Posts Tagged ‘OpenGov’

Time to champion Sunshine Week

In Advocacy on March 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Sunshine Week 2014 begins Sunday, March 16.

The Transparency Project encourages all open government advocates, newspapers, watchdog groups and public officials who believe in the importance of government transparency to join us in highlighting this week long effort. 

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are encouraging open government advocates throughout the nation to join them in celebrating the importance of open government. The campaign begins Sunday, March 16, and concludes Saturday, March 22. 

 There are dozens of Sunshine Week events hosted by various organizations around the country. The 16th annual National Freedom of Information Day at the Newseum and the Chicago Headline Club’s FOIA Fest are Friday, March 14. The D.C. Open Government Summittakes place next Wednesday, March 19. Other events include Seventh Annual FOI Day CelebrationSunshine Week 2014 Celebration at the Department of Justice, Unlocking Government Data,Threats to Transparency: Problems with Money in Politics, and other events listed at

According to ASNE, Sunshine Week 2014 is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and donations from Bloomberg and the Gridiron Club and Foundation. 

Watchdog groups, newspapers and individuals are encouraged to take part and can find a “Toolkit” at the Sunshine Week website that includes free editorial cartoons and opinion columns to be used during the week of March 16-22.

For more information on Sunshine Week and how to participate, visit or contact us at

Should mug shots be open public records?

In Advocacy on February 21, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Websites that publish mug shots of all arrested individuals and then charge for removal of the images, have angered both citizens and public officials across the nation, resulting in what could be viewed as a threat to open public records.

Some states have enacted legislation that would regulate the “extortion” tactics of websites such as, while others have moved to restrict the release of intake photos to all citizens and media. Some have started requiring a signed, sworn, statement from anyone acquiring a mug shot that they will not sell it or place it on a website that charges for removal.

A bill considered by our neighboring state in the Georgia House of Representatives would exempt mug shots from the state’s Open Records Act.

In its original form, the bill would exempt intake photos, mug shots, of arrested people who have not been convicted of a crime from the state’s Open Records Act.

Obviously, and understandably, we oppose any erosion of the Open Records Act.

Public information should always remain public.

Attorney David Hudson, who has arguably done more to champion the cause of open government than anyone in the region, has correctly pointed out that major revisions to the Open Meeting Act, under the direction of the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, were ratified in 2012 and it hardly seems time to be revisiting, and weakening, its provisions.

The publication of mug shots can often be a valuable tool used by law enforcement to help catch dangerous people and help keep communities safe.

A mug shot in the local newspaper may help someone identify a person accused of violent crime or who may be a danger to children, after the suspect has been bonded out of jail and is awaiting trial. Homicides and even child predator cases can sometimes take months or years for the court to determine guilt or innocence.

While the proposed bill would not have prohibited the publication of a suspect’s name, age, address and the charges, sometimes the accused may be from another state and the age and address would simply not be enough to identify the accused.

A newspaper reader could see a photo of an accused child predator, however, and alert officials they saw the person lurking around a school or daycare, for example.

Placing the burden on local law enforcement to make the determination of when a mug shot should be published and when it should not be is most likely a burden of responsibility the authorities would rather not have placed on their shoulders.

Responsible newspapers and other media outlets make responsible decisions every day, and news judgment should be left to journalists, not to government.

Putting any branch of government in charge of what news can and cannot be published is a dangerous precedent and a potential threat to democracy.

The Georgia bill, according the the sponsor, is to retard websites such as that run every mug shot of every arrested person in almost every jurisdiction and then charges people a “ransom” to take the image down off the website. The sponsor has said that he never intended the bill to be looked upon as an assault on newspapers or what is being called the “legitimate media.”

Attorneys with clients who had their image plastered on those websites, accused of some minor violation, but having never been convicted of anything, argue though they are innocent until proven guilty, they become victims for life because of the fact the image is online and it can affect things such as employment opportunities or reputation in a community.

The problem is these types of legislation would restrict the image from all citizens, and not merely those out-of-state businesses and their websites.

There is no easy answer to that problem, but we do feel like the original bill is over reaching and a bit like going gnat hunting with an elephant gun.

Before any version of this or any legislation addressing the Open Meetings Act makes it to a vote in any state, we encourage all legislators to think about the reasons for government transparency.

The most basic and primary thing to consider is the fact all the business that government does is the people’s business.

All the records that government holds belong to the people.

The reason why is that we are constitutionally self-governed.

In fact, it is really an irony that there would even be a debate regarding whether any government record that is not privileged in the interest of national security, should ever be regarded as anything other than a public record.

Since government belongs to the governed, then all the records it holds — including mug shots — belong to the governed, citizens.

— Director Jim Zachary

New government transparency project launched

In Advocacy on December 31, 2013 at 11:57 pm

A new open government advocacy project was launched today.

The sister site to the Tennessee Transparency Project can be found at:

Court ruling could threaten government transparency, AP’s Schelzig reports

In Advocacy on November 11, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Erik Schelzig, a longtime government watchdog with the Associated Press, is reporting the angst of transparency advocates regarding a Tennessee higher court ruling that could have ripple affects related to open government across the state.

Schelzig reported, “The court upheld a lower court’s ruling that then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration was justified in denying the release of records on the basis that they were part of the ‘deliberative process,’ about how to deal with demonstrators encamped in the state Capitol in 2005 to protest cuts to TennCare, the state’s expanded Medicaid program,” (Nashville Tennessean, Nov. 10, 2013).

He added that the ruling “endorsed the argument that ‘advice high governmental officials receive be protected from disclosure’ because those officials need to be able to speak freely and confidentially with trusted advisers.”

One open government advocate called the ruling “an assault on open government.” The report also includes statements from Tennessee Press Association attorney Rick Hollow, TPA public policy director Frank Gibson and others who expressed concerns over how far the courts might extend  or interpret the ruling in the future by invoking a “deliberative process privilege.”

Tennessee newspapers, open government advocates and watchdog groups need to begin speaking out about this new twist on government transparency in order to stave off future loose interpretations of this ruling that could be used to further conceal the people’s business from the people of Tennessee.

Study shows Tennessee ranks at bottom in transparency, TPA’s Gibson reports

In Advocacy on August 23, 2013 at 11:01 pm

The Tennessee Press Association’s Public Policy Director Frank Gibson has reported Tennessee’s open meetings laws have been ranked among the worst in the United States.

Gibson provides analysis of a study by the Better Government Association that ranks the state’s “sunshine law” 49th  in a state-by-state comparison of open meetings laws.

The full report can be found at:

IRE touts FOIA Machine

In Advocacy on July 25, 2013 at 11:10 pm


IRE is touting the success of the FOIA Machine. 


Investigative Reporters and Editors reported this week that on ” July 16, a team of journalists and developers launched a Kickstarter campaign for a project called FOIA Machine.”

According to the IRE report, the team “asked for $17,500 to build a tool to help journalists and citizens request public information — a “TurboTax for government records.”

The IRE report indicates the experiment has been a huge success and a boon for journalists and private citizens making public records requests. For the full report go to:

Police scanners are transparency issue

In Advocacy on April 27, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Across the nation, reporters are struggling with the encryption of police scanners. While reporters struggle everyday to keep the public informed, officials find ways to to conceal information.

Journalist Justin Glawe writes, “ While police exist to protect the public from criminals, journalists, among other things, act as a check against law enforcement.

Journalist Kelsey Cochran writes, “Encrypting police radios leaves the fox watching the hen house in one of the worst ways imaginable.

I hold a certain level of trust in the police I work with every day. They haven’t given me a reason not to trust them. At least, not yet. But that doesn’t mean I should have to rely on them to tell me what is news.

“Just as I’m not a trained law enforcement officer, they are not journalists. Their job is to protect their investigations. My job is to tell the story. How do I know they’re telling me everything I need to know?

“What many of them do not understand is that the information contained in police reports, etc. does not belong to them. It belongs to the citizens, and it belongs to the victims. It belongs to the people who want to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods, not the police.”

Glawe and Cochran are joined by other top journalists across the nation in the important conversation.

What are your experiences? What do you have to contribute?

Join the conversation at:

Transparency lawsuit targets DCS

In Advocacy on January 7, 2013 at 11:54 pm
The Tennessee Press Association has released this report by the Associated Press:
Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Department of Children’s Service has been reporting to a federal court for more than a decade on how it is handling foster care, yet it faces no such scrutiny of its handling of children suffering from abuse or neglect.
The state reports that 120 children investigated by the Department of Children’s Services after reports of abuse or neglect died between 2009 and 2011. There were 31 more deaths during the first half of 2012, DCS says.
DCS refuses to divulge anything but bare details about the deaths, such as the child’s age, gender and home county. It won’t release what actions it took in the cases. DCS even keeps the names of the children who died secret.
The agency’s refusal to disclose its case records to the public is being challenged in court by a coalition of 12 news media organizations, led by The Tennessean newspaper. A hearing on the challenge is set for Tuesday.
A public records lawsuit by the coalition seeks to open the files on the children who died, arguing that “the public has a strong interest in knowing what actions DCS took — or failed to take — in order to protect them.” The group that filed the challenge includes The Associated Press and newspapers and broadcasters in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville. Commissioner Kate O’Day has said privacy concerns about the children are the motivation for keeping details about their cases secret. The confidentiality requirements are “not to protect DCS, they’re really to protect the families,” she told The Tennessean. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he agrees with the legal analysis by state attorneys that Tennessee isn’t required to release detailed information in the event of child deaths.
That stance is in contrast to other states, where judges, lawmakers and state officials have decided greater transparency improves child welfare agency performance or is required by public records laws.
O’Day and Haslam have declined to elaborate on the state’s privacy claim, citing the pending lawsuit. The deaths reported by DCS included infants, toddlers, grade-schoolers and teenagers, and the causes included bodily fractures or injuries, gunshot wounds, natural causes and drug exposure. The agency said it confirmed abuse or neglect in 47 cases, including a 10-month-old boy from Knox County who drowned in April after DCS closed its investigation. The DCS summary doesn’t answer if the abuse or neglect contributed to that death or if abuse and neglect had a role in any of the other deaths.
Advocates for abused and neglected children argue that state child welfare departments get more benefit than harm from greater transparency. “It is critical for the public to be able to review information pertaining to abused and neglected children who die or almost do so,” said Noy Davis, a legal consultant for First Star, a Washington-based group that battles child abuse and neglect. “The public access is necessary so that we can be assured that any systemic changes that need to be made to avoid the deaths of other children are in fact made,” Davis said in an email.
The DCS policy against disclosure predates the Haslam administration. In 2009, the department cited the privacy of surviving relatives in refusing to discuss its involvement in the case of a 15-year-old Dyersburg girl who accused her father of abuse and then was moved two doors away into foster care.
A week later, the father fatally shot the girl, her foster father and himself.
DCS has been under federal court oversight since 2001 after settling a class action lawsuit over its high number of children in foster care. The settlement limited the number of cases assigned to case workers, required better training and appointed a monitor to report on whether the state was making progress reducing the numbers of children living in institutions, placing siblings in the same foster home and many other measures. The federal monitoring doesn’t review DCS handling of cases where children it had investigated died. DCS is obliged to report such deaths to the General Assembly within 45 days. In September, DCS attorney Douglas Dimond acknowledged the department hadn’t been making the legislative reports.
In other states, there’s a trend toward greater transparency for child welfare agencies.
Kentucky, like Tennessee, had cited privacy in refusing to release records related to child deaths and near deaths. In 2011 it lost a two-year court battle over access to records waged by The Courier-Journal of Louisville, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Todd County Standard. A judge ordered the state to release files about the fatal beating of 9-year-old Amy Dye by her adoptive brother, and they showed social workers had ignored reports the girl was being abused. The commissioner of Kentucky’s Department for Community Based Services resigned. The same judge last year ordered even more disclosure, telling the state the only information it could redact was the name of a child victim who was hurt but didn’t die.
Arkansas lawmakers in 2009 enacted a law requiring the public notice about the deaths children under state care, including the release of children’s names. The changes followed the deaths of four children in foster care.
In Florida, after 10-year-old Nubia Barahona’s partially decomposed body was found in the back in her adoptive father’s exterminator truck last year, the state Department of Children and Families released hundreds of pages of records about its interactions with the child and the family.
An investigation revealed that caseworkers missed the signs that Nubia was routinely abused. It was the biggest scandal to hit the agency since it was reorganized nearly a decade earlier in the aftermath of the Rilya Wilson case. That’s when officials found 5-year-old Rilya Wilson had been missing for more than a year before officials noticed — in part because a caseworker filed false reports saying the girl was fine. Rilya’s case led to greater transparency standards, and a state child death review team releases records and case histories in cases of child abuse and neglect.
A 2011 report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned of flawed methods to tally and analyze the deaths of children who have been maltreated and found the latest annual estimate of 1,770 such fatalities is likely too low at least in part because of confidentiality and privacy constraints.
The GAO report also noted that states receiving federal grants to improve their data collection systems are restricted from releasing records, except in instances of neglect and abuse that resulted in the death or near-death of a child.
Associated Press Writers Kelli Kennedy in Miami and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark. contributed to this report.