Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.
Tom Meagher is the co-founder of Hack Jersey and the data editor at Digital First Media's Project Thunderdome in New York City. His team builds interactive news applications, supports computer-assisted reporting projects in local newsrooms and offers training. He served as the data editor for The Star-Ledger in Newark, and he lives with his family in suburban New Jersey. Reach him at @ultracasual or @hackjersey.
Wrapped by the hanging air quotes of New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey's history of invention and investigative reporting tends to get overlooked. Even within the state, the two disciplines haven't acknowledged each other much. In recent years, there've been hackathons at local colleges or tech groups, but the Garden State's journalists never really mingled with programmers or dipped their toes into building news applications. Until now.
This winter, Hack Jersey held the state's first news hackathon and attracted dozens of journalists and developers to learn from and compete with one another. Sponsored by the NJ News Commons, Knight-Mozilla's OpenNews and many other organizations, the hackathon revolved around a simple (and maybe obvious) idea. By bringing coders and journalists together to use public data and solve problems, we could sow the seeds for an amazing new community here.
Last month’s “superstorm” Sandy caused devastation throughout much of the mid-Atlantic, with many residents still recovering from the powerful and destructive storm. One person affected by Sandy was Sunlight’s technology adviser Micah Sifry, who lives in New York.
On the website TechPresident, he wrote about how New York public radio station WNYC initiated a crowdsourcing project to keep listeners informed in the hours, days and now weeks since the storm hit the city.
Here at Sunlight, we decided to take a look at the innovations created by technologists and ordinary citizens to help residents affected by the storm.
In Boston, CrisisCommons organized the Sandy CrisisCamp — a series of hackathons at MIT and around the world that brought together volunteers who could contribute to Sandy relief with communication technologies. You can read more about what the technologists did and the lessons learned at the remote hackathons here.
In Rhode Island, a public records law might get a much-needed revamp if a bill heard by the House Judiciary Committee this week becomes law. The proposal was introduced by Representative Michael Marcello and would be the first amendment to the state’s Public Records Act in 15 years. According to RI Future, the legislation would, “decrease the amount of time a public agency has to make public records available from ten to 7 days; require municipalities and government agencies to designate and train a public records officer; require police departments to make initial arrest reports available within 24 hours; and would make correspondences between elected officials regarding policy public documents.” Citizens in Rhode Island have had a difficult time of accessing public information in the past. Civil liberties and open government activists applauded the effort, hoping it would improve the state’s access to public records. “This may impose some additional burdens on government employees but it should be accepted as an important part of their work,” said Steve Brown, the executive director of the RI ACLU. For more information, see Bob Plain’s post.
Members of the meet up group Open Government Chicago demoed some of the newest web-based applications created by local programmers. These apps utilize public data and could be helpful to Austin citizens. Some of the most interesting aps included Chicago Potholes, an app that “displays the open pothole requests on a city map” and MetroChicagoData.org, a federated data site that makes it easy to “obtain datasets on one website instead of going to each level of government for the various sets of information.” For more of these exciting open government apps, see Ellyn Fortino’s post on Austin Talks.
In a March 27, 2012 letter, Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph L. Bocchini, Jr. criticized the Trenton City Council for failing to make "available to the public written minutes of [Council] meetings for a substantial period of time." He maintained that meeting minutes should be made “promptly available'” to the public and pointed out that a 1986 court decision defined "promptly available" as meaning within two weeks after the meeting. He asked that the council provide him "with a timetable when minutes from past meetings will be complete and available to the public." John Paff of NJ Open Government Notes maintains, “ It's not often that a county prosecutor enforces the Open Public Meetings Act. Bocchini's letter is refreshing and may help convince other prosecutors around New Jersey to take action on complaints about tardy disclosure of meeting minutes. “ For more on his take, see his post.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's aides are “clearly unhappy” with a poll that included what they say is a leading question on transparency. The question read, “Governor Andrew Cuomo and the leaders of the Senate Republican and Assembly Democratic majorities are being criticized for secrecy in negotiating major policy deals, then quickly voting at night on the measures. Do you think these closed-door negotiations were necessary to achieve major policy deals or not?” Subsequently, the governor had to answer questions clarifying his own definition of transparency, which is mostly focused on traveling the state to explain his budget and agenda directly to voters. For the whole story see Nick Reisman’s post on Capital Tonight.
After footage of a tense city council meeting in West Branch, Iowa was posted on YouTube, City Administrator Matt Mucker suggested a rule that would have required the public to secure mayoral permission to record meetings. This measure would would have violated the state’s open meetings law. After this breach of the law was pointed out to Mucker, he argued that would “ rewrite the rule to exempt the media.” Gregory Norfleet, editor of the West Branch Times, noted the law was not written for the media’s benefit. “It’s for everybody,” he said. Furthermore, Mark Tomb, director of membership for the Iowa League of Cities, warns, “It is important to remember that nearly anyone can bring an action against the city for violating the Iowa Open Meetings Law. Each member who participated in the violation may be assessed damages of not more than $500 or not less than $100. These penalties increase to no more than $2,500 or no less than $1,000 when the member knowingly participated in the violation. Ignorance of the law is not a defense.” For the whole story, check out Matthew E. Marquardt’s post on North Iowa Today.
After a disgruntled employee took to Facebook to air his grievances, Jackson, Mississippi was forced to come up with a policy regarding social media and public entities. The city itself is now developing a policy. In the meantime, the fire department has released their own policy: “The Department’s memo encourages employees not to: publicly discuss issues that might be detrimental to the Department or that might conflict with the duties and ethics of a firefighter; to air personal grievances; and clarify that their opinions are their own and not those of the Department.” According to Jennifer Peet of Local Open Government Blog,“ For public entities, the tool is useful for broadcasting to a growing Internet audience, but allowing feedback and conversation can be a risk. Like the Jackson Fire Department, every government entity will need to have a conversation about the inherent conflict between an individuals free speech rights and the government’s legitimate right to protect the government service.”
In New York, citizens will have better access to public information, thanks to a new amendment set to kick in on February 2nd. The law will now require municipalities, school districts and other governmental bodies to make all documents to be discussed at public meetings available at or before the meetings, either in person or online. Trustee Mary Bess Phillips maintains that the city has not been trying to keep information from the public, but rather, has become overwhelmed with the number FOIA requests. Phillips argues, “There’s an ongoing myth that we’re keeping information from people,” she said. “There’s an inordinate number of requests from a couple of people. There’s a great deal of time in the clerk’s office being spent making sure these things are being handled properly.” For more information, see Beth Young’s post on The Suffolk Times.
In an effort to improve the state’s transparency, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg has reintroduced two bills designed to improve and modernize New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act and Open Public Records Act in an effort to improve government transparency. The bill would improve access to government records, by allowing anyone to make an OPRA request, not just New Jersey residents, and by allowing records requests to be made on documents other than the adopted form. Weinberg maintains, “The public has a reasonable expectation to transparency from government, and while New Jersey has, in the past, led the charge nationally in adopting public records and meeting laws, it’s time that we update and expand those laws to stay ahead of new trends in technology. In the Digital Age, our current laws governing public meetings and records requests have fallen behind the times, and have created large gaps in transparency. It’s time to correct the deficiencies in the law, and bring OPRA and the Sunshine Law into the 21st Century.” For the whole story, check out Stacey Proebstle’s post on the New Jersey 101.5’s blog.
Americans for Prosperity-Nebraska, a free-market advocacy group, has filed a complaint with the state attorney general against the Lincoln-Lancaster County Public Building Commission, alleging the body violated the state’s open meetings laws. The complaint alleges that commission did not provide adeuate notice of an emergency meeting to draw up plans to buy a bulding near city hall. The only notice the commission provided was one hasty flier on bulletin board inside the City-County Building and a notice on a website the morning of the meeting. Don Killeen, building administrator for the Public Building Commision, maintained that the city's attorney claimed the flier met the state law’s requirements for public notice of an emergency meeting. Normally, the Public Building Commission’s regular meetings are advertised in the newspaper. However, the director of the Nebraska chapter of Americans for Prosperity, Brad Stevens, said in a press release, “Hanging a flier inside the City/County building announcing this irregular meeting of the PBC is an insult to taxpayers.” For more information, read Deena Winter’s post on The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.
Hudson County’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics has already taken some heat for holding part of its executive meeting behind closed doors. Associated Press reporter Michael Gormley asked for an explanation as to why the board was headed into private session, citing New York state’s Open Meetings Law. The outgoing executive director, Barry Ginsberg, explained that JCOPE—like former state ethics panels—is exempt from the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information law. Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore, the chairwoman of JCOPE, maintains that while the board will try to hold public, but sensitive matters—such as personnel decisions and investigations—would need to be done in private. For the whole story, check out James M. Odato’s post on Times Union.
New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow has created new rules to keep records of any State Police overtime pay confidential, blocking their access to the public. A Superior Court ruling from 2005 said that the records could be used to determine patrolmen’s assignments, like Homeland Security, undercover cases and the Executive Protection Unit. State Police overtime records had actually been shown on a state website from Governor Chris Christie’s administration designed to promote government transparency and to use for open public records requests for state employees salary numbers. The website, called Christie’s "Transparency Center," will no longer post policemen’s salaries. Supporters of open government said taxpayers have the right to track public spending. Ron Miskoff of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government said, according to the Republic, "The public is paying the freight, and I don't see how knowing someone's overtime will put anyone in danger." For Bob Holt’s take, read his post on New Jersey Newsroom.
The Sunshine Review has given Kansas a transparency score of “B.” The Kansas state website earned a “B” grade, accounting for half of Kansas’ overall grade. Sunshine Review also analyzed the websites of the five largest counties, which averaged a “B.” The five largest cities earned a “B+” and the ten largest school districts averaged a “C+.”Kansas’ scores across the board are just average compared to other states around the country. Anything less than an ‘A+’ is a disservice to Kansas taxpayers,” said Michael Barnhart, President of Sunshine Review. “Transparency should be a priority to every elected official and voter. Citizens in Kansas and around our nation deserve to have the information they need to hold their government accountable.” For the whole story, read Fred Gough’s post on Hutch Post.
According to Galloway Township News, New Jersey’s Galloway Township has failed to release an agenda for the townships meeting their meeting on Tuesday, November 21, 2011. GallowayTwpNews.com emailed township manager Steven Bonanni on Sunday to remind him the agenda had not been released. Bonanni said he was on vacation and that he would follow up with the agenda on Monday morning. The agenda has still not been released. Galloway Township News maintains that Galloway Township has broken the state’s open meeting law that requires the public bodies provide the public with adequate advance notice of all its meetings. For the whole story, check out Harry B. Scheeler’s post at Galloway Township News.
During a campaign speech in 2010, Nevada’s Nye County Treasurer Mike Maher promised citizens he would provide “accurate, timely, financial information so you can be capable of being informed and capable of either supporting a solution to a financial action by your elected officials prior to expenditures being made instead of after an expenditure is being made.” Maher is eight months behind in filing the monthly treasurer's reports,the verge of having a complaint filed against him in District Court. Nye County Commissioner Joni Eastley maintained that if monthly treasurer reports through Oct. 31 were not produced by the Dec. 6 county commission meeting, she will put an item on the agenda Dec. 20 to file a complaint against Maher. To read more, check out Mark Waite’s post on the Pahrump Valley Times.
An effort to create an online forum that would allow Oregon City’s 10 urban renewal commissioners to publicly discuss agency business came to a quick halt after city officials raised concerns about hosting what amounts to a meeting that never ends. The recommendation from Commissioner Phil Yateswas intended to allow the urban renewal board to share opinions during the lull between its twice-a-month meetings. Commissioners often run short on time at meetings and that’s led at least one member to question the agency’s effectiveness. The process would be transparent and the public could listen in on the conversation any time, Yates said. For more information, check out Steve Mayes’ post at Oregon Live.
A Washington State Court of Appeals recently held that prison inmate Robert Johnson’s public records lawsuit against the State of Washington Department of Corrections was time-barred, and therefore dismissed. In August 2006, Johnson sent a public records request to the Department of Correction’s Public Disclosure Unit requesting information about the Extended Family Visitation policy revision. The DOC told Johnson that the only responsive record was one email documenting approval of the policy change, which Johnson received in early September, 2006. Over the next few months, Johnson submitted a duplicate public records request to various Department of Corrections Public Disclosure officers seeking the same information identified in his original request. After a series of additional requests, the Department sent Johnson a final letter on August 27, 2007, noting that Johnson had already received the sole responsive document, and that his request was considered closed. Over two years later, another requestor, Melinda Carter, sought the same information as Johnson. Carter was provided with nearly substantially more information than Johnson, over 300 pages of documents in response to her request. In December 2009, Johnson filed a Public Records Act (“PRA”) action to compel production of records that the Department of Corrections ostensibly withheld. Johnson contended that the Department of Corrections violated the PRA by only disclosing a single email when he had requested all records pertaining to the Extended Family Visitation policy change. He cited Carter’s request and DOC’s 300-page response as evidence to support his claim. The superior court denied Johnson’s motion and dismissed his PRA action. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding Johnson’s arguments were time-barred. See Alicia Feichtmeir’s post on the Local Open Government Blog, for more information.
Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed an executive order today intended to simplify the process for citizens looking to access government documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The state has been criticized in the past for “complex” and “inconsistent” policies related to requesting government documents in FOIA requests. According to blogger Jennifer Hayes, “The executive order will require all executive branch agencies to adopt a standard policy for requests in order to streamline the process and make it less costly to the requester.” Markell hopes this will increase the government’s transparency and openness. He maintains, “We knew we had to do better,” Markell said. “Access is vital to the healthy functioning of a democracy.” For Hayes' take, read her post on SussexCountian.
Minnesota's Farmington School Board members are changing the way they respond electronically to constituents to avoid potentially violating open meeting laws. Transparency concerns occurred after email conversations with constituents were sent by “reply all” to other board members. This could put board members in violation of open meeting laws. Although email isn’t specifically addressed in the law, issues occur regarding proper responses. School Board Chair Tera Lee said emails could be misinterpreted by other board members as an attempt to sway a vote even if that’s not the way it was intended by the writer."That’s the problem with email too, is that it’s such a grey area,” she said. For the entire story, read Laura Adelmann's post on This Week Live.
New Jersey citizens raised transparency concerns at a Common Council meeting held this Tuesday. Guy Haselmann, who presides over the Summit Department of Community Programs, used the public comment portion of the meeting to call into question the council's adherence to open meetings laws. Haselmann, who has been critical of the Council at meetings in the past, presented statements made in emails he said involved Councilwoman Ellen Dickson, Councilwoman Nuris Portuondo, Councilman Thomas Getzendanner, Councilman Rich Madden and Council President Dave Bomgaars cutting a deal. Haslemann maintains the evidence he obtained through his records request show alleged violation of openness laws. For more information, read Camillio H. Smith's post on Summit Patch.
According to Curt Olsen, transparency is lacking at The North Texas Tollway Authority as the agency has a web of connections with engineering firms, law firms, and other businesses. The NTTA board of directors has 90 days to make progress on 81 recommendations laid out in a new performance review. The report by New York City based Alvarez & Marsal came at the request of county judges in Collin, Dallas, Denton, and Tarrant counties. Among other recommendation to increase transparency, Alvarez & Marsal recommend the NTTA disclose their various conflicts of interest. To read Olsen's take, read his post on Texas Budget Source.
Matt Fretz writes Blog the Fifth, which covers New Jersey's 5th district and Representative Scott Garrett. Matt has been a vocal supporter of transparency efforts around the state and in Congress; as well as doing his part to keep Rep. Garrett accountable. With the contested race for governor over and Chris Christie the winner, Matt shares what transparency measures New Jersey needs to take to battle the culture of corruption that has over taken the state.
People have different reasons to be passionate about transparency; mine is accountability to the taxpayer. To me when elected officials let us know what they are spending our money on then we can keep them accountable and government becomes better. Regardless of whether one is pleased or disgusted with the outcome, the Governor’s race here in New Jersey highlighted just how far transparency has to go.
Chris Christie’s win is rooted in the 130 corruption convictions he rode to victory, which were products of a closed government that encouraged no bid contracts, no show jobs,grants for favors, as well as every form of patronage you can imagine and some you wouldn’t believe were true. Books have been written about our culture of corruption, and the core of it all is the overall lack of transparency. Politicians and decision makers have largely been able to operate out of the public and press’s purview for longer than anyone can remember.
Then Christie showed up and started arresting people.
It’s a sad statement on our state’s government that a subpoena was the only way taxpayers could find out what was going on. Despite assertions it was largely a partisan exercise to bolster his own career; it was not as though Christie didn’t get a conviction on every person he charged, Democrat and Republican.
In his acceptance speech, Christie said he is open to new ways to fix our broken state, here’s mine: Open it up.
Already paying the most in taxes, and unlikely to support more, the people of New Jersey are going to have to see cuts and reorganization on a massive scale in order to close a projected deficit equal to roughly 25% of the State budget. It has been proven that governments can find savings when they open the suggestion box to the employees. Residents of New Jersey should also have a chance to look at how our money is spent and voice their suggestions on cuts.
In the effort to include residents in a meaningful way, New Jersey’s Web sites are in desperate need of an upgrade. The sites most needed to track expenses, campaign donations, and legislation almost seem purposely counter intuitive at times, or at the very least cumbersome. Some basic intuition would go a long way, and would provide a golden opportunity for Christie to win some support from the 51% of the population who didn’t vote for him.
Another step would be to eliminate the loophole allowing for pretty much every contract to be awarded in a no bid fashion, or at the very least institute a waiting period between announcement of intention to award the contract and actually awarding it. This would give journalists and citizens a chance to see if there’s any funny business going on. Too often it’s only after the contract is awarded that people realize how much money the the contract winner has contributed, whether directly or indirectly.
Granted, Christie had some questionableactions of his own during his tenure, but never before has a Governor come in with such a strong track record that voters actually expect him to clean up the state. At the very least, one has to be optimistic he may actually get there. The best way for him to start the process is with a little sunshine.
Several states are starting to get pressured to strengthen ethics laws after several incidents of corruption. Major ethics changes are being pursued in New York, Massachusetts, Utah, and New Jersey.
In New York, reform groups want more disclosure regarding state lawmakers personal finances. Right now lawmakers are part time and are allowed to have outside jobs. While it is required that they report the source of the outside income, the actual income is presented in ranges not specifics. Critics say that by not allowing for more scrutiny of where lawmakers are getting their money it can never be determined if they are truly working for the citizens that elect them. Lawmakers say that more disclosure of personal finances would intrude privacy and could deter people from running for office.
In New Jersey, Gov. Corzine has introduced an ethics reform package, which focus on campaign contributions and local ethics laws. The package includes measures that will be passed through executive order. In response a State Sens. Kean, Oroho and Batemen have introduced legislation that they say will fill the loopholes by requiring contribution limits by individuals, as well as, PACs.
Massachusetts has been rocked by a major bribery case involving State Senator Dianne Wilkerson (Who I happened to have interned with when I was in college.) There is a lot of debate going on as to what the next step to tighten ethics issues in the state legislature should be. The state's lobbying laws conflict with each other about the amount a lobbyist can gift to a legislator. The Secretary of State has no subpeona power to enforce regulations and reporting requiremesnt are narrow. These loopholes let lobbyists make a lot of money in Massachuestts so the state has a lot of clean up to do.
In Utah, the state legislature is considering broad ethics reforms after several allegations of bribery. State legislators are trying to get campaign donations to be more transparent, prevent lawmakers from using campaign funds for personal purposes and possibly creating an independent commission to deal with ethics violations.
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 Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New Jersey, Maryland, and Louisiana.
In Pennsylvania, Policy blog describes how much the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spent on lobbying this past fiscal year. Is it okay for government agencies to use public funds to lobby other government agencies?
In Tennessee, Underdog looks into the lobbying expenses of the GoodYear Tire company and finds some interesting facts about what the company lobbies for and what former hill staffers are now on their pay rolls.
In New Jersey, Blog the Fifth has a great post looking into an earmark Rep. Garrett got for police training. He makes the point that because of the lack of transparency of earmark requests and how the press sometimes refers to them as “grants” it can make the earmark look bad no matter where it goes to. That is why we advocate for earmark request transparency.
In Maryland, Brian Griffiths uncovered that one of the appointees for Maryland’s Board of Education was an unregistered lobbyist. This information was not disclosed to the public and Brian questions why they were given the position even though they have no previous experience in education.
In Louisiana, Between the Lines talks about how most of the members of the Louisiana ethics board resigned after changes to the rules created stricter ethical standards.