Happy new year! Welcome to 2018's first edition of the Today in OpenGov!
While this newsletter took a much-needed break, Sunlight stayed busy in December. Thank you for all of your donations and support as the year came to a close.
Today, we'll update you on the important (and fun) stories from our staff and contributors that you may have missed. We'll also round up some of the top open government stories from the holiday season.
Without further ado, Today in OpenGov…
Image credit: Elina Bartina.
- Federal judge gives Congress an emolumental responsibility. Before Christmas, a federal judge dismissed a foreign emoluments lawsuit against President Donald J. Trump alleging that he violated the Constitution through his businesses because of a lack of standing, and said that this should be resolved by Congress. It is important to note that the ruling does not mean that President Trump isn’t violating the United States Constitution by retaining global conflicts of interest, only that this lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington did not demonstrate sufficient harms. (Sunlight Foundation)
- Online ad transparency is on the 2018 agenda for New York State. Good news! New York's 2018 "democracy agenda" will include more sunshine for online political advertising. As Sunlight's Alex Howard explained, "Reforms that add much-needed transparency and accountability to online political advertising are urgently needed. The leadership New York State is demonstrating today shows that states don’t have to sit on the sidelines while Congress dithers. Disclaimers and public disclosure of paid political advertising online will inform voters, empower the electorate, and protect election integrity by shining a light on any shadowy actors seeking to influence the outcome of an election." (Sunlight Foundation)
- New laws in New York City tackle open data, algorithmic transparency. Miranda Neubauer reported on two bills passed last year in New York City. The first mandates more transparency around how the Big Apple uses algorithms in decision making while the second aims to improve the city's 2012 open data law and extend its effectiveness. While the algorithmic transparency bill has flaws, it sets a new bar for open government in the 21st century. Ultimately, we stand with the NYCLU and their assessment that algorithmic bias "must be subject to public scrutiny and a mechanism to remedy flaws and biases." (Sunlight Foundation)
- Climate action plans removed from National Park Service website. "92 documents describing national parks climate action plans have been removed from the Climate Friendly Parks (CFP) Program website. The CFP Program, which is part of the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS), helps national parks adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, with approaches that include planning for the impacts of sea level rise and developing strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A prerequisite for becoming a CFP member is completing an action plan detailing how the national park is currently and will continue to respond to climate change." This post, coauthored by Sunlight fellows Toly Rinberg and Andrew Bergman, along with Gretchen Gehrke and Justin Schell, was originally published on the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative’s blog. (Sunlight Foundation)
- Our Christmas wishlist for Congress. In November, we were invited to a meeting in the U.S. Senate to talk about the trends we were seeing in government transparency and technology, including social media, campaign finance, foreign influence campaigns, and proposals to address them. We took the opportunity to highlight issues that Congress should consider tackling in 2018 including reforming the Foreign Agents Registration Act, closing the online disclosure gap, upholding freedom of speech, and more. (Sunlight Foundation)
- President Trump's cabinet is operating largely in secret, often shielding schedules from public. "The Cabinet members carrying out President Donald Trump’s orders to shake up the federal government are doing so under an unusual layer of secrecy — often shielding their schedules from public view, keeping their travels under wraps and refusing to identify the people and groups they’re meeting." (POLITICO)
- The White House takes down is online petition and promised its return. Last month, the White House "temporarily" removed the We the People "petition tool from its website after 11 months of silence, promising to respond to public concerns" in 2018. (Associated Press) We'll believe that it will be back when we see it, given that the Trump administration hasn't responded to any of the 17 petitions that have reached the set threshold for a response since the inauguration.
- A Trump corporate helicopter is using a helipad at Mar-a-Lago designated for presidential business. "For over a week, a private helicopter bearing the Trump logo and name has sat on the helipad at Mar-a-Lago — a helipad that is supposed to be used only for presidential business. Until Donald Trump became president, aircraft were forbidden from landing in the exclusive island town. But the town agreed to allow a helipad to be built and helicopters to land at Mar-a-Lago with certain conditions: The helipad must be removed when the president leaves office. Until then, the helipad can only be used for official presidential business." (Palm Beach Post)
- Justice Department pushes for citizenship question on Census. "The Justice Department is pushing for a question on citizenship to be added to the 2020 census, a move that observers say could depress participation by immigrants who fear that the government could use the information against them. That, in turn, could have potentially large ripple effects for everything the once-a-decade census determines — from how congressional seats are distributed around the country to where hundreds of billions of federal dollars are spent." (ProPublica) Our take? The Census mandated by the Constitution counts the total number of people residing in the United States, not citizens. Questions that create incentives not to respond would damage one of the nation’s most important capacities: our ability to know ourselves.
- Trump spent all or part of 117 days this year at property with his name on it. (NBC News) At the Washington Post, Philip Bump breaks down the numbers, including an estimate of how much time the president has spent golfing. .
- Despite pledges to stay out of his businesses, the President is reportedly maintaining an interest. A report in the Daily Beast explains that the president has kept up to date on the latest at his Washington, DC hotel, "since his inauguration, he has maintained that he isn’t involved in the management of his businesses. But an email from the director of revenue management for the Trump Hotel in Washington, which The Daily Beast reviewed, indicates that may not be the case."
- At year's end, President Trump's false or misleading claims have lowered the bar for public mendacity, damaging global trust in the words of the President of the United States. The Washington Post has been maintaining a "database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president…As of Monday, the total stood at 1,950 claims in 347 days, or an average of 5.6 claims a day." (Washington Post)
- As new leadership seeks detente, FEC faces possible shut down due to lack of quorum. Caroline Hunter, the new chair of the Federal Election Commission, recently sought out the new vice chair — and a longtime adversary — Ellen Weintraub "to privately discuss FEC issues, from improving agency efficiency to more tightly regulating internet-based political communications, on which they might actually agree…At issue is whether their thaw is ultimately for naught. The six-member commission, which regulates and enforces the nation’s campaign finance laws, could face a de facto shutdown just as 2018 congressional midterm elections heat up." (Center for Public Integrity)
- Opaque decision making at Federal Emergency Management Agency causing headaches for victims of hurricane Harvey. The Texas Tribune shared the stories of several families who unexpectedly lost emergency housing benefits following hurricane Harvey. Our take away? When FEMA uses unpublished rules internally to make decisions about housing subsidies for families displaced by disasters, secrecy causes public confusion & distress. The agency should be transparent: disclose the criteria, any code, and performance data online.
- EPA task force set up to change how polluted sites are tackled didn't keep records. "The Environmental Protection Agency says an internal task force appointed to revamp how the nation’s most polluted sites are cleaned up generated no record of its deliberations…nearly six months after the task force released its report, a lawyer for EPA has written PEER to say that the task force had no agenda for its meetings, kept no minutes and used no reference materials other than Pruitt’s memo appointing them." (Associated Press)
- The Department of Health and Human Services released 80 out of 10,000 comments on controversial proposal. "HHS is defending its decision to withhold more than 10,000 public comments on a proposal that could affect access to abortion and care for transgender patients…While HHS received 10,729 comments on its proposal, the agency has only posted 80 comments — less than 1 percent of all submissions — that overwhelmingly back the administration’s anti-abortion policies or attack regulations advanced by the Obama administration, such as a rule forcing health care providers that accept federal funding to provide services to transgender patients. Sources with knowledge of HHS' decision say the agency hand-picked the comments that it released." Our take? HHS should not redact, selectively disclose nor censor responses to a docket based on viewpoint.
states and cities
- As cities embrace open data policies, they must carefully consider the tools they use. "Over the past several years, open data has become decidedly mainstream. The federal government, cities, counties and states all are launching portals that provide digital access to data on government performance. Apparently, however, not everyone gets what they expect from open data solutions." Sunlight's Stephen Larrick explained that it's important for open data to be codified as "public policy so there is an expectation of what the public will have access to, so if those things don’t happen there can be public oversight." (GCN)
- Los Angeles considers exempting nonprofits from lobbying disclosure rules. "When Los Angeles lawmakers have weighed hotly contested issues such as whether to hike the minimum wage or how to regulate street vendors, nonprofits have frequently piped up in the debates ringing through City Hall. Now L.A. could exempt many of those groups from revealing whom they lobby in local government and how much they spend to do so." (Los Angeles Times) We think that's a bad idea. Nonprofits and charities that engage in lobbying shouldn’t be exempted from disclosure rules, whether in Los Angeles or other cities. As Sunlight's Stephen Larrick told the Los Angeles Times, "Any information about who has influence over political or legislative decisions is critical context for democracy."
- State government claims open data saved Connecticut at least half a million dollars. Tyler Kleykamp, Connecticut's chief data officer, explained how an effort to open up building footprint data helped save $500,000 – and how it may lead to better data quality in the long term. (Medium)
- Rhode Island lost access to years worth of state email archives following systems change. "An access-to-public-records request has uncovered the state's previously unreported loss of access to many years of emails to and from people in state government. The predicament resulted from the 2015 shift from one email system to another by the state's Division of Information Technology, also known as DoIT, according to an email that Richard Thornton, the campaign-finance director for the state Board of Elections, sent to software entrepreneur and two-time candidate for governor Ken Block on Wednesday." (Government Technology)
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