- This week, a comprehensive overhaul of the Georgia’s open government laws unanimously passed the Senate. House Bill 397 will now go back to the House so members can agree on changes made by the Senate. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, one of the bill's backers, maintains that it “makes great strides towards increasing transparency in Georgia.” Hollie G. Manheimer, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, points out, “We are optimistic that HB 397 will pass in its current form, and that the attorney general will begin as soon as possible to address an increased number of open government violations. Stronger open government laws mean greater transparency for Georgia citizens.” For the whole story, see Kathleen Baydala Joyner’s post on ATLAW.
- California recently received a D-minus for government transparency. According to John Diaz, this low grade is mostly due to the state lacking a “checkbook” website that displays financial information online. Diaz maintains, “California, home of so much brilliance and innovation, should be ashamed that Texas and Kentucky lead the nation in using the tools of technology to make their government spending more transparent to their citizens. Even worse is that 35 other states scored higher than California in a recent analysis by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Perhaps most humiliating of all is that the technology that could have put California in the top tier in 2012 is not expected to be up and running until … 2017.” For his entire take, see his post on SF Gate.
- In Kentucky, a bill increasing secrecy at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services died in a Senate committee only to be revived minutes later in the House of Representatives. Critics of the measure worry the bill will “sharply curtail public access to details of child-abuse deaths and serious injuries, were outraged, saying the bill gives the cabinet more power to withhold information.” David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association opposes the bill. Calling it a “secrecy bill.” Media attorney Jon Fleischaker testified the Senate committee about concerns over the lack of transparency the bill has for cabinet oversight, even though supporters were pushing it as a transparency bill. For the entire story, see Mike Farell’s post on the Kentucky Open Government Blog.
- According to a report by the State Integrity Investigation, Virginia has been ranked the fourth worst state regarding open government and anti-corruption laws and practices. The state earned a failing score of 55 and performed better than only Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia. In his blog, Virginia Senator Chap Petersen called the report “an example of the lamest, most superficial analysis.” For more information, see Nicole Trifone’s post on Fairfax City Patch.
- The Arizona Public Interest Research Group awarded Arizona an A-minus on how it helps taxpayers find information online pertaining to government spending. The high grade was mostly because of OpenBooks.az.gov, a state website that offers a searchable database of state expenditures. The launch of site raised Arizona’s grade from an F in 2010 to A-minus in 2011. Representative Kimberly Yee, the sponsor of legislation aimed at increasing government transparency, maintains,“People need to see where money is being spent so they can hold elected officials accountable. “ For more information, see Devin McIntyre ‘s post on the Tucson Sentinel.
- In honor of Sunshine Week, Kentucky’s Adair County Community Voice utilized citizens to perform a local records audit. According to the Kentucky Open Government Blog, “The weekly newspaper engaged eight ‘average citizens’ to seek specific records from eight public agencies and published the generally good findings in last week's paper, with an explanation of the audit and the issues, and an editorial by Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton giving her motives.” For the most part, the audit revealed that most institutions readily complied with the information requests. However, they found the least cooperation when they asked law-enforcement agencies for salary information. For the entire story, check out Al Cross’ post.
- This week, Tennessee lawmakers quietly sealed public records pertaining to education. The Senate State and Local Government Committee and the House State and Local Government Subcommittee passed bills to make the results of teacher evaluations confidential. According to KnoxNews, lawmakers used a questionable exception to exempt the teacher evaluations from the Public Records Act. "So much for transparency in government," laments Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. For the whole story, check out Jack McElory’s post on KnoxNews.
- In slightly related news, even though Tennessee’s state government ranks among the ten most transparent in the country, it earned a grade of C+ for its laws promoting transparency and punishing corruption. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity, Tennessee sends a “mixed ethics message.” Elizabeth Bewley points out, “The report’s authors said Tennessee’s 2006 ethics reform bill has helped, but the Tennessee Ethics Commission created by the bill hasn’t lived up to expectations.” For her entire take, check out her post on the Tennesseean.
- California Councilwoman Teresa Barth recently wrote an open letter publicizing her support for increased government transparency. In the letter, Barth maintains that Encinitas, California needs stronger transparency laws. She writes, “At the June 10, 2009 City Council meeting, I proposed a citizen’s task force to work with staff to craft a Sunshine Ordinance for Encinitas. My colleagues said the city was already in compliance with existing laws and a Sunshine Ordinance was not necessary. I believe we should set a higher goal. We should strive to do the 'Best Not the Least.'" She urges all citizens to tell the city council to support a Sunshine Ordinance. She argues, “The right of the people to know what their government is doing is fundamental to democracy.” For the whole story, check out her post on Coastal News.
- In a blog post, Gwyneth Doland, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, reassess the state of New Mexico transparency after Sunshine Week. Some of the guidelines Doland wants New Mexico to adopt are having public meeting agendas available 72 hours in advance (instead of the current 24 hours) and improved access to information about about schools, roads, taxes and other public works. Doland maintains, “Being open and transparent isn’t always easy for government to do, but it’s always the right thing do.” For more information, see her post on NM Politics.
- The Kentucky attorney general has decided that the Kentucky State University Board of Regents violated the state’s Open Meetings Act earlier this year. According to the blog, “The Finance and Administration Committee and the Audit Committee jointly held a closed session meeting on Jan. 27 to discuss an external audit. Before entering the closed session, the committee failed to pass a formal motion to go into closed session and cite the reason for the session, as required by the Open Meetings Act.” Board of Regents Chairwoman Laura Douglas maintained that the meeting was not illegal and that the committee went into a closed session under an exception to requirement of public session that focuses on threats to public safety. The attorney general maintains that the exception was "clearly inapplicable and the meeting was illegal." For the entire story, see Christine de Briffault's post on the Kentucky Open Government Blog.
- The Sunshine Review recently evaluated state websites in Kansas. The Wichita and Derby school districts and Sedgwick County were among nine Kansas governments recognized for having transparent websites. Sunshine Review uses information such as budgets, meetings, lobbying, financial audits, contracts, academic performance, public records and taxes to determine the website’s level of transparency. For the whole story, read Phillip Brownlee's post on WE Blog.
Today, the Kentucky House State Government Committee will (if it hasn't already) be hearing HB 496 -- a bill we talked about earlier, to deliberate on next steps. Guest blogger Logan Morford the Vice-President of Transparency at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions is stressing how this attack on transparency will affect everyone.
Representative Johnny Bell is sponsoring a bill in the 2012 Kentucky General Assembly that would exclude private companies who take public funds from being subject to the Kentucky Open Records Act. The argument is that these private companies are being over-burdened with legal costs associated with records requests related to their activities with public money.
I am all for protecting the rights of private businesses but if a private business accepts taxpayer money they have to know that different rules apply. The path of public money has to be transparent because transparency is the first step in citizens holding government accountable.
This attack on transparency could have serious repercussions for citizens, journalists, and government watchdog groups that seek to root out fraud, waste, and abuse in government. With Kentucky’s current budget problems, the ability to scrutinize every single dollar spent must remain intact. This responsibility falls to citizens, journalists, and government watchdog groups using the Kentucky Open Records Act because proactive disclosure by the state or those using state money is not something that can be counted on. We’ve seen the power of sunshine laws in Kentucky as they have revealed:
- That Governor Steve Beshear promised Kentuckians he would do a comprehensive efficiency study to reduce waste in state government. That didn’t happen..
- Fraud and abuse in quasi-government agencies.
- State spending statistics that show how out of control Kentucky really is.
- The evaluation system for school district superintendents is broken and often rewards failure.
Sunshine laws are vitally important to accountability for taxpayer dollars. Any attempt to limit the ability of citizens to see how their money is spent should be put under a microscope and examined very carefully. The road toward transparency is hard enough without having to backpedal and re-fight battles that have already been won.
Less than a week away to Sunshine Week , a surprise attack on transparency in Kentucky is threatening to change the state’s Open Records Act. On February 28, Rep. Johnny Bell sponsored HB 496 -- a bill that will -- if approved, exclude private companies who have at least 25 percent of their revenue coming from public projects -- from Kentucky’s open records requests.
John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader talked to Rep. Bell who assured him that he “respects the public’s right to know”. But it’s interesting that the same Representative sided with private companies in construction, highway building, engineering and architecture who are complaining about the time and money they waste on legal fees associated with public records requests.
Bluegrass Institute’s Logan Morford is reminding Rep. Bell and colleagues who they represent and that it -- the American public, including citizens seeking “sunshine” in Kentucky:
- Taxpayer money comes with strings attached whether it is spent by government or with private industry. Private companies take public money with this understanding. If you don’t want to be subject to open records laws, don’t take public money.
- Quasi-government agencies like the Kentucky League of Cities would still be subject to existing transparency laws. Government cannot choose winners and losers. In this respect they would be choosing which recipients of taxpayer money are to be held accountable and which are not. That is unacceptable.
- The legal fees that are too burdensome only come into play in one scenario: The records request is challenged. Costly and burdensome legal fees can be avoided by simply turning over records related to taxpayer money.
HB 496 is scheduled for a hearing this Thursday before the House State Government Committee. Here is to hoping all involved in voting on this bill will seriously consider the public’s right to know what their government is doing.
- Michigan House democrats just proposed a series of bills to increase transparency and take on money in politics. The bills will increase the amount of time lawmakers are required to wait before becoming lobbyists. Furthermore, they also introduced an amendment to Michigan’s constitution “requiring corporations to increase disclosure of lobbying and political activities and banning the state government from awarding contracts worth more than $100,000 to contractors and vendors who make political donations.” Governor Rick Snyder has expressed a commitment to increased transparency, maintaining, “We should have more frequent and better disclosure of campaign contributions, and we should have stronger rules governing employment of people who negotiate state contracts while in government service.” In an email about the crippling influence of money in politics, Central Michigan University professor Andrew Blom argues, “The biggest ethical problem in contemporary American politics, as I see it, is that we have effectively made corruption institutional by allowing monied interests to have so much influence in campaigning and, as a result, access in lobbying.” For the whole story, read John Irwin’s post on Central Michigan Life.
- In Kentucky, circuit court judge Tyler Gill has taken issue with Govenor Steve Beshear recent editorial defending his administration's appeal of a court decision that ordered some child abuse records be open to the public. Gill takes issue with some of the governor's contentions in a column published in the Courier-Journal. He maintains that “openness and accountability are the better policies.” Gil believes that state-imposed secrecy is often used to “hide state incompetence or misconduct than to protect the citizens of Kentucky.” He maintains, “While we can always find some downside to open government, the consequences of government secrecy are far worse. We need only look to the courts and governments of totalitarian regimes such as China, North Korea, Iran or Cuba for this lesson." For more information, check out Mike Farrell's post on the Kentucky Open Government Blog.
- Maryland congressman Sandy Rosenberg has proposed a bill in the General Assembly that would extend broader protection from public information requests to professors at the state's public universities. According to David Krajicek from One Minute Lawyer, Rosenberg was inspired to draft the bill after “ attempts to draw academic researchers into political battles. He cited the Virginia attorney general, a global warming warming skeptic, who tried to use his subpoena powers to build a fraud case against a climatology professor, and an attempt by a Wisconsin Republican official who sought the emails of a history professor, trying to demonstrate that he had misused his public account to stir political unrest during the state's battles over organized labor.” While several academics and professors supportive of the proposed legislation, open-government advocates have raised transparency concerns regarding the bill.
- The New York City comptroller has revamped NYC Checkbook, the city’s checkbook website. The site already allows citizens to see every check the city issues. Now, the site will offer "software developers direct, programmatic access to a comprehensive trove of information about New York's fiscal health.” The revamped site will boast detailed information about the city’s budget, contracts, payments, and vendors. Comptroller Ari Hoffnung maintained, "Our goal is to make New York City the most financially transparent government in the United States.” For the whole story, check out Nick Judd’s post on Tech President.
- Despite the state’s spotty history with transparency, The Sunshine Review has just increased the Kansas state website’s grade from a B- to a B thanks to redesigns made by Governor Sam Brownback’s administration. Kirstin McMurray, The Sunshine Review’s managing editor, maintains that the site could be further improved by disclosing any lobbying that state-funded organizations do to secure federal help for the state. State Representative Kasha Kelley seems to agree, pointing out, “We’ve been so busy dealing with the budget that no one’s pushed transparency issues. I think budget issues and open government issues go hand in hand. The less you have to spend, the more you have to account for it.” To get the whole scoop, read Gene Meyer’s post on Statehouse News Online.
- The Winchester Sun has asked Attorney General Jack Conway to review an executive session the Winchester-Clark County Parks and Recreation Board held before deciding to allow alcohol sales in a local park during a concert. The parks board responded, claiming that they had received legal threats from the public regarding the decision. According to the Kentucky Open Meetings Act, public bodies are required to conduct all of their business in an open session except when certain issues arise, including threatened or pending litigation. The Winchester Sun responded that the threat of legal action was “remote” and therefore the exemption did not apply. For the whole story, see Mike Farrell’s post on The Kentucky Open Government Blog.
- In 2005, the Boston City Council faced a lawsuit that revealed 11 deliberately secret council meetings with Boston Redevelopment Authority and Boston University officials in 2003-05. The meetings violated the state Open Meeting Law and the court fined the council $11,000. This week, Judge John Cratsley ruled that the Boston City Council no longer needed court monitored meetings to ensure they met the state’s Open Meeting Law. Crastley maintains, “There has been a positive change in the Council’s attitude toward and attention to the requirements of the Open Meeting Law.” Transparency advocate Shirley Kressel, the plaintiff in the case, is not convinced. She claims, “The loss is not ours. The loss is to the citizens as a whole.” For John Ruch’s take, read his post on The Mission Hill Gazette Blog.
- Mayor Bloomberg has just launched NYC BigApps 3.0, a contest that challenges software developers to design mobile applications using official city data. The competition started in 2009 and is geared towards government transparency and improvement of the lives of New Yorkers. The fits nicely alongside Bloomberg’s stated commitment to increasing technology in New York. For more information, see Kristina Farrah’s post on Silicone Angle .
There are only a few days left and so many people to thank.
In Arizona, Espresso Pundit is one of my favorite local blogs. Written by Greg Patterson who has been an elected official and worked extensively in public life. Greg focuses on spending, earmarks, and public records. He is also a fan of putting information online and also sharing information about legislative workshops on how bills become law.
In Mississippi, Y'All Politics is an online news magazine that covers all of Mississippi's news. They make sure to cover local ethics issues and lobbyist influence. It is a great one stop shop for aggregated Mississippi information.
Three bloggers have some interesting stories about their Freedom of Information (FOIA) escapades.
In Kentucky, Page One has a post about the State Treasurer withholding public records.
On August 27 I filed an open records request for the following: * All time sheets, calendars and schedules for State Treasurer Todd Hollenbach from the first date of his official service as Treasurer to present day * Security camera footage from front entrance that would provide visual confirmation of arrival and departure of Todd Hollenbach from the first date of his service as Treasurer to current On September 3 I received a letter from Deputy State Treasurer Mary John Celleti: The Kentucky State Treasury is in receipt of your Open Records Request seeking copies regarding: 1. All time sheets, calendars and schedules for State Treasurer Todd Hollenbach 2. Security camera footage from the front entrance, confirming Treasurer Hollenbach’s arrival and departure. Please be advised that the Treasury is in the process of filling said request and it may take some time to gather and review all the requested information. Due to the expansive nature of the security camera footage the request may be expected to take more than ten days. Once the documentation has been gathered and reviewed, it will be made available to you. If you have any questions, please feel free to call It’s now been a month since I filed the request, so I decided to poke around a bit. Low and behold, with the help of great sources, I’ve learned that Todd Hollenbach and his henchman are trying to prevent access to the requested documents. Documents and media which, according to four people in the office of the Treasurer, prove that: Todd Hollenbach barely ever shows up for work, spends most days at a country club and goes out of his way to do absolutely nothing. So you know he’s got something to hide.
This is a pretty harsh claim but the point should be clear. ANSWER YOUR FOIA REQUESTS! By deciding to not disclose lawmakers hurt themselves in the public eye. Then they have to deal with sharp bloggers picking on them.
In Arizona, Expresso Pundit has a post also about withholding public records and how a Councilman helped him get the records he wanted.
Surely you recall the Desert Divas. That's the ultra expensive VIP Prostitution ring that police busted last year. Back in February, it looked like the case was going to break wide open...Prosecutors were naming names Today, Phoenix police offered to the media a list of thousands of names in two hefty PDF documents. Unfortunately, the list was a bust...so to speak. Prosecutors did indeed name names, but they didn't provide addresses. That meant that none of us had any idea if "John Smith" was THE John Smith that you know from the office, or tennis, or church. Without the addresses, the list was essentially meaningless. So I went to Phoenix Police and said I wanted the whole list....you could hear the laughter from quite a distance. Every media outlet in the state wanted the full list and Phoenix PD wasn't going to provide it. I pointed out that the clients on the list were neither victims or witnesses and that the record was obviously public. The Phoenix PIO who called back, said simply, "Good Luck". After a few months of dead ends, I finally went to my Secret Weapon--Sal DiCiccio. Councilman DiCiccio thinks that if information is public that it should actually be available to...you know...the public. DiCiccio sent his right hand guy, former Tribune writer Hal DeKeyser to take care of it and by golly, they stone walled him too...but persistence pays off. I got a call last week that the list was available on CD. Well, you are the public too, So here's your copy.
It is great to see an elected official so committed to freedom of information that they will get the information for citizens. Also thanks Expresso Pundit for posting the results online so others can find it.
In Ohio, River Vices submitted a FOIA request and got a unique response.
Under Ohio's Open Public Records Law, I am requesting a copy of the written agreement between the city and the Portsmouth Kiwanis Club for a playground in Tracy Park. A week ago, on Sept. 18th, 2009, at a public meeting in Tracy Park,in response to a question, Rick Morgan of Kiwanis publicly acknowledged that such a written agreement existed, but neither he nor you have yet made that agreement public. Please notify me by email when I can pick up a copy of that agreement. Thank you. Robert Forrey ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Per your public records request; You are correct in stating that at the meeting in the park the fact was "acknowledged that such a written agreement existed". What I don't understand is why you feel that a confirmation of this fact would necessitate a publication or distribution of the mentioned document. As you requested, a copy of the document has been prepared for you to pick up at my office. Our regular office hours are from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM, Monday through Friday. If there is anything else that I can do for you, which is required by law, don't hesitate to call my office. If it isn't required by law then don't bother asking, because I think that you're a worthless piece of s**t and I wouldn't p**s on you if you were on fire (my opinion). You're a poor, lonely, jealous, old man with aspirations of being a writer. You write your lies and uneducated opinions on people and issues from behind the safety of your slobber stained keyboard with the hope that somebody will read them that doesn't know you and believe that you're more than the pitiful, broke-down, lizard-looking thing that you are, in my opinion. Get a life old man. On second thought, don't bother.............. I do have a question for you. Do you have family and if so do they even like you? Looking forward to your next Internet issue of "FORREY'S FOLLIES".....NOOOTTTTTT With little respect for you, Mayor James D. Kalb Now that's freedom of speech at its best, in my opinion.
The mayor of of Portsmouth does get points for answering the FOIA but it seems that he might want to work on his prose.
Every week I climb into the depths of the local political blogosphere to find the Sunlight. I use this series to highlight local blogs that do a great job of covering local, state, and congressional political news. This week I have highlights from Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Hampshire.
In Alabama, Flashpoint has a post about the a new ethics bill in Alabama and points to and editorial in the local paper saying lawmakers are dragging their feet around it. This bill would put a cap on how much a lobbyist can spend on a lawmaker each day. Currently lobbyists in Alabama only have to report if they spend more than $250 a day on a lawmaker. The new bill would put a cap on lobbying spending to $50 a day and $250 a year.
In Kentucky, Page One posted a list of companies and how much they spend on lobbying for influencing Frankfort. The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission posts the info on their Web site. The list is pretty interesting and you can continue looking on their site to see what other organizations are spending money to influence the state government.
Louisiana's Between the Lines has a post about a bill coming up, "that would make officials in jurisdictions of over 5,000 people report on any contributions or loans above $1,000 they received from their political appointees." The author goes into why this bill might not be the best idea. He goes into how it could be a waste of taxpayer money to process this information. He goes on to support a different bill that would put the burden on appointees not elected officials. He says this will not use so many state resources to support disclosure requirements which he deems as a waste of taxpayer money.
Nevada's Desert Beacon is preparing for the upcoming vote on healthcare reform by listing all the healthcare industry donations to Sen. Ensign. It would also to see the Maplight.org page for Sen. Ensign when the vote comes up.
Democracy for New Hampshire has a post about upcoming legislation that would create exemptions to the state's right to know laws. "HB 349 is trying to exempt legislator's e-mails from both right to know and court subpeonas; an earlier bill, HB 53, seeks to remove the secretary of state's office (and other executive agencies) from rightto know by redefining what a "public body" is." How do you redefine a "public body"? These bills seem pretty outrageous. States should be making more available not less, let alone going to such extents as to redefine a state agency as not a public body.