Just in time for Sunshine Week, it looks like the U.S. Department of Justice has rolled out a new website with information on the federal Freedom of Information Act, commonly called FOIA.
It looks like a pretty slick and easy-to-use site. But all the pretty websites don’t make up for the decisions made by federal officials when it comes to government transparency and openness. The Associated Press reports on the Obama administration’s progress on that front, and the results are mixed:
AP’s analysis showed that the odds a government agency would search its filing cabinets and turn over copies of documents, e-mails, videos or other requested materials depended mostly on which agency produced them – and on a person’s patience. Willingness to wait – and then wait some more – was a virtue.
Also, don’t forget to check out our own special page for Sunshine Week. You’ll find our latest stories on open government and transparency efforts at the state and local level:
Dozens of federal, state, tribal and local agencies will show off the latest in GIS projects and mapping on Wednesday, March 2, on several floors of the Capitol Rotunda in Oklahoma City. The event will be from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. All told, more than 50 organizations will be at the Capitol to explain how they use GIS in everything from conservation and education to energy, city planning and public safety.
This will be the 17th GIS Day, which is organized by the Oklahoma Geographic Information Council. For more information on the council, check out their website, where they’ve posted some pictures from GIS Days in prior years.
Update: From Mike Sharp, Oklahoma Geographic Information Coordinator:
One of the key theme’s emerging from our elected officials at the state Capitol this year is focused on a more open and transparent government.
Government at all levels deals with an enormous amount of information, so it follows that making government more open places an emphasis on government making more of its information open and available to its citizens.
For many years, the Oklahoma GIS Community has been a leader in making location-based data available to the citizens of our state.
With over 80 percent of all government data having a location-based component, it is important that we continue to develop the infrastructure to not only deliver but to easily consume this vast amount of information. Through today’s technology, we have many open source and commercial Geographic Information System tools to not only deliver but to bring together a wide variety of information sources and display the result in an easily understandable format that has been in use for centuries … a map.
Whether it is a government official wanting to manage government-owned assets or a private consultant looking for business opportunities in our state, the bringing together of location-based data into a map provides an ideal platform to assist them in their decision-making process.
The state’s new data site is here, and from my initial test drive, it’s pretty good.
The data portal is something that I called for in a post last year, so it’s nice to see it come to fruition. With the launch, Oklahoma joins dozens of other states and countries with a central data archive.
The site was made possible by legislation that came out of the 2010 Legislature. Senate Bill 1759, by Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, and Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, set up the framework and requirements for the data site.
Oklahoma’s site uses the Socrata data engine, which allows for customizable data visualizations, maps and data downloads.
For example, this morning I downloaded the state’s 4th Quarter payroll. I wanted to take a look at overtime payments, so after downloading a type of file called a .csv (for comma-separated value), I was able to import the data into Microsoft Access. That task took fewer than 10 minutes.
The 28.5 MB payroll file has more than 266,000 records from the 4th quarter. You could also import the information to the new versions of Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, which allow for up to 1 million records (the older versions of Excel limit you to 65,000 records in a worksheet).
Just browsing the data sets on the site works well, too. Here’s a Google Map of fire stations in Oklahoma:
I’ll have more on the site in future posts, but it’s looking good so far. Take the site for a spin yourself and let me know what you think in the comments section below.
- A call for data.ok.gov
- Open data legislation fails in the Oklahoma House
- Government 2.0 conference in OKC
The bill filing deadline for the Legislature was last week, so those who follow state government are wading through the more than 2,000 bills or resolutions filed. The session kicks off at noon Feb. 7.
As is the case every session, expect these initial bills to be changed significantly along the way. Some will die after not being heard in committee. The language in some will magically reappear later in the session under another bill number, sometimes by another member. It’s like a giant game of Whac-A-Mole.
If you know of any that should be added to the list, drop me a line in the comments section below.
Click on the bill number for the full text
Subject: Records of county officers
Summary: This takes some authority away from county clerks and puts each county office holder in charge of destroying records after a period of time.
Subject: Electric Utility Data Protection Act
Summary: Regulates data disclosures from those new electric “Smart Meters” that are popping up all across the state.
Subject: Public bodies
Summary: Would make the Legislature subject to the Oklahoma Open Records and Open Meetings Act. It adds an exception to the law for correspondence between lawmakers and constituents (but not correspondence between lawmakers and lobbyists). See the FOI Oklahoma blog for more.
Subject: Public bodies
Summary: This is similar in scope to HB 1085 above.
Subject: School district information online
Summary: This would add more information to the School District Transparency Act, which passed last year and puts certain financial information of school districts on a website. The site is supposed to be up and running by the end of this month.
Brumbaugh’s bill would expand the disclosure to “direct and indirect costs” of education, including contributions to the Teachers Retirement System. It also directs the state Department of Education to create “benchmarks” to compare the costs of private and public education.
Subject: First responders and recording devices
Summary: This would make it a crime for first responders such as police, ambulance drivers and paramedics to take video or pictures at an accident scene and post them to public websites or send them to other people. It appears this is in response to the scuffle caught on tape a few years ago between a paramedic and a trooper.
Subject: Exemption to attorney-client privilege
Summary: This would take out an exemption for attorney-client communications if they are between a public official or agency and its attorney.
Subject: Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission
Summary: Adds the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission to a list of other law-enforcement agencies whose information or evidence are not public if used by the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
Subject: Open Books
Author: Sean Roberts
Summary: Adds to the information on the state’s Open Books website by amending the Taxpayer Transparency Act. It would require each agency to provide a “line-item expense report” of all spending.
The bill also amends state law to prohibit elected agency directors from giving raises to employees in the period from just before an election until swearing-in day. It would appear to outlaw the raises that went on in the “lame-duck” period for departing agency heads that I wrote about in December.
Summary: Requires public employees who lobby for state agencies to register as lobbyists with the state Ethics Commission. Currently, agency lobbyists are exempt from registration requirements.
Subject: Public records
Summary: Adds a section to the Open Records Act that expressly stops government entities from asking requesters to fill out forms to request records. It also prohibits government from asking the purpose of a request or requiring a name of the requester.
Subject: Public records
Summary: Adds a time period to the Open Records Act. Currently, public bodies must provide “prompt, reasonable access” to records. This bill would set up 30-day and 60-day deadlines. It sounds good in theory, but in my experience, many agencies or governments would want to use that entire 30-day period to respond.
The bill also expands the Open Records Act to cover private contractors who do business with the state. Another section of the bill requires that “convenience fees” assessed for online services go to the state agency to recover costs before they go to the private contractor providing the online website. This would appear to hit the state’s website operator, NIC Inc.
Subject: Public records; DPS audio/video recordings
Summary: This would add public employee birth dates and employee ID numbers to the list of exempt information under the Open Records Act. Terrill tried–and failed–several times last year to get this passed. He had lots of support from employee associations such as the Oklahoma Public Employee Association and the Oklahoma State Troopers Association. This is the subject of a pending Oklahoma Supreme Court case.
The bill would also set up a fee schedule for dash-cam videos and other records from the state Department of Public Safety.
Joey Senat, associate professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University, has more on this bill over at the FOI Oklahoma Blog.
Summary: This is a shell bill called “The Oklahoma Sunshine Act of 2011.” There’s no other information in it right now other than an effective date of Nov. 1, 2011.
Subject: Oklahoma Public Events Network
Author: Jolley (Murphey in the House)
Summary: Directs the state’s public television network, OETA, to develop a C-SPAN-like network called the Oklahoma Public Events Network. The bill does not provide a funding source.
Subject: County assessor fees
Summary: Would allow the state Board of Equalization to set up a fee schedule for copies of Geographic Information System files or other electronic records prepared and maintained by county assessors. This has been a subject of several lawsuits in the last few years. The charges for such data vary widely among county assessors in Oklahoma.
Property owners would not be charged for records relating to their own property. The revenue from the fees would go back to each county assessor.
Subject: District Attorney records
Summary: Would give district attorneys the authority to destroy files and evidence of investigations after a certain period of time. Current law allows DAs to destroy records on actual cases after a set period of time. This bill would expand that to records of an investigation.
Subject: Economic development
Summary: Adds the State Regents for Higher Education and state colleges and universities to an expanding list of agencies that are allowed to keep records confidential that pertain to “economic development.” Among the agencies already enjoying this exemption are the Commerce Department, CareerTech and the Oklahoma Film and Music Office.
Subject: Open records
Summary: This is similar to HB 1941 described above in that it prevents government from requiring the public to fill out specific forms or identify themselves in records requests.
Subject: Open Meetings
Summary: Adds a new category to the Open Meetings Act called a “limited-support body.” It defines that as a unit that receives less than 15 percent of its funding from public funds. It exempts such “limited-support bodies” from the Open Meetings Act under certain circumstances and also allows them to conduct meetings via teleconference.
Subject: Court records
Summary: Prevents courts from sealing divorce records or other marriage and family records under Title 43, including child custody records. Those records could remain sealed if they are required by the Oklahoma Constitution or another statute.
Summary: Creates the “Private Attorney Retention Sunshine Act.” It would require state agencies to put out bid notices on their websites if they want to hire private attorneys for legal work that costs more than $5,000. For legal work expected to cost more than $500,000, more information has to filed with the governor’s office.
My former colleague Julie Bisbee and I wrote about this issue in 2009. Previous bills on the subject have not survived.
Subject: DPS records
Summary: Allows the Department of Public Safety to destroy records that have already been copied onto microfilm or scanned into a computer system.
***Full disclosure: I am a board member of FOI Oklahoma Inc.
This slipped by me earlier this week, but the Attorney General’s Office and Office of State Finance have given the green light for state and local governments to use Facebook.
On Tuesday, new Attorney General Scott Pruitt and state Chief Information Officer Alex Pettit announced they had reached an agreement to modify Facebook’s terms of service in Oklahoma for state and local governments.
“Social computing technologies, like Facebook, are increasingly important to the way government interacts and conducts business with the public.” Pettit said in a news release. “The state needs to continue to break down the barriers to public sector implementation, but in a way that meets the laws of Oklahoma and does not jeopardize the state’s IT resources.”
Pruitt and Pettit said the new Facebook terms of service are similar to ones negotiated by the federal government. Oklahoma was part of a working group on social media issues convened by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and the National Association of Attorneys General.
“Facebook provides a tremendous venue for state agencies and their local counterparts to keep their constituents apprised of the great work they do,” Pruitt said. “We, and our partner agencies, look forward to using the site to stay in contact with the public.”
The agreement will apply immediately to government agencies and departments that already had a Facebook page.
Here’s the specifics of the agreement:
* Strike the indemnity clause except to the extent indemnity is allowed by a state’s constitution or law;
* Strike language requiring that legal disputes be venued in California courts and adjudicated under California law;
* Require that a public agency include language directing consumers to its official Web site prominently on any Facebook page; and,
* Encourage amicable resolution between public entities and Facebook over any disputes.
It’s the first full day on the job for a whole host of statewide elected and appointed officials today, so I wanted to take the opportunity to welcome them and remind them of importance of government transparency.
It’s been a exciting few years in government transparency, especially when it comes to finding more information online: Open Books, OK.gov and our own Your Right to Know page. But as those of us involved in the daily gathering of news and facts can attest, it’s not always as easy as looking up something on Google or on a state website. Sometimes you have to beg, plead and cajole for public information. And sometimes the disclosure of that information can be embarrassing, politically or otherwise, for a politician or agency.
On my cubicle wall is a quote from an anonymous federal government employee: “No one was ever promoted for disclosing information.”
That’s why I hope these newly elected and appointed officials will continue to build upon government openness and transparency in Oklahoma. It’s easy to campaign on “transparency,” but the real test is in governing and leading.
Each of the new leaders has an opportunity on Day One to set the tone for their offices. I’m sure some are also figuring out where the bathrooms are, but I hope they also take some time to review departmental policies to see they fit within the confines of transparency, the public interest and openness.
In case you missed it, you should check out our stories and interactive map that launched over the weekend.
The Oklahoman staff writer Bob Doucette and NewsOK’s Nick Tankersley, along with several other reporters and editors, put together some statistics on Oklahoma City homicides from the last four years.
- Oklahoma City Homicide Map
- Minorities, men make up most Oklahoma City homicides
- Mother seeks justice for slain son
As well as a look back at recent homicides, the map and data will be updated by our Breaking News reporters in 2011 and beyond.
For those interested in the technical side of things, Nick built the homicide map using Django, an open-source application that was developed to help newsrooms put interactive web pages, databases and maps together quickly. This isn’t the first time we’ve used Django for a newsroom application. Our “story walls” from the State Fair and OU and OSU games also were built using Django. Digital Managing Editor Alan Herzberger has more on the Story Walls here.
We’ve also used Django internally to enter election results and to keep track of candidate biographies for the 2010 elections. Nick created a public search for those candidates on our Politics page in the fall.
It’s been more than a year since outgoing Attorney General Drew Edmondson issued an opinion on the release of public employee birth dates that made the issue anything but clear.
During that time, we’ve had bills filed at the Legislature, open-records requests, bizarre press conferences and a flurry of legal briefs and judicial orders. In the end, we’re not much closer to a resolution than we were in December of last year.
First, a little refresher on why I think it’s important that public employee DOBs remain open under the state’s Open Records Act:
- They are a key identifier to distinguish people with the same first and last name. We used them extensively to verify the backgrounds of candidates for November’s elections.
- The Oklahoma Open Records Act already protects public employees’ privacy by outlawing the release of social security numbers, home addresses and home telephone numbers. The Legislature had a chance to amend the act earlier this year, but chose not to, despite pressure from state employee associations and sympathetic lawmakers.
- Every single registered voter in Oklahoma has their birth date on file in voter registration records that are available to anyone for a fee from the state Election Board.
- The state makes millions of dollars each year from selling information — including DOBs — from the motor vehicle records of every Oklahoma driver to insurance companies and employment screening firms.
- State laws protecting consumers from breaches of sensitive data from the private sector do not include DOBs as part of what’s considered “personal information.”
Dixon allowed state agencies to poll their employees over whether workers minded their birth dates being released as part of an open records request. As expected, that’s resulted in a patchwork of agencies that didn’t mind, some that were split and some that objected to the release. Here’s a breakdown, according to a legal filing made earlier this month on behalf of the Office of Personnel Management:
Agencies approving: 21
Agencies opposed: 78
Agencies split: 23
Not responding: 32
Among the agencies that opposed the release of the DOBs was the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, the state’s public television station. John McCarroll, OETA’s executive director, said the agency asked its 68 employees about the issue a few months ago. Nineteen were opposed, while the rest didn’t mind or did not respond, he said.
“None of our journalistic staff had a problem with it,” McCarroll said. “But we have engineers and clerical workers and all kinds of folks who work with us. It wasn’t from a journalistic side that we had a problem with it.”
McCarroll decided because there was a split that none of the DOBs should be released. He said he didn’t want undue suspicion on the employees who objected.
“Some of them gave a reason, that they had their identity stolen in the past, that there were marital problems,” McCarroll said. “But we didn’t really specifically ask for a reason. By the numbers, we said, ‘Let’s just not do this until we know we have to.’ We’re a news organization ourselves, so we’re not opposed to it, but as an employer we felt like we at least owed it to our staff to let them know. It’s not that we don’t want those birth dates to be released, but we just want to know how it’s going to be used. My thought on it was we’ll handle it on a case-by-case basis.”
McCarroll touched on the main opposition to the release of the DOBs: the risk of identity theft. In fact, that was the argument relied on recently by the Texas Supreme Court in a case involving state employees’ DOBs in Texas.
In a 5-2 decision, the Texas Supreme Court brushed back lower courts and the Texas attorney general when it ruled public employee DOBs should be withheld in the Lone Star State. In 2005, The Dallas Morning News had requested employee salaries, birth dates, race, sex and other standard public employee information from the state’s Comptroller of Public Accounts.
In the majority decision, the court said:
The News responds that it has no interest in disclosing birth dates to the world, but rather would use the information to investigate inappropriate hires or other misadventures the state may commit. We do not doubt that the News would put the information to beneficial use. But if the requested is disclosed to the News, it must be disclosed to any applicant, including those who would employ it for illegitimate purposes.
By that reasoning, then anything that could be used for “illegitimate purposes” should be outlawed. That’s what Justice Dale Wainwright said in a dissenting opinion:
In other words, the harm is not in the disclosure of the birth date, but in the possibility that some evildoer may use a birth date to gain other information (such as a social security number) which he or she then may use to commit identity theft. Never before has the Court held that information is not subject to disclosure under the (Public Information Act) because the information may lead to other information that may be used to cause harm. By that logic, much information of a personal nature would be immune from disclosure — names of public employees, dates of employment, home addresses. This sort of information, taken together with other information, might lead to the employee’s social security number and possibility to identity theft. While the state has outlawed identity theft, and individuals may sue when others misappropriate their private data, the Court should not allow subversion of the open-government policies of the PIA under the risk that some of the public information may later be misused.
In case you missed it, my Watchdog colleague John Estus had an update of some of the major open records, transparency and freedom of information developments in the 2010 legislative session that ended last week.
Open records draw action
By John Estus
The Legislature dealt with several issues affecting freedom of information this session:
DATES OF BIRTH
THE BILL: Senate Bill 1753 exempted public employee birth dates from the Open Records Act.
AUTHORS: Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore.
RESULT: Failed. The bill did not receive a vote on the House floor after Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa, added an amendment requiring the Legislature operate under the Open Records and Open Meeting acts. Terrill later put the birth date exemption in other bills he controlled, but those bills weren’t voted on until the birth date exemption was removed.
HIGHWAY PATROL VIDEOS
THE BILL: House Bill 3382 made audio and video recordings taken from Oklahoma Highway Patrol cruisers public records in certain situations.
AUTHORS: Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, and Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore.
RESULT: Failed. It did not receive a vote on the House floor after Terrill added language to it exempting public employee birth dates from the Open Records Act.
THE BILL: House Bill 3155 let district attorneys decide whether autopsy reports should be made public.
AUTHORS: Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle, and Sen. Ron Justice, R-Chickasha.
RESULT: Failed. The bill stalled in the House after members raised concerns that keeping autopsy reports secret could harm oversight of the medical examiner and law enforcement.
OPEN BOOKS 2.0
THE BILL: House Bill 3422 improved the state’s Open Books website by requiring all purchases made with state funds be disclosed there as individual expenses.
AUTHORS: Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, and Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond.
RESULT: Passed; awaiting governor’s signature.
FILM, MUSIC RECORDS
THE BILL: Senate Bill 1351 exempted certain aspects of film proposals submitted to the Oklahoma Film and Music Office from the Open Records Act.
AUTHORS: Rep. Dale DeWitt, R-Braman, and Sen. David Myers, R-Ponca City.
RESULT: Passed; signed by governor.
MUNICIPAL COURT RECORDS
THE BILL: House Bill 2541 exempted Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and bank account numbers from public municipal court records.
AUTHORS: Rep. Marian Cooksey, R-Edmond, and Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond.
RESULT: Passed; signed by governor.
THE BILL: Senate Bill 1729 would make the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association subject to the Open Records Act.
AUTHORS: Sen. Charlie Laster, D-Shawnee, and Rep. Shane Jett, R-Tecumseh.
RESULT: Failed. The bill did not receive a vote on the House floor.
SCHOOL DISTRICT TRANSPARENCY
THE BILL: House Bill 3253 opens school district spending data for inclusion on a public website administered by the state Education Department.
AUTHORS: Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, and Sen. Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso.
STATUS: Failed. The bill did not receive a vote on the Senate floor.
SEX OFFENDER REGISTRY
THE BILL: Senate Bill 2968 required sex offenders register with an address that can be mapped and includes a ZIP code.
AUTHORS: Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, and Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher.
RESULT: Passed; signed by governor.
A key part of the state budget deal means Oklahoma could bring in another $18 million a year from selling motor vehicle records to insurance companies and employment verification firms that include the personal information of all licensed drivers.
From April’s story:
The state of Oklahoma makes tens of millions of dollars selling personal information about people that some lawmakers and labor organizations want kept secret for government employees, The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World have learned.
At least $65 million has been made in the past five years from the sale of millions of motor vehicle records that include birth dates and other personal information of all state drivers, Department of Public Safety records show.
A private company has collected about $15 million conducting most of those transactions on behalf of the state, records show.
Here’s the relevant graphic from that story:
The sale of motor vehicle records is allowed under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. Information sold includes name, birth date, driver’s license number and recent driving violations.
Now, as part of the budget agreement, Senate Bill 1556 would more than double the price of each motor vehicle record to $25, up from $10. The bill is by Sen. Mike Johnson, R-Kingfisher, and Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond.
According to a fiscal analysis prepared by legislative staff, this increase could bring in an extra $12 million to the state’s General Revenue Fund, with an additional $6 million earmarked for the state Department of Public Safety revolving fund.
That means the state revenue from those data sales could go from an average of $13 million a year to more than $30 million a year under the increased fees.