Why do you want public records? Because they are public.

The opening line of the Wausau Daily Herald’s article about Alderman Tom Miller’s open records request for Bill Nagle’s old e-mails pisses me off:

A Wausau City Council member would not say Wednesday why he has asked to see more than four years worth of retired City Attorney Bill Nagle’s e-mails, or what he plans to do next after his initial request was denied.

So? Who cares what he plans to do with the information? Miller has every right to request whatever he wants, and does not owe an explanation to anyone.

I get that the paper wants to find (or create) a newsworthy story, but coming at it from this angle gives the impression that the people making public records requests are the ones deserving of scrutiny, as if they are doing something wrong. There is nothing wrong with being curious about the content of e-mails that the city attorney sent, and if they contain inappropriate information then the requestor is doing us all a favor by finding that out.

Useful blog

Laptop City Hall is a blog I’ve come across a few times recently, and I like it. Considering that city council meetings and the like are not always the most entertaining source of news, this blog makes them pretty interesting.

Yesterday’s posting mentions an ordinance before the city council to modify the the city’s public records policy. The goal of the ordinance is to discourage city employees from using instant messaging or text messaging to discuss city business, reason being that IM’s and texts are not subject to the Open Records law. I would suggest rather than trying to keep staff from using whatever form of communication they prefer, IM’s and text messages ought to be archived properly so that they can easily answer open records requests.

Friday Link Round Up – brought to you by the Dark Knight

Yeah, so if you haven’t seen the new Batman movie yet you really should. It’s a well acted ensemble piece masquerading as an action film – I loved it!

Today’s links share a common theme of encouraging regular folks to take part in overseeing their government – an idea that I am very much in favor of.

Government is the people’s business from the Denver Post. This has a nice story about how easy it can be to just let people in authority just do whatever they want. A pull:

My first business cards hadn’t even been printed when an editor sent me out to cover a county hospital board meeting. Something about the board hiring a corporate management team.

Snooze.

The chairman gaveled the meeting into session, made a few comments and I scribbled some notes. No news here, I huffed. Then he called for an executive session, cast me out into the hall and closed the doors to the boardroom.

And that’s where I sat. For hours.

A doctor, who also had been kicked out of the meeting, finally broke the silence in the hallway,saying, “Don’t you think you have a right to be in there, you know, if they’re deciding the fate of a publicly held hospital?”

Well, if you put it like that.

Click over to ready the rest!

Stop Being Pundits; Start Being Activists from Tech Republican. This is a wee bit more partisan than I am generally comfortable with, but the basic point of getting involved in politics and not just sitting and bitching about them is a great one. A quote from Erick Erickson:

You donʼt have to be the commander. You donʼt have to do it full time. Just be willing to lend a hand. Just be willing to stay informed. Just be willing to help others stay informed.

And here’s some handy advice from those members of the public that seem to have a better handle on FOIA than their representatives: Memo to towns: Save your email records. Thanks to Blue Jersey for that tip!

Could you clarify your request?

Boots and Sabers has a nice post about the (sometimes) unpleasant back-and-forth that can occur when a community member tries to learn more about her local governing bodies. I’ve certainly experienced that sort of stalling tactic myself. It’s usually along the lines of

Me:

“I’d like a copy of all your e-mails for the month of March, 2007″

Them:

“Please clarify what you mean by ‘e-mail'”

Me: (sound of hair tearing)

Ugh. At least I’m not the only one.

End run around the Open Records law

Ooooh, sneaky.

I’ve heard of contracts with language that would seem to prohibit the contents of the contract from being subject to FOIA laws, but I’m still sad to hear about them circulating through the Wisconsin government.

It seems fairly obvious to me that you can’t put wording into a contract that would break any other law (for example, ‘by the terms of this contract between the Parking Enforcement Division of Madison and XYZ Towing, XYZ Towing gets to keep any cars they find parked on the wrong side of the street’*), so why would union contractors and the city think that they can break the Open Records law? As the Journal Times puts it:

Workers and citizens could lose fundamental rights and protections based solely on negotiations. That’s twaddle.

ADDED: A similar issue is raising it’s head in California.

ADDED AGAIN: More about the bill in California from PolitickerCA.

*Totally made up example (in case it wasn’t obvious!).

Friday Link Round Up – brought to you by jogging

I have always hated jogging with the passion of a thousand suns. Lately however, its simplicity, the lack of equipment, and ability to be performed anywhere at any time has really begun to appeal to me. Also, it’s free. So, I’m giving it a shot – yesterday I ran two whole miles! Well, I walked for a little bit of it, but it was really hot out. Hopefully I’ll be doing more soon.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a link round-up (I’m still pissed about this), so there are tons of good blog posts about open records out there.

First, a couple of posts about the sheriff of Maricopa County, AZ, Joe Arpaio. This guy does not have a good track record of be responsive to citizen requests, and now Valley Fever is reporting that Arpaio’s thugs threaten to arrest a New Times reporter for looking at public records. On the other side of the fence, Seeing Red AZ thinks that they are Wastin’ away again in Agendaville.

Meanwhile, out in Maryland the folks at the Pokomoke Tattler are wondering Countdown to the End of Chief Ervins Contract…What’s Going to Happen? Read this post for a nice illustration of what a citizen can learn by examining public records.

In Tennessee, a Bredesen Administration Flack Continues To Defy Open Records Law according to Bill Hobbs.com. I should follow Bill’s example and continue to follow up on my most recent FOIA request rather than just letting it languish…

Finally, The Delaware Curmudgeon looks at the case of a woman who filed a request with the IRS back in 1974 (before I was even born if you can believe it!): FOIA – Thirty Years and Still Fighting. I hope that she keeps pushing — if it’s been fought this hard for this long, there must be something interesting in the IRS’s attic.

Records Request Reply

So, 29 days after I asked the Dane County 911 Center for internal e-mails mentioning the Brittany Zimmermann incident, I received this reply. It spills onto the third page, so if you don’t want to read it all I understand (blogs have spoiled me for reading Walls Of Text), and I’m pulling out the interesting parts here.

First sign of trouble: I made the request directly to Joe Norwick, since the Dane County 911 website does not list an open records custodian (side note, the information currently on that website has been revised as of May 28, 2008 and looks much better now than it did a month ago), and my request was answered by Marcia MacKenzie, Dane County Corporation Counsel. Lawyers already?

Next sign of trouble: As the public documents that I am seeking access to are e-mails, that is the format I requested to receive them in. However, Marcia MacKenzie wants to print off all 116 pages responsive to my request ($0.25/page = 29.00) and mail them to me ($4.80) for a total of $33.80. Not a lot of money, but that’s not the point. This seems to me to be a violation of statute 19.35(3)(a) which states that fees “may not exceed the actual, necessary and direct cost of reproduction and transcription of the record”. It is neither actual or necessary to print off and mail these documents – e-mail will work just fine. I presume that the desire to print off the documents stems from

Yet more trouble: the desire to redact information from the publics eye. While I understand and am sympathetic to keeping details of an on-going police investigation on a need to know basis (until the investigation is closed, of course), I have difficulty imagining how 911 Center internal e-mails might affect the search for Brittney Zimmermann’s murderer.

According to this letter, Marcia MacKenzie has

“considered all relevant factors and balanced the public interests in disclosure versus the public interests in non-disclosure and have carefully reviewed all relevent statutory exemptions. It is my conclusion that the public interest in non-disclosure of the redacted or withheld information far outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Thank goodness there is someone in county government looking out for the poor, stupid public that wouldn’t know how to handle information if they ever got any!

Ugh, I’m starting to create my own Wall of Text here, and frankly I am too annoyed to continue for the moment. More when I get the taste of bile out of my throat.



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