Sunlight Weekly Roundup: “Ignorance of the law is not a defense”

  • 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.
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