California City and County Financial Data Online

The California State Controller has posted a new data tool that will help researchers with an interest in municipal finance.  The new By the Numbers tool is drawn from the Controller’s annual financial transaction report compiling municipal revenue, spending and asset information.  The tool allows comparisons between cities and also allows raw data export and will come in handy for researchers looking at city and county budgets.

Office of Government Information Services Resolves Disputes, Guides Requesters & Agencies through FOIA Process

Established by the OPEN Government Act of 2007 and opened in 2009, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) oversees federal agencies’ compliance with FOIA, serving as a mediator between citizens requesting records and the agencies responsible for furnishing them. A glance at OGIS’ case logs shows that they address the full variety of roadblocks one might encounter in the FOIA process.

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FOIA Nets Letters from Companies that Didn't Want Records Released

The Wall Street Journal has turned a tried and true Freedom of Information Act tactic on its head with some interesting results. In an instance reported in today's Journal, the paper used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain letters written by companies and individuals who wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration requesting that their private jet flight plans be excluded from public flight tracker databases.  

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Digital Public Library Launches

The Digital Public Library of America was launched today.  Led by Executive Director Dan Cohen, the DPLA may very well become the modern answer to the Library of Alexandria -- the ancient world's most extensive knowledge center. At present, the library contains over two million items in multiple formats (texts, pictures, movies, etc.) drawn from the collections of multiple partner institutions including the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institution and the Minnesota Digital Library.

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Storm Feed Captures, Archives Congressional Tweets

LegiStorm continues to expand its impressive collection of House and Senate documents with its most recent addition causing a mini-storm of its own by capturing, archiving and making text searchable all Capitol Hill tweets and press releases.  In so doing, the StormFeed service caught a few Capitol Hill staffers by surprise since their tweets, not all of which were strictly official, became word searchable and accessible as a whole, as opposed to on a feed-by-feed basis.  (More on this from the Washington Post's Al Kamen.) In the meantime, keep an eye on LegiStorm as the service rolls out new products on a fairly consistent basis.

Update: San Jose Appeals Ruling on Access to Gov. Officials' Private Devices

As expected the City of San Jose has appealed a Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge's ruling on the applicability of the California Public Records Act to communications contained on private devices maintained by elected and other government officials.  (For background on the ruling, see our entry here.) The City is basing its appeal on a number of arguments ranging from the practical (i.e., applying a search requirement across an entire city workforce would be overly burdensome) to the purely legal argumentative (e.g., individual government officials are not governmental entities as defined under the California Public Records Act.)

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Accessing Education World Records

Records maintained by educational institutions are little understood and often overlooked.  Long the bastion of student journalists, school-based records are often erroneously believed to be completely off limits due to student privacy restrictions.  While it is true that more and more colleges are brokering degree verification through the National Student Clearinghouse (which requires a student release in most instances) and student transcripts are generally private, there are a number of education-related records that are available upon request.  

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Major CA Public Records Decision on "Private" E-mails of Governmental Officials

A Santa Clara County (CA) Superior Court judge has issued an opinion that could have wide ranging effect on how governmental and elected officials communicate about public business.  If the opinion stands up on appeal, officials will be obligated to turn over public records that are stored on their private handheld devices (as text or other electronic messages) and in their private (non-governmental) e-mail accounts. 

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Hospital Inspection Reports Now Online

The Association of Health Care Journalists has launched a new site allowing any member of the public to conduct a search for certain federal inspection reports related to acute-care and critical access hospitals since January 1, 2011. This is, of course, a welcome development in terms of access to this data which was formerly accessible only by submitting a FOIA to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)

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California Public Records Act Expert Terry Franke Shares Insights

The Sacramento Bee has run a very informative interview with Terry Franke -- co-founder and general counsel of Californians Aware.  Among his insights: California's court created deliberative process exemption has resulted in more documents being marked "draft" in order to create a presumption that supports withholding.  So, rather than simply arguing that releasing a record would interfere with an elected or other government official's ability to reach a decision without undue negative influence (i.e., the "deliberative process"), Franke notes that governments now go out of their way to label documents as drafts so as to protect them from release. Read the full interview here.

Dreyfus Affair File Made Public Record for First Time

The historical department of the French Ministry of Defense has scanned and posted the secret military file that was used to wrongly convict Captain Alfred Dreyfus of spying for Germany in 1894.  The full file, which contains over 500 documents, is available here and here (as a more easily navigated Google doc). Dreyfus was a French patriot who, despite being railroaded and then wrongly imprisoned, returned to French military service in World War I.

For more detail on the Dreyfus affair, see this article in The New York Times.

Colorado Lawmakers Consider Requiring Agencies to Send Requestors Public Records

A measure (HB 13-1041) working its way through the Colorado legislature will, if passed, amend the Colorado Open Records Act to require that agencies mail, ship or electronically remit requested records to members of the public without first requiring an in-person review of the requested records.  Like the "citizen only" provisions currently being considered by the US Supreme Court (more in our blog entry here), in-person review requirements are sporadically enforced and easily worked around. All the same, few will miss the in-person review requirement when it is gone, especially given that its very existence is something of a secret to begin with.

For more on the status of the pending legislation, see this AP article.

US Public Records Factor in Foreign Politics (Russian and Egyptian)

In the past year, US public records have played a role in two high-profile foreign political dramas.  Most recently, Vladimir Pekhtin, a founder of the United Russia party and chair of the ethics commission in the lower house of the Russian Parliament (the Duma) resigned following reports that he owned property in Miami Beach that was unreported on required statements of financial interests. 

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"Citizens Only" FOIA Restriction Heard by Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging Virginia's "citizens only" Freedom of Information provision yesterday.  According to news accounts (including this one from The New York Times), Justices were skeptical of petitioner arguments that the clause -- which limits the disclosure of Virginia public records to "citizens of the Commonwealth" only -- was unconstitutional. No matter what the Court decides, "citizens only" provisions are few and far between and seldom enforced.  

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Bay Citizen Demonstrates Method for Researching Hospital District Boards

Wonderful piece in The Bay Citizen on researching local hospital district boards.  The piece is by Jennifer Gollan and Katharine Mieszkowski.  Read it carefully for good tips on the research methods used to tackle local oversight and governance board research.  Here's our exegesis:

  • Conflict of Interest statements matter -- Members of many local boards and commissions are required to file these forms.  Often overlooked, they can help tie in family members or businesses to contracts approved by the local board of commission.  An example from The Bay Citizen piece -- local bank CEO who sits on a hospital district board and reported owning stock in his bank's parent company worth upwards of $1 million while the local bank collected $1.2 million in fees from the hospital district.  How did they find out -- the local bank CEO reported his stock ownership on his conflict of interest form.
  • Relationships matter -- As illustrated in the example above, a key to this type of research method is knowing how the members of the board or commission you are studying relate to the vendors receiving contracts.  Keep in mind that human nature applies -- people more readily do business with people they already know.
  • Contracts and minutes matter -- Boards and commissions keep a written record of their meetings which will, at a minimum, record how members voted and what they voted on.  Some will even produce a video or audio record.  Expert tip:  Capture the minutes (either by download or by scanning the paper copies)  and run them through an optical character recognition software (like Adobe) and they become word searchable.
  • Know the regulators -- Boards and commissions are remote islands of government but not completely islands unto themselves.  In its piece, The Bay Citizen cited a California State Auditor report and noted that the hospital district boards it studied were also monitored (albeit loosely) by county-based entities known as Local Agency Formation Commissions.  This is a California-only regulatory set-up but the point is the same -- check the set-up where you are doing the research because there should be some outside review of the local board apparatus.

Here Comes the STOCK Act

The STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) Act was signed into law on April 4, 2012 and many of its key provisions are now starting to take effect.  Most recently, a provision requiring federal personal financial disclosure report filers to make so called periodic reports of transactions went into effect on July 3rd.  

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