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December 2020

Thank you for your support during 2020 of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and our member state organizations. Please consider a year-end gift to support our important cause. You may donate here

We wish you a healthy and transparent new year.

Spotlight Story 
Longtime advocate tells transparency story

A big challenge for government transparency advocates is making the cause relevant to everyday people.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, explained how he tries to rise to this challenge during an in-depth interview with KNIA-KRLS Radio. 

“As I remind government officials, the government doesn’t belong to government officials. It belongs to citizens,” Evans explained. “And sometimes we see evidence that government may not fully understand that.”

During the summer, the Iowa council revealed the Iowa State Fair Board didn’t meet publicly to decide whether to close the annual event because of the pandemic. The vote was taken by secret ballot without open discussion.

“It’s especially troubling because the smallest city council, the smallest school board in Iowa recognizes their obligation under the law without some pointy-headed FOI council official in Des Moines reminding them of it,” Evans said. “Yet, the state fair board with an assistant attorney general sitting there in the meeting with them seemed oblivious to what their obligations were. It gets quite troubling.”

Evans wrote a letter of protest to the fair board CEO and the attorney general, but received no response from either government official.

Despite this problem, Evans said, he sees some hope that Iowa officials are starting to release more information about the pandemic.

Secrecy breeds public distrust in the government, he concluded. “When government tries to keep the public from having access to records or video or whatever it is, it just erodes the credibility of government. That’s not good for government, that’s not good for citizens, and that’s not good for democracy.”

For more, contact Evans at the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, 515-745-0041.
Coalition Research 
High fees block public’s access to records
 
Why should the public have to pay twice for access to its own records?
That’s the question posed in a new research paper prepared for the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

A 2014 amendment to the Colorado Open Records Act capped the cost governmental entities could charge for reviewing and redacting requested records, but the result has been the public often is still being charged the maximum fees allowed.
“Six years later, it is clear that CORA’s fee provision can be used to make public records so cost prohibitive they effectively are off limits to the public,” the paper states.

Colorado open government advocates are pushing the state Legislature for reforms. One proposal is for Colorado to follow the lead of Ohio and West Virginia, which operate under the premise that government entities should not charge fees to the public for accessing its records. Another example the paper cites is Illinois, which charges only for commercial or voluminous requests, treating news organizations as noncommercial and in the public interest. 

For more information, contact CFOIC executive director Jeff Roberts at 720-274-7177.
Tribute
State coalition regroups after death of legendary president

Freedom of information advocates are mourning the loss of Tim Crews, 77, who rose to national prominence while editing a twice-weekly newspaper in Glenn County, California.

His regular efforts to pry loose government information also led him to become president of California Aware, a member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Crews died in November of sepsis.

Tributes to Crews came in from across the country and on the Facebook page of his newspaper, The Sacramento Valley Mirror

“RIP, Tim. A legend of journalism and a bulldog of keeping public records public. You will be missed,” wrote Jared Schmidt, who told NFOIC that Crews was a friend and mentor. 

In a 2017 interview with Poynter, a nonprofit journalism institute, Crews said his newspaper filed an average of more than 20 state records demands every year, some of which he went to court to defend. In 2013, a California appeals court ruled that the publisher didn’t have to pay the legal fees for the school board he sued over an open records request — a major win for government transparency, according to the First Amendment Coalition. In 2000, Crews spent five days in jail after refusing to reveal the names of his sources in a case involving a local police officer’s theft of a firearm.

Crews’ death cast a long shadow on the operations of Cal Aware, said Emelyn Rodriguez, who is the acting executive director. The longtime previous executive director, Terry Francke, retired about a year ago because of health issues.

The Cal Aware board plans to elect new officers during its January meeting.

For more information, contact Rodriguez at Cal Awareemelyn.rodriguez@gmail.com.
In The Courts
Pandemic response prompts FOI lawsuits

The University of Michigan is being sued for refusing to provide a significant portion of documents requested concerning the science and data used to support the state's lockdown orders.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s legal foundation filed the lawsuit Dec. 7 in the state’s Court of Claims. The center’s executive vice president, Michael J. Reitz, also is the president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced pandemic restrictions in May, she said all the best “science and data” was considered, but she did not share the details publicly. The governor’s office is exempt from FOIA under Michigan law, but the governor relied on information from university officials to formulate these policy decisions. Public universities are subject to Michigan’s FOIA law.
 
The Mackinac Center requested the documents, but the university redacted some, citing a “frank communications” exemption.
 
The Mackinac Center also filed a suit this month against Michigan State University for the release of documents related to a controversial firing.
 
In a third case, a Michigan agency agreed in a settlement with the Mackinac Center to release documents related to complaints about businesses suspected of violating the governor’s COVID-19 executive orders. Mackinac sued after the agency delayed releasing the documents requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
 
For more, contact Reitz at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, info@mackinac.org.
FOI Research
Strong FOI laws aren’t enough to fight corruption, study says

Strong freedom of information laws aren’t enough to fix long-standing  political and social problems, a new study published in Government Information Quarterly suggests.

“However, knowledge of the impacts of transparency policies on corruption is limited,” wrote researcher Maria Zuffova, of  The Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom. “Are FOI laws and open government data associated with corruption levels? Results show that only if they are accompanied by robust provisions safeguarding media freedom.”

The research indicates reforms will not be effective in fighting corruption unless media rights and internet freedom are strong. 

National Freedom of Information Coalition Board President David Cuillier said in a tweet that the study reflects why the need is so great to bring more people into the fight for open government. 

“It takes more than a law to make a village transparent!” Cuillier wrote.

For more information, contact Zuffova at maria.zuffova@eui.eu.
Awards
Entries accepted by national FOI awards offering cash prizes

Nominations are open for the First Amendment Coalition's Free Speech & Open Government Award, given each year to recognize significant achievement in advancing freedom of information and expression. The award recognizes outstanding accomplishment, service or other contributions to the advancement of free expression or the people's right to know about their government. The winner could be a journalist, activist, blogger, lawyer, news organization, software developer or whistleblower, or any combination thereof, including work by teams. It is a national contest, and there is no fee to enter. The award comes with a $1,000 prize. Deadline: Jan. 15, 2021. DETAILS 

For more, contact Ginny LaRoe at the First Amendment Coalition, 415-460-5060​.
 
The Brechner Center sponsors an annual $3,000 cash award recognizing excellence in reporting about freedom of information, access to government-held information or the First Amendment. The deadline for entries is Feb. 28. Stories or a series of stories related to these topics and published in a general circulation (nonacademic) news medium (print, online or broadcast) will meet contest eligibility. There is no entry form. Entries (links or PDF files are acceptable, so long as the links will lead directly to the article without a login or subscription) may be submitted electronically to flomonte@ufl.eduDETAILS

For more, call the Brechner Center at (352) 392-2273.
NFOC Newsletter Contacts
This newsletter is produced by Chris Cobler, NFOIC outreach coordinator, and Erika Benton, NFOIC external partnership coordinator and communications specialist. To contribute items or for more information, email nfoic@nfoic.orgccobler@nfoic.org and ebenton@nfoic.org. To read regular FOI updates, visit our blog at nfoic.org and follow us on TwitterFacebook or Instagram.

Copyright © 2020 National Freedom of Information Coalition, All rights reserved.


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