Report: Dim Sunshine Laws in Five Midwest States

Posted by: on Mar 18, 2009 | No Comments

wanted to let you know about the report on open government laws that the Citizen Advocacy Center, a policy research partner of the Midwest Democracy Network, launched today in celebration of Sunshine Week. I thought you might find it of interest this week!

Relevant links:
http://www.citizenadvocacycenter.org/OGP.html
http://midwestdemocracynetwork.org/index.php/projects/article/midwest_open_government_project_2009/
http://midwestdemocracynetwork.org/index.php/news/article/midwest_open_government_project_launches_resonates/

PRNewswire Release:
http://news.prnewswire.com/DisplayReleaseContent.aspx?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/03-18-2009/0004990576&EDATE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, March 18, 2009
Contact: Terry Pastika, Citizen Advocacy Center, 630-833-4080
Charlie Boesel, Joyce Foundation, 312-795-3816
Emily Blum, Valerie Denney Communications, 312-408-2580 ext. 13

New study finds five Midwestern states have dim sunshine laws
CHICAGO, March 18 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — While every state in the nation has laws that require public access to government records and meetings, in five Midwestern states that were recently analyzed, documents are often kept secret and doors can remain tightly closed.
According to a study released Wednesday by the Citizen Advocacy Center (Center) in celebration of Sunshine Week (March 15-21), open government laws in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota have systemic barriers that chill public participation and access to government, which weakens our democratic system designed to be by, for and of the people.
The Center analyzed each state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts and found striking similarities between all states, including:

  • Open government laws are sporadically enforced, which means public bodies are more likely to be unresponsive to records requests and employ exemptions to keep meetings closed.
  • No state surveyed has a government office with statutory authority specifically created to oversee and enforce sunshine laws.
  • State employees are not adequately trained to carry out open government policies and may be unintentionally violating the laws.
  • Citizens may be able to attend meetings, but there are very few opportunities to participate.

“For our democracy to thrive and grow, we must have open government laws that are both strong and effective,” said Terry Pastika, Executive Director and Community Lawyer for the Citizen Advocacy Center. “Without forceful sunshine laws, the public can not fully participate in the democratic process, knowledgably discuss issues of public concern, make informed judgments about the actions of elected officials, or monitor government to make sure it’s acting in their interest.”

For the study, the Center reviewed each state’s laws as well as more than 1,000 legal cases, attorney general opinions, and professional publications to produce a comprehensive report on each state’s strengths and weaknesses. The Center also provided specific reform recommendations that good government advocates can use to advance changes within each state. Reforms range from changing how fees should be levied to implementing training programs for public officials.

The study, conducted by the Center and funded by The Joyce Foundation, is distributed by the Midwest Democracy Network, an alliance of political reform advocates who are working to strengthen democracy and build the capacity of the public to participate and affect government decision-making.

To view the full report online, visit www.citizenadvocacycenter.org or www.midwestdemocracynetwork.org.

FOI Update from MPR

Posted by: on Mar 18, 2009 | No Comments

Citizen lobbyist, Rich Neumeister , is awarded the 2009 John R. Finnegan award for open government. He is also interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio with Minneapolis Attorney and First Amendment specialist, Mark Anfinson.

You can listen to or read the program on the MRP web site.

A Couple of Great Blogs

Posted by: on May 27, 2008 | No Comments

No longer is it a question of getting home in time for a favorite TV show – there’s little to watch and, if it’s really good, it’ll be on YouTube. Of late, though, I’ve found myself wanting to be near the computer mid-day, anticipating two of my favorite “you’ve got mail” beeps.

One is MinnPost, always loaded with the day’s news and views. The other is the beep from State Sunshine and Open Records, a product of the Lucy Burns Institute, a Madison, Wisconsin nonprofit dedicated to sharing information, guidance, practical advice, legal developments and news about open records at the state and local level. The voice is that of Leslie Graves.
This blog is fresh, full of snippets, tidbits, tips, foi-ish gossip, and fun! Take, for example, the Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week award. Or consider a recent blog devoted to the access challenges at the school system level. Or check out this best use of FOIA entry. It’ll give you the flavor.
Signing up for the email version will give you that healthy mid-day boost of energy to press on, knowing that the good fight is not without good people, good information and good humor.

Keynote Address: “The Light at the End of the Tunnel: the Outlook for FOI.”

Posted by: on Apr 8, 2008 | No Comments

Keynote Address: “The Light at the End of the Tunnel: the Outlook for FOI.”
Presented by Jane E. Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota.

Delivered at the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information “Freedom of Information Day & Award Ceremony,” March 14, 2008, Minneapolis Central Library.

With higher temperatures and March sunshine, it really seems like our long Minnesota winter is coming to a close. This brings us a sense of optimism, and hope.

And it’s a metaphor for the future of freedom of information. I believe it is no coincidence that James Madison, drafter of the First Amendment, was born on March 16.

This year, for the first time in a long time, there seems to be a real prospect that transparency in government could be restored.

On the last day of 2007, President Bush signed the OPEN Government Act, making important procedural changes to strengthen the effectiveness of the Federal Freedom of Information Act. There are new penalties for agencies that drag their feet in replying to requests for records – or to put it in a more positive way, new incentives to encourage agencies to comply with the law in a timely fashion.

There is enhanced Congressional oversight – an essential to the proper functioning of FOIA, no matter who is in the White House and no matter which party is in the majority – because when the legislature fails to keep an eye on the executive branch, Freedom of Information is always at risk.

There is a new definition of “representative of the news media” – which is important, not because the press does or should have greater rights of access to government records than the rest of us, but because Congress recognizes that those who gather information in order to disseminate it to the widest possible audience deserve to receive fee breaks to make it possible for them to do so.

There are even new “public liaisons” for each agency, and a new FOI ombudsman to run interference between requesters and the government.

The bi-partisan team of Sen. Patrick Leahy and John Cornyn have joined forces again to introduce a new bill that will require members of Congress who introduce proposed legislation to create new exemptions to FOIA to “explicitly and clearly” state just that – in other words, to put a stop to the practice of burying stealth exemptions in complex bills.

These are all exciting and encouraging developments.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Eight years of government secrecy is not going to go away overnight. The rallying cry of 9/11 was the pretext for policies amounting to an information blackout on an unprecedented scale: secret intelligence, secret prisons, secret torture, secret trials, and secret surveillance – all in the name of protecting national security.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: secrecy does not equal security. In fact, it almost invariably undermines it.

We know that the current administration in Washington is hostile to the very idea of the public’s right to know. It is ironic that, less than a month after signing the OPEN Government Act, President Bush directed that the funding for that FOI ombudsman should be shifted from the independent National Archives and into the Department of Justice – a Department that, at least since October 2001, has demonstrated over and over again its contempt for open government and the public’s right to know.

This is the same Department that, instead of enforcing the FOIA, has zealously pursued leakers – people who have chosen to circumvent restrictive policies to make information to the public – and threatened those who receive leaks with prosecution under the Espionage laws.
This is the same Department that has condoned using sweeping subpoenas to try to force journalists to reveal their confidential sources – and not surprisingly, has obstinately opposed the enactment of a federal reporter’s shield law to protect journalists from the prospect of lengthy imprisonment or crippling monetary fines for simply doing their jobs.

Some will argue that the restrictions and secrecy were necessary. Others contend that they were purely opportunistic. Right or wrong, for better or worse, the tenure of this administration is coming to an end. Later this year, a national election will determine who will decide the future of FOI. Those who care about open government are hoping that the candidates will commit themselves to an agenda that will reject the directives, policies, and practices that have turned the executive branch into a virtual bunker of impenetrable secrecy, and reopen it to public scrutiny.

It is always risky to speculate about how a particular candidate will address these issues once he or she is in office. On the hustings, no candidate is against open government. Words like “accountability” and “transparency” may pepper their speeches. And, as they utter them, they may even believe them.

But I’ve observed government long enough to know that even the best intentions are often unfulfilled once an administration assumes office. Openness and accountability sound terrific in the abstract. But maintaining the commitment in the midst of the turmoil of political Washington is the challenge.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic. A new generation of voters, who are accustomed to taking and sharing information through the Internet, will not settle, I predict, for business as usual. The old techniques of obfuscation and concealment simply won’t wash with young people who seek out the answers for themselves and who demand transparency from those who govern them.

That said, I do remain concerned about some things.

I worry that the judiciary, which for more than 75 years has maintained an almost unbroken tradition of expanding and enhancing the rights of freedom of speech, and of the press, is retrenching, rethinking, and in many cases, restricting those rights. Whether it is the failure to recognize a First Amendment-based reporters privilege, or a reluctance to allow meaningful access to digitized records because of theoretical concerns about security or privacy, or the continued refusal to expand the right of the public to observe judicial proceeding by allowing cameras into our courts – it all adds up to a net loss for the public’s right to know.

I worry that legitimate concerns about security at the upcoming Republican and Democratic National Conventions will prompt our law enforcement officials to extend and expand their surveillance activities in overly zealous and inappropriate ways that will intimidate and chill the rights of citizens to engage in peaceful protest.

And I worry that just at a time when my fellow citizens need in-depth news reporting – the news that is essential to making informed decisions – economic challenges will result in shrinking the resources that are necessary to support the kind of outstanding investigative reporting that we are honoring today.

You may share these worries. You may have others.

But however substantial and genuine these worries may be, I remain optimistic, because I recognize that those of us gathered here today, and many others like us around the state and around the nation, will not tolerate another decade of secrecy, predicated on fear.
So much of the secrecy that exists today was based on panic. It was justified as necessary to address threats on a scale that most of us found unfathomable – and terrifying. It shook our nation to the core.

But it is past time to get back to our first principles. It is past time to recognize that this nation is strong, that it was conceived in revolution, but born to live as a country bounded by the rule of law.

It is my hope that our return to these principles – our return to sanity – is already underway.
Our long journey through the dark tunnel of secrecy is coming to an end. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Thank you.

-30-

Freedom of Information Award Recognizes Bridge Collapse Coverage, Pro se Legal Services

Posted by: on Mar 6, 2008 | No Comments

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – March 5, 2008

Freedom of Information Award Recognizes Bridge Collapse Coverage, Pro se Legal Services

Silha Center’s Jane Kirtley Envisions “The Light at the End of the Tunnel”

The people’s right to know assumes a vast network of agencies and individuals committed to affirmation of that right. Recipients of the 2008 John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award reflect the many facets of information access. The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MnCOGI) will present this year’s awards as a highlight of Freedom of Information and the kickoff of Sunshine Week 2008.

By any measure, the collapse of the 35W Bridge is the story of 2007 – covered by every news medium from every journalistic angle. Recipients of the FOI Award include several investigative journalists including Associated Press staffers Martiga Lohn and Brian Bakst and Star Tribune reporters Dan Browning, Kevin Diaz, Patrick Doyle, Mike Kaszuba and Paul McEnroe. All of these journalists have enhanced public understanding of the tragedy through their explicit use of the Freedom of Information Act and the Minnesota Data Practices Act to gain access to public information.

The Coalition will also confer two Honorable Mention Awards. An Honorable Mention Award will be given to Susan Albright, former Editorial Page Editor at the Star Tribune. Albright, now with MinnPost, is recognized for her articulate appreciation of the dependence of a free press on access to government information and for her consistent editorial support of the principles of open government.

Recipients of the second Honorable Mention Award are Susan Ledray and Katrina Zabinski, coordinators of the innovative “Self Help Center” (SHC) in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District. As designers of the SHC Ledray and Zabinski explicitly used government information to both define and meet the needs of a targeted population. The nomination document notes that the SHC serves “thousands of pro se litigants in Minnesota to move through court more efficiently, more effectively and more informed.” In the words of Judge Edward Lynch, the SHC “provides information, resources and assistance to thousands of litigants representing themselves in court proceedings.” The Self Help Center is now available in all Minnesota counties.

Awards will be presented at Freedom of Information Day ceremonies on Friday, March 14, Noon-1:00 at the Minneapolis Central Library.
Keynote speaker for the event is Jane Kirtley, Director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Kirtley is an internationally-known expert and lecturer on issues of media law and freedom of information. Prior to joining the U of M School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1999, Kirtley was the Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a columnist for American Journalism Review. Her presentation is entitled “The Light at the End of the Tunnel: The Outlook for FOI.”
John R. Finnegan, Sr., for whom the award is named, is a Minnesota journalist and renowned defender of the First Amendment and the role of informed citizens in a democracy.

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation representing individuals and organizations committed to open access to public information in print, electronic and digital formats. The Coalition involves media representatives, attorneys, librarians, computer professionals, state and local government officials, educators and others who care about transparency in government, information access and the role of an informed citizenry in a democracy.

# # #

Contact: Mary Treacy
Minnesota Coalition on Government Information
mncogi@gmail.com
http://www.mncogi.org

The Carpetbagger’s Report

Posted by: on Feb 16, 2008 | No Comments

http://www.thecarpetbaggerreport.com/archives/14575.html
We don’t usually pick up on federal affronts – lots of national organizations do a great job of keeping an eye on Washington – but this list was so comprehensive and current that we couldn’t pass it up, had to pass it on.

Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?

Posted by: on Feb 16, 2008 | No Comments

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/14/books/14dumb.html?ei=5087&em=&en=4165809c79fa2544&ex=1203138000&pagewanted=print
New York Times 2-14-08 A good piece to read and think about before – or after – the March 1 “Afloat in the wireless pond” conference. The title suggests a theme “Dumb and Dumber”…..

Great Freedom of Info Links

Posted by: on Feb 8, 2008 | No Comments

Preparing for Sunshine week we have run across a couple of great links. We don’t have time to elaborate too much on them – but we wanted to share them with you before they got away.

If you have a favorite or a minute to comment – please feel free to do so.

A of (and I quote) “insanely useful websites”
http://www.sunlightfoundation.com/resources
A diverse list I just want to mention 2 sites: Congresspedia.com (http://www.congresspedia.org) and Contractor Misconduct (http://www.contractormisconduct.org) (wonder who maintains that?!)

Follow the money:
http://www.followthemoney.org/index.phtml
A description from their site:
Money in state politics plays a pivotal role in shaping public policy in individual states and across the nation. The nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics tracks contributions in all 50 states and makes this data easily searchable online.

Federal funds for public libraries & e-democracy

Posted by: on Feb 20, 2007 | No Comments

Public library types — celebrate Sunshine Week and Freedom of Information Day by taking a few minutes to read this recent article about potential federal funding for public libraries involved in e-democracy and access to federal goverment information. http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6417238.html