Bright Ideas for 2009

Below are some examples from Sunshine Week 2009. Where they are still live, links are included.

Sunshine on Government

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a Sunshine Week memo directing all executive branch departments and agencies to administer Freedom of Information Act requests with a presumption of openness. “The American people have the right to information about their government’s activities, and these new guidelines will ensure they are able to obtain that information under principles of openness and transparency,” said Holder.

Longtime open government bill co-sponsors Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) teamed up again during Sunshine Week 2009 to introduce The OPEN FOIA Act, which requires Congress to “openly and clearly state its intention to provide for statutory exemptions to FOIA in proposed legislation.” These (b)(3) exemptions are typically buried in deep within proposed legislation.

Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) used Sunshine Week as an opportunity to introduce the bipartisan “Sunshine in the Courtroom” legislation that would permit cameras in federal courtrooms.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist reiterated his commitment to government transparency during Sunshine Week with a speech to the Florida First Amendment Foundation, during which he recognized the student winners of the state’s government transparency essay contest. Crist also issued a Sunshine Week proclamation and announced a new Web site to track state government spending.

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver proclaimed it Sunshine Week across the state, noting that “democracy cannot flourish when the public’s right to know is compromised.”

The town of Cary, N.C., celebrated Sunshine Week with a special Web site, a proclamation and special public service video statement from Mayor Harold Weinbrecht Jr., newspaper ads, and an overall commitment to transparency all year.

Sunshine in the News

The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H., opened its Sunshine Week commentary page with an editorial declaring: “Transparency is the new black.” The paper’s Opinion page also featured a note from Editorial Page Editor Nick Pappas, and a column by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The Telegraph Web site linked to the more than 20 articles opinion columns published during Sunshine Week. But the topper, according Pappas, was news that city officials planned Right-to-Know Law training for Sunshine Week. “And, for us, that just might have been the highlight of our entire week.”

On the centennial of the state’s public records law, the Florida Society of News Editors offered profiles of people key to FOI gains and columns by notable Floridians. FSNE also linked to work by: The Associated Press; The Baker County Press; Breeze Newspapers; Daytona Beach News-Journal; Florida Today; The Florida Times-Union; Fort Myers News-Press; Lakeland Ledger; Naples Daily News; Northwest Florida Daily News; Ocala Star-Banner; Orlando Sentinel; Palm Beach Post; The Ponte Vedra Recorder; Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers; St. Augustine Record; St. Petersburg Times; Tallahassee Democrat; and The Villages Daily Sun.

The Buffalo News posted a free, downloadable Sunshine Week poster created by the paper’s graphic artist, Daniel Zakroczemski. The poster was Zakroczemski’s second for Sunshine Week. The News also ran several articles and opinion pieces about Sunshine Week and government transparency, including an analysis from its Washington bureau chief.

The Roanoke (Va.) Times ran a series of transparency-related editorials during Sunshine Week, including a clip-and-send FOI request urging readers to “let us know what interesting things you discover.” The Times also dedicated its Sunday Horizon section to opinion pieces by staff and the public. Other opinion piece topics during the week included a review of openness in the New River Valley; secrecy at the Blacksburg town council; the importance of open courtrooms; a review of openness issues before the General Assembly; and a tribute to C-SPAN on its 30th anniversary.

NY1 reporter Josh Robin filed a report on New York Gov. David Patterson’s secret budget meetings, which were held privately in the governor’s office instead of public hearing rooms, as had been done previously. Robin reported that critics charge the governor and “fellow Democrats haven’t lived up to promises of transparency.” Robin noted, “It doesn’t help their deeply tarnished image that the clandestine sit down comes during Sunshine Week, when good government groups spotlight Albany’s shadowy ways.”

The Brunswick Beacon, a weekly based in Shallotte, N.C., devoted all of its front page and several pages inside to special Sunshine Week coverage. Under a banner headline, “Your Government, Your Rights,” the Beacon told of its efforts to get documents from elected officials, reviewed news stories that were made possible by open records, looked at commissioners’ e-mails, and examined town spending, schools, police and overall records management. And that was just Page One.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal published news stories and commentary about open government in Nevada and around the country to mark Sunshine Week. In addition, reporters covering transparency issues in the legislature and courts mentioned Sunshine Week in their coverage. “Indisputable legal precedents and clear state laws are never enough to discourage some government officials from trying to keep records secret – usually to protect themselves and their colleagues,” an editorial commented. “Sunshine Week is a reminder that someone is always watching to make sure they can’t get away with it.”

Reports of Sunshine

During Sunshine Week, the National Security Archive at George Washington University presented its annual Rosemary Award for the Worst Freedom of Information Act performance by a federal agency to the FBI. The award is named for President Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods, who was said to have erased the crucial eighteen-and-a-half minutes of Watergate tape. “The FBI knowingly uses a search process that doesn’t find relevant records,” noted Archive Director Tom Blanton. During FY2008, the FBI gave “no records” responses to 57 percent of the requests it processed, more than any other major agency.

During Sunshine Week, and the Center for Democracy and Technology released a list of the 10 most coveted federal documents. They were: Congressional Research Service reports; Information about TARP and bailout funds; Accessible federal court documents through PACER; Current contractor projects; Court settlements involving federal agencies; Comprehensive information about legislation and congressional actions; Online access to electronic campaign disclosures; Daily schedules of the president and cabinet officials; Personal financial disclosures from policymakers; and State Medicaid plans and waivers.

Project Vote Smart and teamed up for a Sunshine Week mashup that teamed state legislative committee rosters with campaign donor data. Dubbed L-CAT, for Legislative Committee Analysis Tool the online resource shows the campaign donation connections that could affect policy decisions.

Writing for OMB Watch’s Fine Print blog, Federal Information Policy Analyst Roger Strother noted that, “Sunshine is a prescription that government needs now, more than ever…. While we are hopeful for change at the federal level, transparency remains an issue at every level of government. To keep our interests secure, we need sunshine to make sure that federal, state, and local entities are communicating efficiently and effectively. The events of Sunshine Week will bring this much needed dialogue to the national table so that we can seek transparency at all levels of government.”

Common Cause of Massachusetts honored 118 municipalities during Sunshine Week with the 2009 e-Government Awards. The communities were honored for having at least six key government documents on their Web sites. The awards are part of Common Cause’s Massachusetts Campaign for Open Government.

Sunshine in Education

The Student Press Law Center worked with journalism students and instructors from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the University of North Texas and Humboldt State University for a Sunshine Week project that tracked responses to information requests about student disciplinary procedures at public and private colleges and universities across the country. By Sunshine Week, SPLC reported that 27 of 95 public schools queried “responded with all requested documents, or nearly all with specific reasons for not providing certain parts.”

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University celebrated Sunshine Week with a panel discussion featuring Attorney General Terry Goddard. Also on the panel — moderated by Steve Elliott, print news director for Cronkite News Service — were Jeanine L’Ecuyer, former press secretary for Gov. Janet Napolitano and now director of communications for Ziemba Waid Public Affairs; Teri Hayt, managing editor of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson; and David Bodney, a partner in the Phoenix law firm of Steptoe & Johnson LLP.

Speaking of Sunshine and several additional sponsors hosted Opening Doors: Finding the Keys to Open Government, a webcast held at the Center for American Progress. Panelists were Dan Chenok, a member of the president’s Technology, Innovation and Government Reform transition team and now senior vice president and general manager of Pragmatics; Vivek Kundra, federal Chief Information Officer; Katherine McFate, program officer for government performance and accountability in the Ford Foundation’s Governance Unit; and Beth Noveck, professor of law and director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) was the keynote speaker at the First Amendment Center’s “Freedom & Information: Looking Back & Looking Forward,” the 11th annual National Freedom of Information Day, held at the Freedom Forum Newseum in Washington. Panelists discussed FOI in the Bush and Obama administrations. The American Library Association presented its James Madison Award to Thomas M. Susman, director of the American Bar Association’s Government Affairs Office.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was the keynote speaker and recipient of the Robert Vaughn FOIA Legend Award at the American University’s Washington College of Law’s second Freedom of Information Day, presented by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy during Sunshine Week. Former Congressional Research Service scholar Harold Relyea also spoke. Panel topics included overclassification, transparency and the bailout, pseudosecrecy, digital records, and transparency in the Obama administration.

Posted in Idea Bank