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MARCH 2020
SPOTLIGHT STORY

Lawbooks junked up with FOI exemptions that no longer inspire joy? Time for a spring cleaning

Like that drawer of rusty bolts and expired batteries in your garage, loopholes that obstruct the public’s access to documents and data are cluttering state lawbooks everywhere. Some never served any productive purpose, and others have long ceased being useful.  Spring is nigh, and with it, time for a "spring cleaning" of the most useless carve-outs to state freedom-of-information laws that, in the words of master organizer Marie Kondo, no longer "spark joy."

The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and the National Freedom of Information Coalition are seeking suggestions for the most worthless, outdated exemptions to state freedom-of-information laws, which we'll publicize during "Sunshine Week," the annual awareness event that starts March 15.

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AROUND THE STATES

They write the laws, but don't always follow them -- legislators chafe at disclosing their own records

  • The Georgia Supreme Court has declined to review a state appeals court's finding that the Georgia Open Records Act doesn't apply to documents maintained by the state legislature. (For a roundup on how state disclosure laws apply to legislative records, check out this recent piece in The Journal of Civic Information.)
  • Relatedly, state House members in Pennsylvania relented on a claim of "legislative privilege" and agreed to turn over details of how they spend their own budgets, after initially blacking out key details. The state Senate is still holding out, and news organizations are challenging the redactions.
  • A Colorado judge found that University of Colorado trustees violated the state open-records law in releasing only one "finalist" for the presidency, which went to former congressman and North Dakota university president Mark Kennedy. The ruling, unless successfully appealed, means the public will belatedly get to see all six finalists who received interviews before Kennedy's May 2019 hiring.
FLORIDA FOCUS

"Secret presidents" legislation advancing in Florida, despite failed experiments in other states

Florida is part of a dwindling minority of states that allows the public to have input into the selection of state university presidents, but each year, lobbyists for the corporate headhunting firms that profit from secrecy try to rewrite the rules. This year, they've come closer than ever before.

House Bill 7081 passed the House on March 4 and is awaiting action in the Senate, where a similar measure, Senate Bill 774, has cleared two committees and is eligible for a Senate floor vote anytime. Both bills would enable Florida university trustees to hire presidents without disclosing the names of any of the competing candidates, or bringing any of the candidates to campus to be interviewed in public. (The bills entitle the public to see the "final group" of candidates, but nothing stops trustees from defining the "final group" as "one," which is how similar laws work in other states.)

Attorney Pamela Marsh, president of the First Amendment Foundation, argues in this Miami Herald column that secrecy undermines confidence in the legitimacy of the selection process, denying the public the assurance that a diverse and well-qualified field received consideration. Secrecy allows candidates with buried scandals to evade background-checking, increasing the risk of hiring a corrupt or incompetent candidate, as the Brechner Center's Frank LoMonte explains in this column for the Palm Beach Post.

Since new exemptions to Florida open-government laws require a two-thirds supermajority vote to become law, there's still a chance the measure will be blocked in the state Senate, as this editorial in the Orlando Sentinel explains. Florida's session is technically scheduled to expire March 13, but there's already talk of extending the end date to complete work on the budget.
OPEN OPPORTUNITIES

Research papers sought for annual competition, opportunity to present findings at K.C. conference

The Journal of Civic Information is seeking papers for its second annual competition, with winners to be presented at the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s annual summit, Sept. 24-26 in Kansas City. The top three papers will earn cash prizes and will be guaranteed publication in the peer-reviewed online Journal, published by UF's Brechner Center.

A one-page abstract is due by Apr. 13, and completed papers must be uploaded by Aug. 1. Details about formatting and how to submit are available here.  

To see the 2019 paper winners, go to https://www.nfoic.org/nfoic-sponsored-research.

FROM OUR PARTNERS

Getting to "yes": Access to meaningful FOI remedies varies greatly by state


More than one-third of states penalize flagrant violations of their open-records laws with criminal penalties, but those sanctions are rarely imposed, a new nationwide study indicates. The National Freedom of Information Coalition, headquartered at the University of Florida, reports that 17 state freedom-of-information statutes carry criminal penalties with fines, and 14 even carry the potential of jail time -- but documented instances of enforcement are rare, leaving frustrated FOI requesters with one primary option: File a lawsuit and hope to recoup attorney fees.

Read the report here...
If you would like to become a contributor, please send an email to brechnerreport@jou.ufl.edu with your idea!
BRECHNER SPOTLIGHT

"No Defense": A community blames the military for health problems following discharge of toxins


Firefighting foam used for decades at military bases contained toxic chemicals that may have polluted as many as 400 sites across the country, a newly released documentary film discloses. "No Defense," written and directed by Brechner Center journalism fellow Sara Ganim, looks at the health risks associated with PFAS, man-made chemicals used since the 1940s in a variety of products from nonstick pans to livestock feed. In an interview with Michigan's WCMU Public Radio, Ganim talked about how the film emerged from her research for a book about America's fragile drinking water supply.


"No Defense" premiered Feb. 19 in Ann Arbor, Mich., near the town of Oscoda where the film is set.
A trailer for the documentary is online here.

Sign up on Facebook for more information about future screenings of "No Defense"
WHAT WE'RE READING

This is not OK: Oklahoma lags in FOI responsiveness, university's nationwide audit" suggests


State and county agencies vary widely in their responsiveness to citizen requests for even the simplest public records, a new "audit" by Marquette University researcher A. Jay Wagner finds. 
The report, issued Feb. 24, is based on 1,014 test-requests sent to agencies in 10 states. It finds that agencies in Maine were promptly responsive to requests for such documents as incident reports from sheriff's departments, while agencies in Oklahoma were the most sluggish in producing the records that state law requires.  

Read the report here...
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