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Tag Archive: public records

OpenGov Voices: Announcing CitizenAudit, a free tool for fully-OCRd nonprofit financials


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the Luke Rosiakopinions 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.

Luke Rosiak is a former Sunlight Foundation reporter and database analyst who now writes for the Washington Examiner. Luke is also a winner of Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Grants for his project, CitizenAudit. You can reach Luke on Twitter at @lukerosiak.

In return for not paying taxes, nonprofits in the U.S. file detailed financial disclosures to the IRS, listing how much of their money goes to certain categories, how much they pay their top people and what groups they give money to.

But even though large nonprofits submit structured electronic data, the IRS takes pains to convert it into paper copies and doesn’t make them available publicly at all, instead directing interested parties to request a copy from the organization itself.

Recently, tech pioneer Carl Malamud’s Public.Resource.Org began successfully filing Freedom of Information Act requests for all disclosures--990s, as they are called---and paying the IRS on a monthly basis for reams of DVDs with TIFF images. Some are scanned paper filings, for others the IRS went out of their way to turn structured data into a mere image. None has an embedded text layer.


The information is invaluable for philanthropists, journalists and competitors--and the universe of nonprofits is enormous, including the major sports leagues, political groups, hospitals and universities and quasi-public institutions.

So I began an enormous OCRing spree, using open-source tools and home-built software and put the results in elasticsearch and PostgreSQL on a free site. The effort, half the funding for which came thanks to a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov grant of $5,000, is called

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California Crying Wolf About Cost of Public Records?

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Though all appears to be quiet on the public records front in California after a proposed rollback tucked into a budget deal brought an outpouring of criticism and several political dances, the events of last week still haunt the Golden State’s citizens. And rightly so. There are still many unanswered questions about why language weakening public records laws for California cities (by allowing them to “opt out” of records act compliance) was included as part of the budget process.

The budget bill itself cites that requiring local governments to follow those provisions (versus just giving them the option) has financial implications for the state. In 2011, the Commission on State Mandates decided that the state would reimburse local governments for certain public records costs. This decision came from a voter-approved initiative that required the state to repay local governments for state-mandated measures. Perhaps this is why the legislature thought that destabilizing local-records access could be a cost-saving measure, one that simply saved the state money by ensuring that fewer records-related reimbursements have to be paid.

Is the current law really costing the state money though?

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Who Should Pay for Public Records?

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Whose responsibility is it to pay for access to public records?

The story out of California this week about its public records process, and how the state reimburses local governments for complying with the state's public records act, raises some difficult questions about how states and municipalities interface on certain transparency-related issues. How does a state determine when it owes its local governments for being open to the public? And just how is such a cost calculated? There are many aspects of the public records process that could be given a financial value: staff time, servers, software, paper, ink … and although California seems poised to change its policy of reimbursing local governments for costs related to public records, many questions remain. However the costs of public records are counted, the dollars and cents don’t address whether a state should be financing its local agencies' participation in transparency laws.

The latest news out of a rollercoaster week in California is that the legislature and Governor have responded to the outcry about the proposed slashing of public records requirements for local governments and seem to be in agreement that they will instead maintain the requirements and related funding.

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When Are Public Officials’ Calls and Emails Public Records?


Public officials are elected or appointed to do the people's business, but what happens to transparency when they do that business through private channels? There have been cases across the country revolving around public officials using private methods of communication -- like personal email accounts or cell phones -- to conduct public business. When citizens request to know more about business done by their representatives, these private communications have, at times, served as blocks to the public's right to access information. As some of these cases are being decided in courts, we've seen a wide variety of responses from state and local governments about how to handle this public records issue.

In Alaska, such a case made it all the way to that state's Supreme Court. A citizen questioned the practice of former Governor Sarah Palin using a personal email account to conduct public business. Alaska's Supreme Court decided that if the state's employees use personal email for public business, those records must be made available to the public.

At least one government body on the other side of the country reached a similar conclusion about the value of keeping public business in the public record. The Washington, D.C., council voted to require members and employees to conduct public business on their public accounts. This move came after an open government group sued the council for not sharing public business done on personal accounts. The Mayor has also directed government employees to stay away from using personal email accounts for official business.

Not all government bodies are moving toward requiring this kind of disclosure, unfortunately.

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