available to Ohioans.

 

Washington State Guidebook: “The Olympian Staff’s Favorite Websites For Public Information,” compiled by The Olympian.

Arkansas: Kelly P. Kissel of the Associated Press describes bills introduced in the state legislature to create another dozen exemptions and make it harder to find records. “In what’s being called an unprecedented assault on the public’s access to government records, legislators have already authorized a secret police force at the state Capitol and could soon extend the same privacy to those who patrol Arkansas’ state-run colleges and universities,” the story says.

Illinois: A report card on a local website is published by The Quad City Times.

New York: Long waits for public records are not unusual in New York, writes Lauren Stanfort in The Times Union.

Wisconsin: A citizen who stood up for his right to record school board proceedings wins a Citizen Openness Award from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

Illinois: The local newspaper in Carbondale, The Southern, creates a special section on area FOIA resources and how to file requests.

Ohio: A local TV station describes its efforts to make sure local governments are accountable.

Texas: Kelley Shannon, Executive Director, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, expresses concern in an op-ed column that our modern era of openness shifted dramatically with two state Supreme Court decisions in 2015.

Oregon: There are 550 exemptions to the state access law and more are being proposed, writes Oregon Live.

New York: “FOIL helps pry open agendas,” is the headline on a Times Union article by Tim O’Brien, beginning: “Using information gathered under the Freedom of Information Law, Grace Nichols got the city of Albany to stop using pesticides to kill rodents in City Hall.”

Wisconsin: An editorial about state transparency issues and some examples of its use.

Vermont: Secretary of State Jim Condos describes lessons learned, concluding: “As trustees and servants of the people, it’s our job as officers of the government to let the sun shine in — to let the people see what we are doing on their behalf. Yes, it can be inconvenient to have public meetings, or to provide copies of records, but it is a necessary and integral part of the job that we all signed up for and pledged to do when we took our oath of office.

Florida: The Clerk & Comptroller of Palm Beach County writes, “I make the preservation, maintenance and availability of public records a priority of my office.”

 

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