Archive for the 'open government' Category

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!

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!).

The Modern Day vs Out of Date Statutes

The most recent article in the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council’s (WISFOIC) Right to Know Series (which I love — archives here) brings up the interesting point that modern day communications have left Wisconsin’s open record statutes in the dust. As I’ve talked about before, text messaging is already a contentious point between some Madison policy makers, and those are only the tip of the iceberg. As Roger Allen puts it:

[W]hat obligations does a records custodian have to preserve metadata, computer systems logs (used by information technology folks on daily basis to assess systems functions), voicemail, instant messaging, text messaging, or chat room discussions?

Beyond those, what about internet search histories (that bane of sexual misfits everywhere), lists of websites visited by public employees while on the job and the time spent on those websites, or any other form of interacting with the wider world that we may not even have thought of yet?

I’m pretty positive that there are records in each one of these categories that the public would be interested to see — and deserves to know about. Luckily for us, the City of Madison has been working to review and update it’s openness ordinance for the past three (!) years. That work has culminated in a newly proposed ordinance called Legislative File No. 09158. Take a look and tell me what you think of the proposal.

Project: Identify Waste

Josh over at Blog Waukesha is starting a great new project: “Project Identify Waste” on his blog. I’m pretty pleased that he chose open records as the first tool he’ll be using to identify waste. If all goes as it should, I think access to Waukesha’s public records will be the only tool necessary to source out excessive city spending. My suspicion, however, is that while public records will hold all of the information that he is seeking, actually gaining access to them may require such additional tools as lawsuits or the outing of city staff that are stingy with providing proper access.

Good luck Josh!

Surprising agreement…

I found myself nodding along in agreement with a blog posting this morning from an unexpected quarter. Most of the time, I find myself on the other side of the aisle of Brenda Konkel, but her post today about Mayor Dave and Ald. Brandon’s new proposed ordinance to exempt text messages and online instant messaging from open records law is right on. She goes over the same basic argument I made last week with the added benefit of examples of the type of communication that can go on via texting and internet chats. Yay for examples! Here are few notable pulls (me=Brenda):

Me (2/7 10:09 am): Would you have voted to put housing in with ecd and make it its own dept?
Zach Brandon (2/7 6:08 pm): Probably… Devil is in the detail.
Me (2/7 6:09 pm): always

Me (11/27 5:01 pm): So who wants to be on this committee?
Zach Brandon (11/27 5:02 pm): Me and you.. LOL
Me (11/27 5:02 pm): 🙂 and who else?
Zach Brandon (11/27 5:10 pm): Don’t really know… Guessing: me, you, ms, src, mc, mv(???)…

These sound to me like communications that would be responsive to a public records request about city/committee planning, and they were obviously not that hard to produce. So what’s up with Mayor Dave, Ald. Brandon and Assistant City Attorney Roger Allen making the argument that this type of govermental communication is too difficult to produce?