Thursday, December 27, 2007

One of the many lights in the beacon of democracy was extinguished today. - GBP

Former PM Bhutto assassinated at Pakistan rally
Last Updated: Thursday, December 27, 2007 10:38 AM ET
CBC News
Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed Thursday in an apparent suicide attack at a campaign rally in which at least 20 others died.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, walks with former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto after a meeting at a hotel in Islamabad on Thursday, hours before her assassination in Rawalpindi.
An aide from her party told wire services that Bhutto had died after the attack at Rawalpindi's Liaqat Bagh park.
"At 6:16 p.m. [8:16 a.m. ET] she expired," said Wasif Ali Khan, a member of Bhutto's party who was at Rawalpindi General Hospital.
A senior military official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, also said Bhutto had died.
Rehman Malik, Bhutto's security adviser, told the Associated Press she was shot in the neck and chest before the attacker blew himself up.
Other reports gave conflicting accounts of the attack, including a party aide saying Bhutto was killed by debris from the blast.
Bhutto had just finished speaking to the crowd of thousands when the blast occurred, freelance journalist Graham Usher told the CBC from the capital, Islamabad.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene also counted about 20 bodies, including police, and could see many other wounded people.
Bhutto escaped an assassination attempt in October when twin explosions ripped through crowds in Karachi welcoming her home from eight years of exile. Nearly 150 people died in the attacks.
Security requests ignored: adviser
The Western-educated Bhutto enjoyed high popularity at home and abroad and was leading Pakistan's largest political party heading into the Jan. 8 parliamentary election.
Bhutto's chief rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, told the BBC her death was a tragedy for "the entire nation."
Questions were immediately raised about how a suicide bomber could get so close to Bhutto after previous attacks.
Many observers were left to speculate whether the government of President Pervez Musharraf or Pakistan's security forces were involved in the attack, said Tariq Amin-Khan, an assistant professor of politics and public administration at Toronto's Ryerson University.
"Security has been very lax," Amin-Khan told CBC News in a telephone interview from Karachi. "One could fault the government for what it has not done."
Musharraf himself has been the target of numerous attacks blamed on Islamist militants, who have reported ties with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
"I find it difficult to believe that Musharraf would be directly involved, but you can't put it past the security service agencies," Amin-Khan said.
Bhutto's security adviser also said the government had ignored requests for beefed-up security, including bomb-jammers, which can thwart signals sent to detonate explosives.
A supporter of Benazir Bhutto's party cries as he sits among bodies after the bomb blast Thursday in Rawalpindi. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)
"We repeatedly informed the government to provide her proper security and appropriate equipment including jammers, but they paid no heed to our requests," Malik said.
Observers said Bhutto's death would spark fierce protests in a country where political bloodshed is common.
'You will see lots of riots'
"All of Pakistan is in danger now," said Ibrahim Daniyal, secretary of the Pakistan Peoples Party Canada's ad hoc committee. "You will see lots of riots … lots of blood."
Upon hearing reports of her death, Bhutto's supporters at the hospital began chanting "Dog, Musharraf, dog."
The 54-year-old Bhutto, eldest daughter of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, served two terms as prime minister of Pakistan.
She went to the United States in 1969 to attend Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, then Harvard University and then to England where she studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford.
After her studies, she returned to Pakistan where her father was charged with conspiring to commit a political murder and executed in 1979.
Bhutto was placed under house arrest for five years shortly before her father's execution, and then went to Britain where she became leader-in-exile of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Coalition government
After Bhutto's return to Pakistan in 1988, the PPP won 39 per cent of the popular vote and she was sworn in as Pakistan's prime minister in a coalition government.
She was deposed 20 months later on allegations of corruption, but was re-elected again in 1993, only to be sacked in 1996 on similar charges.
Meanwhile Thursday, four people were killed during a gun battle between pro-government supporters and backers of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at a rally outside Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.
A spokesman for the party said Sharif was about two kilometres away when pro-government party supporters opened fire.
On Dec. 15, Musharraf ended a month-long state of emergency that saw crackdowns on opposition supporters, independent media and the purging of independent judges from the country's Supreme Court.
Musharraf came to power in 1999 in a bloodless coup that saw Sharif go into voluntary exile for eight years.

(Associated Press)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Google Public Policy Blog: Government Transparency (US)

Senate testimony: Our efforts to better connect citizens to government

Tuesday, December 11, 2007 at 7:50 AM

Posted by Pablo Chavez, Policy Counsel, and Liz Eraker, Policy Analyst


Last month we blogged about a big step forward towards making U.S. government more accessible to its citizens: the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's approval of the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2007, which nudges federal government agencies to make their websites more accessible to search engine crawlers. Today, J.L. Needham, who leads Google's work with federal agencies to help Google's crawlers find their web content, is testifying before the committee about Google's work in this area (read his complete testimony here).


While search engines have made connecting to online government resources easier in recent years, certain barriers can still get in citizens' way. "The most common barrier is the search form for a database that asks users to input several fields of information to find what they're looking for," J.L. will say in his testimony. "Our crawlers cannot effectively follow the links to reach behind the search form."


In 2005, Google introduced the Sitemap Protocol, an open standard for web sites that allows search engines to readily identify the location of all pages on the site, including database records lying behind a search form. The standard has been embraced by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. As a result, any government site using this standard can reach Americans through all major search engines.


J.L. will also share Sitemaps success stories, noting that "the Department of Energy's Office of Scientific and Technical Information operates a large database that makes research and development findings available to the public. OSTI developed a Sitemap for its Energy Citations and Information Bridge services in just 12 hours, opening up 2.3 million bibliographic records and full-text documents to crawling by search engines. After its implementation of Sitemaps, OSTI saw a dramatic increase in traffic to its services..."


Our testimony before the Senate coincides with the release of a new report today by the Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch that lists some of the most frustrating federal government-related web searches. This morning's Washington Post has a preview, and we're sure the CDT report will be a topic of conversation at today's hearing.


We hope to post video of J.L.'s testimony later today. Stay tuned.


UPDATE (9:07 p.m.): Here's the video:


Links to this post

Labels: Government Transparency

Senate helping make gov't more searchable

Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 4:16 PM

Posted by Liz Eraker, Policy Analyst


Let's say you're looking for some publicly available government information online. Maybe you're searching for property records or background on your local school district. Chances are, you'll start your quest not by typing in the URL of a government agency website, but by visiting Google or another search engine. Unfortunately, that may not produce the results you're looking for. In fact, much of the content that government agencies make available on the web (about half, by our estimates) doesn't appear in search results because of the way many government websites are structured.


Google has been working to make publicly available government information more accessible to the public. We're doing so by helping government agencies implement the Sitemap Protocol, a technical standard that makes it easier for search engines to crawl and index pages on a website. Tomorrow, a Senate committee will take another important step toward addressing this problem.


The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will consider S. 2321, which extends and updates the E-Government Act of 2002. Part of the bill directs the Office of Management and Budget to create guidance and best practices for federal agencies to make their websites more accessible to search engine crawlers, and thus to citizens who rely on search engines to access information provided by their government. It also requires federal agencies to ensure their compliance with that guidance and directs OMB to report annually to Congress on agencies' progress.

Implementing Sitemaps is an easy way for government agencies to make their online information and services more visible and accessible to the citizens they serve. We've already worked with states like Arizona, California, and Virginia, and federal agencies in the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Health and Human Services. We've also supported the sitemapping of large databases by Library of Congress and National Archives and Records Administration.

We welcome this Senate legislation and encourage governments at all levels to participate in this effort to become more transparent and accessible to citizens.


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A triumphant day for open government: FOIA reform bill passes both chambers of Congress

A triumphant day for open government: FOIA reform bill passes both chambers of Congress

Dec. 19, 2007


The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press praised the U.S. House of Representatives for its swift action yesterday in passing bipartisan reforms to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) sent over from the Senate on Friday.

"This is the most significant victory for transparency in the federal government in more than a decade," Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish said. "There is still much work to be done, but this is a major step toward a more open and accountable democracy."

The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act, or OPEN Government Act (S. 2488), emphasizes FOIA deadlines and creates penalties for federal agencies that fail to respond to records requests. The act also develops a tracking system for individual information requests, creates an ombudsman to mediate information disputes and makes it easier to recover attorney's fees when requesters are forced to file suit to get records.

An earlier version of the act overwhelmingly passed the House back in March, but differences in that bill and one later passed by the Senate forced sponsors from both chambers to work out a single bill agreeable to all.

The legislation now moves to the President's desk for his signature. With the act's strong bipartisan support, the White House has not indicated any intention to veto the bill.


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Accountability vital -

Accountability vital



Thu. Dec 20 - 6:38 AM

The Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia is pleased with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court's recent decision that the coalition has a legitimate role in a legal action concerning the South West Shore Regional Development Authority (SWSDA).

The case was brought to court by an individual whose application for records from the SWSDA was turned down. While rejecting the application, the authority expressed its view that it is not subject to the Nova Scotia Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP). It was on this matter that the coalition asked the court for permission to intervene. SWSDA opposed our application to the court. The applicant had no objections.

SWSDA argued that the coalition had no "direct interest" in the proceeding and its intervention would delay the appeal. Justice A. David MacAdam, in allowing our appeal, said the coalition will bring the perspective of a body "directly interested in the public interest issues it raises." He described our coalition as "an organization which is genuinely interested in the issues" raised by the applicant's appeal.

The court decision recognizes the significance of freedom of information legislation, and the coalition's advocacy role in the application of FOIPOP to agencies that deal with public resources.

The coalition was represented by Brian Awad, who told the court the question of whether freedom of information laws apply to SWSDA is important because of the significance of economic development to the future of Nova Scotia, the key role the regional development authorities have assumed or been given in this regard, and the increasing frequency with which public projects or undertakings involve "quasi-public bodies or public/private partnerships."

This is the argument the coalition will carry forward when the court hears the case. The court's ruling, in our view, will have far-reaching consequences for the Nova Scotia Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Beyond the courts, it is time for the legislature to have another look at the wording of the FOIPOP Act with a view to ensuring that any agency of government or a municipality that spends taxpayers' money must be accountable to the taxpayer.

The Right to Know Coalition is an advocacy group established in 2006 to encourage the use and development of freedom of information legislation in order to foster a better informed and more politically active electorate in Nova Scotia, and to improve the quality of public and private decision-making through advocacy and education. We believe that a lack of openness and accountability by "public bodies" contributes significantly to public apathy and alarmingly low voter turnouts.

Darce Fardy is president, Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia.


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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Secrecy is government's gift when it comes to keeping jobs

Scott Reeder: Secrecy is government's gift when it comes to keeping jobs

12/19/2007, 10:20 am

Comment on this story



SPRINGFIELD -- As Christmas approaches and gifts are purchased and wrapped, the words, "I've got a secret" soon may ring through my house.

That's part of the joy of being the father of a 2-year-old.

But in my work as a statehouse reporter, the chant in my ears often is much different. It goes like this: "I don't have any secrets."

Some government officials and politicians have made the keeping of secrets an art form. Once their clandestine activities are found out, the pat response tends to be, "We never hid anything."

Recently I completed an investigation of how Illinois fails to deal with serious issues of teacher misconduct.

Back in July, I received a tip that Chicago Public Schools maintained secret, or confidential, files in its inspector general's office that identified criminals and others suspected of serious wrongdoing.

I filed an open records request for the documents. CPS promptly rejected my request. I filed an appeal with Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and he denied my appeal.

I contacted the Illinois Attorney General's office, and Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler spent four months pressuring school officials to turn over the documents.

Finally, CPS turned over a portion of the documents with some of the names of errant teachers blacked out.

But even so, the information provided was pretty damning.

The documents reveal that drug-dealing, prostitution, attempted murder, criminal sexual assault, embezzlement, theft, reckless homicide and stalking are among the crimes committed by those hired to educate children.

And the school district failed to warn Rockford Public Schools when a Chicago teacher believed to have been sexually involved with a 15-year-old transferred to that school district. (The teacher left his job after an internal investigation, but was not criminally charged.)

After the stories were published, I received an e-mail from a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools. He didn't object to my reporting about criminals in the teaching ranks; he just didn't like my calling it a secret, characterizing the documents I obtained as "very public."

Yeah, right.

If you don't have anything to hide, why hide it?


Scott Reeder is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Daily Journal and newspapers serving Moline, Rock Island and Ottawa.


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House passes measure to strengthen Freedom of Information Act

Bill would increase penalties for nonaction

By Rebecca Carr


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

WASHINGTON — Legislation that strengthens the Freedom of Information Act advanced to the White House on Tuesday.

The legislation, initially sponsored by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., unanimously passed the House on Tuesday, mirroring a Senate vote Friday.

The measure would increase penalties on federal agencies that fail to provide requested documents and information within 20 days.

It creates an ombudsman to settle disputes and allows people making requests to recover legal costs if they prevail in court.

Also, the bill reverses a presumption created by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft that government records should be kept from the public if there is uncertainty about how their release will affect national security.

Final congressional passage of the bill came after a long lobbying effort by Cornyn and Leahy to bolster the beleaguered 41-year-old law.

Critics say it is ineffective because of delays in responses to requests for information and because people seeking information routinely must go to federal court to obtain government records.

"Passage of these long-overdue open government reforms is a victory for transparency in federal government operations and a vital building block to strengthen our democratic process," said Cornyn, who has made open government a signature issue since his arrival in the Senate in 2003.

The White House declined to say whether President Bush would sign the legislation. But with support from Cornyn and other conservatives such as U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the bill is likely to become law. It would be the first change in the law in more than a decade.

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A little light shines through the wall of secrecy (US)


A little light shines through the wall of secrecy

By Staff Reports

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A federal judge has taken a significant step in dismantling the wall of secrecy the Bush administration has needlessly built around the White House.

Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that White House visitors logs were public records and that the public had a right to see them.

The logs, maintained by the Secret Service, had been public until 2006, when the Bush administration, which adheres to the principle that its business is nobody's but its own, declared that the logs were presidential records and thus exempt from the Freedom of Information Act under the doctrine of executive privilege.

Executive privilege is intended to protect the confidentiality and candor of the advice the president receives. The logs say only who visited the White House, when and for how long; they contain nothing about the substance of the visits.

Wrote Lamberth: "Knowledge of these visitors would not disclose presidential communications or shine a light on the president's or vice president's policy demonstrations." It might shed light, however, on White House political machinations.

The White House says it will appeal, using that as an excuse not to comment on the legal setback. One day, it is to be hoped, Congress and the courts will throw open the doors and windows of the Bush administration and the sun will shine in. Unfortunately, it is likely to be long after it has left office.

© Rocky Mountain News


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Open Records: Unhealthy secrecy


The wall of unhealthy secrecy around the Bush White House is being breeched, at least a little. The much-feared American public could soon be close enough to peer at the door of ... the people's house.

In a case involving an effort to check the frequency of White House visits by evangelical politician-preachers, a federal judge ruled Monday that visitor logs are public records. The White House may appeal.

Meanwhile, Congress on Tuesday passed a modest expansion of the federal Freedom of Information Act. Government agencies could face fines, to be taken out of their budgets, if they lose a lawsuit over withholding public information. The White House hasn't said if President Bush will sign the bill, but it passed the Senate with support from some of his top conservatives allies, including Sens. John Cornyn and Jon Kyl.

The Senate also must restore longstanding provisions for many presidential records to be released 12 years after an administration leaves office. New Mexico's Sen. Jeff Bingaman has hopes of a vote Wednesday; the House earlier gave the records measure veto-proof support.

After seven years of the Bush administration, it's easy to forget conservatives care about open government as much as any part of the public. Undoing the Bush-Cheney obsession with secrecy will take bipartisanship, patience and commitment to reform by a new administration. But a few doors may already be close to reopening.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

US Editorial: A risky secrecy

Brookfield police should follow the advice of the state attorney general's office and give citizens more access to public records.

From the Journal Sentinel

Posted: Dec. 17, 2007

Not following the advice of your attorney often can get you in trouble. The Brookfield Police Department should keep that in mind and reconsider its decision to ignore the advice of state attorneys on keeping certain police records from public eyes.

As a state official noted, state law presumes that people should have as much access as possible to public records and that only in exceptional cases may access be denied. That includes the records of the Police Department, which should open its files to the public, with obvious exceptions, generally involving informants and ongoing investigations.

The department has a policy of refusing to release police files that have been turned over to a prosecuting attorney. It argues that a 1994 unpublished appeals court decision that keeps prosecuting attorneys' files secret should be applied to police case files that are turned over to the prosecuting attorney.

But last month, in response to a letter from Assistant Police Chief Dean Collins, Assistant Attorney General Mary E. Burke advised the city that the department's policy of flatly refusing to release police files that have been forwarded to a prosecuting attorney is not permitted under open records law.

The ruling, she said, "applies only to records requests for the prosecutor's case file - not the Police Department's case file."

Nevertheless, in a letter responding to Burke's advice, Collins said the department would continue its policy. While Burke's advice isn't legally binding, not following it runs the risk of litigation, according to Robert Dreps, a Madison attorney who works on open records issues for several Wisconsin newspapers, including the Journal Sentinel.

"The attorney general's opinion does not have the force of law," he told the Journal Sentinel's Amy Rinard. "But if they don't follow it, that could put them at greater risk of being found arbitrary and capricious in denying a request" (

That means taxpayers could end up footing the bill for the department's refusal to follow sound legal advice. In the interest of open government and lower government costs, the department should change its policy.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

White House visitor logs are public documents, judge rules, rejecting Bush secrecy move | Seattle Times Newspaper

White House visitor logs are public documents, judge rules, rejecting Bush secrecy move


The Associated Press


WASHINGTON — White House visitor logs are public documents, a federal judge ruled Monday, rejecting a legal strategy that the Bush administration had hoped would get around public records laws.

The ruling is a blow to the Bush administration, which is fighting the release of records showing visits by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and prominent religious conservatives.

The records are created by the Secret Service, which is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But the Bush administration has ordered the data turned over to the White House, where they are treated as presidential records outside the scope of the public records law.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said logs from the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's residence are subject to public records request.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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Education Centre debate slips out from shroud of secrecy (Ont.)

Education Centre debate slips out from shroud of secrecy (Ont.)

Richard Leitner

Published on Dec 14, 2007

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is bringing the public into the debate over the future of its Education Centre while preparing a business case for moving out of the downtown landmark.

After two hours of closed-door deliberations, trustees emerged in public session on Monday to give senior administrators approval to develop a detailed rationale for staff's preferred option of building new headquarters by Jerome Park on the West Mountain.

A report will be presented to the board in February.

Trustees also announced they will hear public delegations on the matter at a special meeting on Jan. 10.

Public details were scant on the preferred option, with a one-page report only identifying it as a "single facility to accommodate administrative staff, training and facility maintenance."

But Mountain Trustee Lillian Orban made it clear the option is the one senior staff appear to have favoured all along -- relocating to Jerome Park at an estimated cost of $33 million.

She unsuccessfully urged trustees to also ask for business cases for other options that retain the Education Centre, which she called "an architectural icon."

"I don't want to be supportive of the administrative-preferred recommended action because, then, ladies and gentlemen, it's right here, $33 million, and that's not what we want," Ms. Orban said.

"I feel that it doesn't give me the latitude to open my brain and to look at a cultural centre that is a gem in this city," she said.

"Actually, we have seven options that we have been discussing in-camera and I would like to see the financial business plan, a more accurate one, on that."

Trustees were initially presented with four options in October, ranging in cost from $33 million to $65 million.

But they placed two additional options on the table last month, both of which would refurbish and either expand, or add another building to, the Education Centre.

No costing of these new options was presented publicly on Monday, but board chair Judith Bishop suggested they were more expensive than staff's favoured option.

She said her understanding is that staff will take into account input from the public, city and McMaster University -- the latter of which is interested in buying the Education Centre property for a family health centre.

"It's not to tie us just to only a particular one, single option at Jerome (Park)," Ms. Bishop said.

"We may end up with only one single option, but I believe what this is doing is attempting to move us in the direction where we can get away from a series of options, most of which, if you don't mind me saying so, are beyond our means."

Mountain Trustee Laura Peddle, who crafted the motion giving staff the OK for the business case, said the decision will still rest with trustees.

She told staff she expects to learn in detail why other options aren't viable.

"You're going to have to sell the merits of that preferred and recommended option by demonstrating to us why the other ones aren't the preferred option," Ms. Peddle said.

"In so doing, I think that we're going to see numbers beside all of them and I think we're going to see probably the content of some of the information that has been given to us in pieces," she said.

"If you don't take the time to explain, for our full understanding, why these other ones are not preferred, then I don't think you can expect success."


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Selectmen Briefed by Town Attorneys; Transparent Government is Key

Selectmen Briefed by Town Attorneys; Transparent Government is Key

By Anne W. Semmes

Article Last Updated: 12/14/2007 11:03:00 AM EST

Freshman First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectmen Lin Lavery and Peter Crumbine, in their first official meeting held Dec. 6, were versed in the powers of governance they have been given.

In the Tesei-requested orientation, Town Attorney John Wayne Fox explained the unique dual powers invested in the Board of Selectmen by the Town Charter. First, in how charter changes dating from the 1970s and '80s had moved the authority of the board to the first selectman, giving him or her individual responsibility over certain departments.

The second power Fox described was the board's team effort decision-making process - that any authoritative action taken by the three individuals, such as even adding an item to a meeting agenda - was done by consensus, of two or of three. He directed the selectmen to consult the appropriate sections of their copy of the Charter to best understand how the process of governance works.

The importance and requirements of transparency - as spelled out by the statutes of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act - was their longest briefing given by attorney Aamina Ahmad. She praised an early action by the first selectman ordering all town vehicles to bear the municipal seal for identification by the public as a positive example of transparency.

"If you go to the Freedom of Information Act Web site," she said, "the first thing you see is a rising sun - for the sunshine laws shedding light on the government.

"Open government, open meetings and open records is the consistent theme of good governance if you look at the statutes throughout."

Ahmad named information and records as the two basic tenets of the FOI Act. State law required them to give public notice, said Fox, of any board meeting involving two or more of them Agendas must be posted no later than 24 hours before a meeting, and as of Jan. 31 each year - all meetings must be scheduled and posted with the Town Clerk.

Any closing to the public of their meetings for executive sessions had to comply with the following reasons - for discussions of employee performance or dismissal (unless an employee requests a public session as in the case of suspended Fire Marshal Joseph Benoit); with pending litigation or claims discussion; for matters of security or in purchasing real estate that would impact the price; or for discussing records exempt from disclosure from the FOI Act.

All the ramifications of record keeping were addressed. The selectmen were advised by Ahmad to confine their e-mail communications and record keeping to their Town e-mail account, after noting a recent FOI Commission decision had considered an official's personal e-mail in the public record.

"This area of the law," she said, "is still being developed." And, as of now, "voicemails are not considered in the public record."

Of the "thousands and thousands "of records kept in the Town Hall vault, 24 record types were listed as exempt from public view, including personal medical files, those of law enforcement agencies and communications between attorneys and clients. Any exceptions, said Ahmad, were on a "case by case situation."

"If you are going to deny access, she said, "it has to be in four business days."

The selectmen received some good news over the recent decline of often frequent Commission on Human Rights (CHR) claims made under the FOI Act. And the related Greenwich Point "Beach suit" wherein three women declared discrimination had been dismissed on three of four counts, with the fourth likely soon to be settled.

A legacy of former Selectman Jim Lash, said town attorney Valerie Maze Keeney, was his belief in the importance of being in compliance of the FOI Act. To that end, Lash had brought a representative from the FOI's Hartford office to instruct employees how to comply with requests. The Town's open record policy was available on the Town Web site. Keeney cited these efforts as important principles of transparent government.

Throughout the orientation, the first selectman, with his years of running meetings of the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) voiced familiarity with procedures. But a new challenge arose when Tesei questioned his right to "caucus" with his fellow Republican selectman, Peter Crumbine. Any discussions of agendas with one other selectman, Fox told him, would constitute a quorum or a meeting, and therefore was not allowed.

Such an action would be possible, said Fox, with a five-member board. With Lavery looking on, Tesei said with a mischievous smile, that perhaps the first order of business would be to call for a charter change from a three- to a five-member Board of Selectmen.

Tesei spoke afterward of the differing BET modus operandi. "With the BET of six Democrats and six Republicans, prior to a meeting you were able to review the agenda in a non-public forum. There was a free flow of ideas."

"This is the practical aspect," said the first selectman. "We (three) have to be able to process things."

But, "No matter how you slice it," he said, "we can't get together irrespective of political affiliation because it constitutes a quorum."

His predecessor, Jim Lash, "got around it casually" by meeting with Selectman Penny Monahan over Monday morning coffee. "They might have talked significant issues," he said. And he and Lavery met up recently at a dinner.

"That is the challenge, he said, "working within our system to accomplish what we need to do."


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The Secrecy File (US)

Senate gives FOIA overhaul green light

By Rebecca Carr | Friday, December 14, 2007, 08:20 PM

The Senate unanimously approved legislation tonight that would strengthen the much beleaguered Freedom of Information Act.

The passage of legislation, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, was seen as a "break through" by the open government community.

An earlier attempt to overhaul the 41-year-old law has been stalled since August over disagreements between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The Senate's latest bill is an attempt to iron out those differences.

"Senator Cornyn and I have worked with our partners in the House for months in our joint efforts to make important reforms to the Freedom of Information Act before the end of this year," Leahy said.

Cornyn, who has made it his mission to make Washington more accountable and transparent, said he was encourage by the Senate action.

"It's encouraging to see this important effort to expand open government move another step forward," Cornyn said. "I'll continue working with Chairman Leahy and our colleagues until these reforms are enacted into law."

Leahy and Cornyn hope that the House Democratic leadership will approve the new version of the bill so that the legislation can be sent to the White House this month.

Despite the expected opposition from the Justice Department, open government groups were elated.

"In recent weeks, House and Senate negotiators worked diligently to resolve obstacles while retaining significant FOIA improvements," said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of ten media groups. "We encourage the House of Representatives to quickly pass this important open government legislation."

The OPEN Government Act, as it is called, makes "simple, common sense reforms" to the way federal agencies process requests for documents under FOIA, Blum said.

The bill creates an independent ombudsman to resolve citizen disputes and help agencies strengthen FOIA; creates tracking systems so the public can easily track the status of requests; and lets requesters more easily recover legal costs when agencies improperly deny requests.


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Friday, December 14, 2007

Human rights groups urge Liberals to vote against Bill C-3

Human rights groups urge Liberals to vote against Bill C-3

Legislation introduced following Supreme Court decision on security certificates


Ottawa (14 Dec. 2007) - Human rights organizations are expressing concern that the federal Liberal Party appears poised to vote in favour of Bill C-3, legislation introduced by the Harper government to allow the continued use of security certificates and the secret trial provisions they contain.


Security certificates are documents issued under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act allowing the federal government to hold indefinitely without trial any person 'suspected' of being a security threat. In addition, the process denies the accused, and their lawyers, access to certain evidence against them on grounds of national security.


In February of 2006 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the existing legislation providing for security certificates violated the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedoms. The court gave parliament one year to make changes to the legislation.


In the top court's ruling, written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, it was noted that the secrecy surrounding the security certificate process is a violation of section 7 of the Charter, guaranteeing an individual the right to life, liberty and security of the person. Section 7 of the Charter is also the provision that has been interpreted in the past as guaranteeing the right to a fair trial.


The 89-page court ruling notes that "the secrecy required by the scheme denies the person named in a certificate the opportunity to know the case put against him or her, and hence to challenge the government's case. This, in turn, undermines the judge's ability to come to a decision based on all the relevant facts and law."


Opposing voices


In response to the court's decision, the minority Conservative government hastily introduced Bill C-3. However, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), the Quebec Bar Association, and the Federation of Law Societies of Canada have argued that Bill C-3 does not adequately respond to the court's concerns about secrecy and is unlikely to pass a future constitutional challenge.


Both the Bloc Québécois and New Democratic Party have stated they will vote against Bill C-3. But human rights groups are concerned that the Liberal party appears willing to support the legislation and ensure its passage through the House of Commons.


The CBA argues that Bill C-3 requires further changes to meet the constitutional standard outlined by the Supreme Court. The legislation is based on the British model of special advocates for those people held on security certificates, but does not take into account recent changes made in that country to the process.


"Bill C-3 has incorporated several flaws in the special advocates system, and omits positive aspects of the Security Intelligence Review Committee process - a 'made-in-Canada regime' - which was successfully used to handle secret information in immigration proceedings before the introduction of the current legislation," says Isabelle Dongier of Montreal, a member of the CBA's National Citizenship and Immigration Law Section.


Other groups argue that Bill C-3 does little to change the fundamental problems with the security certificate process.


Amnesty International


Amnesty International stated in a press release that Bill C-3 "falls dismally short of what would be required to meet minimal international and constitutional fair trial guarantees."


Furthermore, Amnesty International also argues that the legislation fails to remedy "provisions in Canadian law allowing individuals who are alleged to be security threats to be deported to countries where they face a serious risk of being tortured remain unchanged. Deporting anyone to a situation of likely torture clearly contravenes Canada's international human rights obligations. UN level expert human rights bodies have repeatedly called on Canada to amend these provisions."


The groups are urging the Liberal Party to take a definitive stand against Bill C-3 in the interests of ensuring people's civil rights are protected.




The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring that our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE


Web posted by NUPGE: 14 December 2007


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Colleges become democracy ‘boot camps' (US)

Colleges become democracy 'boot camps'


By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Wednesday, December 12, 2007 10:56 PM MST

 Providence, R.I. - The waiting list is long for a class at Providence College where democracy comes to life.


Right off the bat, Prof. Richard Battistoni asks the class to decide together how they should be graded. He routinely turns discussion-leading over to pairs of students.


As the semester wound down recently, students presented "artifacts" that symbolized their own views of what democracy means - everything from a voter registration form to a box of spaghetti (in which all the pieces are equal).


Strategies in this class and similar ones around the country aim to equip students to make their mark in the landscape of American democracy. But such efforts are too rare in higher education, some in the academic world say. They are urging colleges to do more to foster students' desire and ability to contribute in the political realm. The classroom, they say, can be a neutral arena for students to test their ideas and reflect on their attempts to make change in whatever real-world project they take on.


The Political Engagement Project by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Stanford, Calif., which studied the outcomes of 21 such courses, is at the forefront of this push.


College students these days are doing volunteer projects in droves, but campuses don't offer enough "that is strong on educating them for their political responsibilities ... [for] trying to make a difference on a systemic level - that is a really important gap," says Anne Colby, a senior scholar at Carnegie and coauthor of a new book emerging from the three-year project, "Educating for Democracy: Preparing Students for Responsible Political Engagement."


The students tracked in the 21 courses, at a wide variety of colleges, gained on scales of political motivation, understanding, and skills. After taking these classes, they were more inclined to read about politics, to plan future involvement in political action, and to feel that they would be effective. Those who started without much interest in political issues (about half) made the most gains.


In urging colleges and universities to involve students more in political learning, it's essential that there be a neutral environment for discussion, says Thomas Ehrlich, an "Educating for Democracy" coauthor. "So much of the dialogue about politics that students hear from politicians and the media is the 'Crossfire' variety. In a college or university there's the obligation to engage in open inquiry, with rational issues being debated based on sound evidence ... and not just emotion."


The professors of these courses seek out diverse opinions and minority voices. "If a student expresses some discomfort with a point of view, we'll [ask him or her] to take that point of view and learn how to argue with it," says Alma Blount, director of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University.


When Battistoni has students lead the class, at least one takes on the role of "vibes watcher." "If students are attacking other students instead of their ideas ... the vibes watcher can intervene," he says. "If students are silent or not really voicing their opinions ... the vibes watcher tries to lift those voices up."


It's not an easy job. During one discussion about gender and 19th-century laws, the issue of rape within marriage came up. One student said he didn't understand how it was possible for there to be rape in marriage, and the student discussion leaders "didn't want to honor that opinion at all," Battistoni says. After a few minutes of heated discussion, everyone backed off. "Some faculty are reticent to have open dialogue and discussion-based courses, because you never know what's going to happen," he says.


Many of the courses include service-learning projects, which are predictors of political engagement, according to a report by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.


In Ms. Blount's year-long Service Opportunities in Leadership course, students create community-based research projects for the summer and then follow up with policy recommendations.


Channing Mathews, now a junior at Duke, went to Charlotte, N.C., to work with a community group and to study tensions between Hispanic immigrants and African-Americans.


When Ms. Mathews started college, she says her idea of "politics" was narrow - she thought it pertained mainly to elected politicians, and she had little interest. "I was pretty disillusioned with the idea of me making a difference," she says.


Now she's written a 25-page memo for the community group, detailing the issues raised among those she interviewed in Charlotte. Next she wants to apply the lessons to improving campus racial dialogue.


"This class by far is the hardest I've ever taken at Duke," Mathews says. "I'm being pushed to really think about what I care about and ... to take action about it."


Battistoni's students echo that appreciation: "I've never really been forced to think about my own theory [of democracy]," says Chris Gunneson, a senior at Providence College. In his "thought book" assignments, he's written more than 70 pages on his own perspectives, bouncing off ancient and modern theorists.


He and his classmates have also been excited about a voter-registration and awareness campaign they've been conducting this semester. Several said how worthwhile it felt when students would thank them for helping them register locally. To Mr. Gunneson, the voter-registration form is a symbol of "the opportunity to check our leaders.... That is what separates democracy from an authoritarian form of government.... We have the ability to say, 'I don't like what's going on, and I'm going to do something about it,' " he proclaimed during his presentation.


Certainly, the campuses where these 21 courses are taught don't have a monopoly on avidly political students. And wherever such students can be found, they try to persuade their peers to defy the label of "apathetic."


"I hear so much in the media about either [college students] are lazy or we don't vote or we don't care, but I don't feel that's right," says Tyler Lewelling, a junior at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (which is not featured in the book) and an intern this semester at the College Republican National Committee in Washington. "I care about our country and the future of the world we live in.... [I] and my friends want to help do something to make sure we have a better world."


In anticipation of the 2008 presidential election, he's heard a number of college friends that usually aren't politically minded say they are going to jump into the fray, either because they're upset about the war in Iraq or they don't want to see Hillary Clinton win.


The next step for the Political Engagement Project is to assist professors and campus leaders who want to enhance their own programs through the lessons outlined in "Educating for Democracy."


In California, 23 professors on various campuses have signed on to the idea, Mr. Ehrlich says. And eight campuses involved in the American Democracy Project (ADP), affiliated with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, have agreed to work toward educating all their students for political engagement. If that pilot goes well, Ehrlich says, more of the 200-plus members of ADP are likely to follow suit.


"If a department or ideally a whole campus says this is a priority ... it's more reinforced," Ehrlich says. "It gives us a good deal of reason to think positively.


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Secrecy is beguiling

Secrecy is beguiling (US)

When government says to the people, "It's none of your business," both the government and the people are in trouble.


Throughout the American experiment of democracy, we have explored the appropriateness and the proper limits of concealment in our governance.


Just recently, judges sealed documents and imposed gag orders - the NCAA versus the University of North Dakota and the Moe Gibbs murder trial.


The National Transportation Safety Board was allowed by a judge to keep secret the details of its investigation into the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota until the federal government is good and ready to release the information to waiting families of those who perished.


The Central Intelligence Agency had to admit that it destroyed videotapes of interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.


The Bush administration filed in federal court in an effort to withhold Secret Service records that might show how often lobbyist Jack Abramoff visited the White House before his felony conviction in an influence peddling scandal.


In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson wrote, "Government ought to be all outside and no inside ... Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places and avoids public places, and we believe it is a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety."


A current buzz word that's well on its way to being worn out is transparency. But for the time being, it's useful.


It's a key value in a democracy for us to be able to see what's going on. The governing process should take place behind open windows, not closed doors.


We never know how much is going on behind the scenes, how many decisions are prepared before an open meeting is convened.


The Mandan city commissioners ran afoul of the open meetings law by e-mailing among themselves without giving notice of a meeting, in the opinion of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Maybe it wasn't intended as doing city business. But Mayor Ken LaMont said a lesson has been learned.


It's probably much like what happened when the telephone became widely used. What can be a tool for exchanging information can be a means of doing the public's business privately. It's not quite the same as city aldermen getting together in a back room and running municipal government away from public scrutiny. The Internet is more sophisticated - and seductive - than the old-fashioned back room.


An ideal of America is the town meeting. Representative government is more efficient, but there's great value in the notion that if everyone can take part in a discussion at the town hall, then all have an equal share of responsibility for decisions that are made.


We shouldn't give up that ideal lightly, especially not giving government more power to keep secrets from the public.


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American Civil Liberties Union : New “Fusion Centers” Must Be Open, Carefully Monitored and Subject to Restraints, ACLU Says In New Report

New "Fusion Centers" Must Be Open, Carefully Monitored and Subject to Restraints, ACLU Says In New Report (12/12/2007)



CONTACT: (202) 675-2312 or

WASHINGTON – New institutions now emerging in American life – "fusion centers" – are raising many questions about privacy and government openness and must be carefully bounded and monitored to ensure that they remain a legitimate and effective law enforcement tool, according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Fusion centers are springing up all over the country, but without oversight, boundary-setting, and checks and balances – which are crucial," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "In a democracy, any collection and sharing of intelligence information about citizens by their government needs to be carried out with the utmost care."

Fusion centers vary widely, but generally are centers intended to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among state, local and federal government agencies and the private sector. To date, over 40 of these centers have been established around the nation.

"We all want our government agencies to talk to each other and share appropriate law enforcement information," said Mike German, ACLU Policy Counsel. "What we don't want to see is the emergence of secretive, out-of-control units that collect and sift through masses of personal information on innocent people."

The ACLU's report, entitled "What's Wrong With Fusion Centers?" was written by the ACLU's Mike German and Jay Stanley. It identifies five specific problems with fusion centers as they are shaping up:

"Some fusion center activities do not to raise any significant concerns," said German. "But these are brand-new institutions that are still rapidly evolving, and the federal government is pushing for fusion centers to expand their efforts to collect personal information from a multitude of non-law enforcement sources – including private-sector databases."

German also cited the recent controversy over a Department of Homeland Security program of recruiting firefighters to serve as the eyes and ears of security officials when they enter private homes, which he said was an example of the dangers of extending police intelligence collection into everyday life.

The ACLU concludes its report with recommendations that Congress and state legislatures lift the cloak of secrecy that threatens to envelop fusion centers; impose checks and balances on them; define their mission, concentrating them on focused, effective law enforcement techniques rather than dragnets; and evaluate the ultimate effectiveness of these institutions.

"Our nation has done fine without fusion centers for over 200 years," said German. "We need to take a close look at whether the benefits of these centers will really justify their costs and the risks they impose to our civil liberties."

For more information and to read the ACLU's report, go to:


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'Secrecy' decried in middle school project (US)

'Secrecy' decried in middle school project

School officials say 'fair system' is being used to select architect with no hidden agenda.

By Adam Leech

December 12, 2007 6:00 AM

PORTSMOUTH — City residents asked the School Board for more public participation in the decision on which architect will be chosen to design a new Portsmouth Middle School on Parrott Avenue.

The five architectural firms competing for the project are scheduled to be interviewed in private sessions by the selection committee on Dec. 18. Proposals and prices will be submitted after and the committee will recommend one firm to the board on Jan. 22.

Sarah Hamill, of Sagamore Avenue, said she is concerned the project is being "fast-tracked" and too much is being done behind closed doors.

"I am very concerned about the apparent secrecy of this important selection process," she said. "Furthermore, I am concerned about what is being asked of the architects."

Carol Chellman, of Richards Avenue, shared Hamill's concerns and also questioned whether the building that the architects are being asked to design is too big.

"My understanding is the administration is requesting a building almost double the size of the building we already have ... that's too big," she said. "You have a duty to the taxpayers to bring it down to a reasonable size."

After the meeting, both Superintendent Bob Lister and School Board Chairman Kent LaPage assured the selection process is being done fairly and following the city's typical procedures for large building projects.

"Nothing is being decided behind closed doors," said LaPage. "It is a very fair system for those participating in it because no information is exchanged."


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Philippine right to know under fire

"...our democracy rests on the principle that the people have a right to know. Section 7, Article III of the 1987 Philippine Constitution recognizes "the right of the people to information on matters of public concern."



Head, ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs Division


On November 29, 2007, more than 30 journalists were arrested, handcuffed and transported to Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan. 12 of the journalists were from ABS-CBN, detained as "witnesses and suspects," according to the police. Others were told they would be released as soon as their identities were verified. Our Head of Newsgathering, Charie Villa, went immediately to the Peninsula Hotel to identify our people; yet, she was told they would still have to be arrested and brought to Bicutan.



Inserted from <> - comment - Hospital is less for more

Hospital is less for more

December 12, 2007

New hospital under fire

Dec. 10

I attended the weekend rally in Brampton protesting the inadequate health-care services in our city, and I am not from the South Asian community. Many residents of Brampton from all communities have been deeply concerned about this problem for several years.

William Osler Health Centre CEO Bob Richards and Hilary Short, head of the Ontario Hospital Association, have publicly stated that the public-private partnership (P3) funding model used to construct the Brampton Civic Hospital has no impact on patient care. Government documents detailing this deal, only obtained after a four-year court battle, show otherwise.

These documents revealed that this hospital has cost $340 million more because of the P3 financial model. That much money could have built another badly needed new hospital in our city or opened all of the promised 608 beds in the new hospital now. The people of Brampton know that we are not getting adequate health care, and we also know that our P3 hospital has cost more and delivered less.

We have many questions and we are not getting straight answers. Why do we have less than one hospital bed per 1,000 people in Brampton, while the rest of Canada has nearly three beds per 1,000? Why did our hospital cost more than $880 million, and promise 608 beds and only deliver 479?

Perhaps the key to finding answers is contained in this question: Why are hospital decisions made behind closed doors?

Dora Jeffries, Chair, Ontario Health

Coalition, Brampton


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Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Cayer v. South West Shore Development Authority [SWSDA], 2007 NSSC 346

Date: 2007/11/28

Docket: S. H. No. 277885A
Registry: Halifax

Between: Adelard A. Cayer Appellant
South West Shore Development Authority Respondent


Judge: The Honourable Justice A. David MacAdam
Heard: September 18, 2007 in Halifax, Nova Scotia
Subject: Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, - Civil Procedure Rule 8, - Application to intervene.

Summary: The applicant, the Right-to-Know Coalition of Nova Scotia, applied pursuant to Civil Procedure Rule 8 to intervene in an appeal under the Nova Scotia Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. In the main proceeding, the Acting Freedom of Information Review Officer determined that the South West Shore Development Authority was a "municipal body" and was subject to the freedom of information provisions of the Municipal Government Act. The Development Authority declined to comply with this recommendation, leading to the appeal by
Mr. Cayer.

Issue: Should the Court grant leave to the applicant to intervene in the appeal?

Result: Rule 8 requires the applicant to demonstrate an interest in the subject matter of the proceeding and to show that the intervention would not unduly delay or prejudice the adjudication of the appeal. In deciding whether to exercise its discretion, the Court will consider the subject matter of the proceeding, the interest of the applicant, the potential for delay arising from the intervention, the potential for prejudice or injustice arising from the intervention and the contribution the applicant can make to the litigation. Rule 8 has been interpreted broadly, and does not require the applicant to demonstrate that its proprietary rights or legal interests are directly affected by the proceeding. Demonstrating a public interest in the subject matter of the proceeding may be a sufficient basis for intervention.

In addition, it is well-established that Nova Scotia's freedom of information laws require a generous interpretation in order to ensure public access to information. The applicant had demonstrated an interest in the issues raised by the appeal. The interests of the applicant and the appellant were not identical or virtually indistinguishable. The applicant is concerned with the scope of freedom of information legislation, which is a matter of public interest. The fact that Mr. Cayer and the Coalition took the same position on the issues upon which the Coalition sought to make submissions did not mean that they approached the appeal from identical perspectives. Other than referencing this application, the respondent did not provide any detail on any delay or prejudice that might arise from the Coalition's intervention so as to outweigh the Coalition's contribution to the proceeding.
The application to intervene was allowed.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"The ultimate source of oversight is the citizenry, informed and alerted by a free press and by civil liberties advocates and briefed by public authorities."

-- Amitai Etzioni from his forward in Making Accountability Work (2007)

Atlantic Accord letters censored


Atlantic Accord letters censored


The Nova Scotia Business Journal


Premier Rodney MacDonald's office is censoring three letters he wrote to federal officials during the Atlantic Accord dispute. Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said his office filed a Freedom of Information request to see alternative proposals the premier made to federal officials regarding offshore oil and gas revenue.

The premier's office released copies of three letters MacDonald wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and ACOA Minister Peter MacKay between April and June. But the entire contents were blanked out.

Deputy minister Bob Fowler said releasing the information could injure federal-provincial relations. McNeil said he's suspicious what the letters would reveal.

"I don't believe this premier fought for the Atlantic Accord - I think he settled," McNeil said. "I think he was bullied. I think he was intimidated by the prime minister. He was afraid to stand up and defend what is rightfully ours."

The clarification agreement MacDonald and Harper announced in October will give Nova Scotia less money than it was demanding over the next four years. The province says the deal will become more favourable over the following nine years, resulting in $229-million more than Nova Scotia would receive if Ottawa followed the letter of the Atlantic Accord.

McNeil said a possible, eventual payoff is no substitute for the agreement former premier John Hamm secured in 2005. It said Nova Scotia would be the sole beneficiary of offshore oil and gas revenue. The premier said the agreement won the province additional revenue in the long term, plus more money next year thanks to the resolution of a separate offshore dispute dating back to the 1980s known as the Crown share.

"The fact we have waited over 20 years for the Crown share and are now able to see it coming to a successful conclusion is a reason to celebrate, in my opinion," he said. "We believe it's worth hundreds of millions of dollars."

MacDonald said McNeil should call Nova Scotia Liberal MPs and urge them to help get legislation related to the deal through Parliament. McNeil said he couldn't believe MacDonald made such a suggestion. The last time the premier urged MPs to vote a certain way, Bill Casey opposed the budget and was ejected from Tory caucus.

The provincial cabinet refused to come to his aid.

"Do you remember a guy by the name of Bill Casey who did exactly what that premier asked him to do?" McNeil said. "Do not give us a lesson on the hypocrisy of your government." – The Daily News 



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Friday, December 07, 2007

Uninvited: Citizens face road meetings detour (US)

Uninvited: Citizens face road meetings detour


published 12/6/2007 12:00:00 AM



Meadowcreek Parkway opponent Rich Collins clashes with Charlottesville development manager Angela Tucker about how open a meeting should be.

PHOTO BY Jay Kuhlmann

Rich Collins has a long history as an activist who's not afraid to stand his ground-- he's the guy who got arrested at Whole Foods for handing out fliers. His current cause is to thwart the Meadowcreek Parkway by having McIntire Park golf course declared a historic landmark. 

When a meeting was called November 26 to discuss the parkway interchange and its impact on historical properties, Collins invited the public and the press-- only to be chastised, he says, by a city official and told the public wasn't allowed.

"I was quite upset because I had invited people who were interested," says Collins. "To me it's typical of the whole process-- trying to keep troublemakers like me under wraps."

But to Angela Tucker, Charlottesville's development services manager who called the meeting, there's a very good reason the gathering wasn't public: it had not been advertised as required by the Freedom of Information Act. "It's not about hiding anything," she insists.

Brian Wheeler is executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow and a member of the Albemarle School Board. When he tried to attend a meeting of the Hillsdale Steering Committee on November 13, he was also told by Tucker that the steering committee meetings were not public, nor had they been the past four years.

"I went in knowing it was not an advertised public meeting," says Wheeler. "I went in prepared. But when you've been to as many public meetings as I have, it's disconcerting to hear."

In both cases, Tucker met the requirements of Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, which mandates that meetings of elected officials-- such as City Council-- or of those appointed by elected officials-- such as the Planning Commission-- must be open to the public.

"The dichotomy," explains Marie Everett, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, "is if the subcommittee is created by staff people-- if the city manager says, 'I need a citizen advisory board,' that's not public under FOIA. The thinking is that [the issue] will get to a public body eventually."

Such was the explanation Wheeler says he received-- that the Hillsdale Steering Committee was appointed by the city's Neighborhood Development, not City Council-- and so it fell into the nonpublic realm.

Neither Wheeler nor Collins are quite buying that legal explanation.

Wheeler points out that similar committees made up of elected officials and citizens, such as the Eastern Connector Steering Committee, had never denied him access.

Both City Councilor Kevin Lynch and Albemarle Supervisor David Slutzky sit on the Hillsdale committee. "Our expectation is that steering committee meetings involving elected officials and appointed citizens should be open," Wheeler says. 

"By law, they may not be," he acknowledges. "But our community has a high expectation of open meetings. I don't care who appointed the committee. Sunshine should be welcome. I think it would be wise for the city to embrace transparency."

In Wheeler's case, committee members voted to let him stay. "The fact I had to worry about that creates a barrier that I have to get permission every time," says Wheeler. "I do think staff meetings are different, and I don't expect them to be public. But this is a major road project that has a website."

Collins is still steamed that his meeting on the Meadowcreek Parkway, which he attended as a "consulting party" representing STAMP-- Sensible Alternatives to the Meadowcreek Parkway--  was held without the public and press: the president of the neighborhood association for North Downtown, Colette Hall, and a Daily Progress reporter were not allowed to attend. Says Collins, "That's too highhanded."

"Angela Tucker, who knows me quite well, would not let me in," says Hall. "I'm not some kook off the street."

Hall notes that she's attended 9 of 11 Meadowcreek Parkway steering committee meetings, which are public, unlike the Hillsdale meetings. 

She lists four reasons she feels it was "unreasonable" that she was not allowed to stay at the meeting: "I wasn't asking to speak; I was only collecting information. Second, I'm president of the North Downtown Association, and this will impact our neighborhood. Third, this is being built with state and federal funds. I'm a taxpayer. Why is this a secret meeting? And fourth, the majority of these historic resources are in the public domain."

Tucker points out that it was the first time these groups had sat down together, and there's a danger in releasing information about challenging and complex projects such as the parkway that hasn't been carefully thought out: "It can be unnecessarily confusing."

Collins also objects to the format of a November 1 public forum on the Meadowcreek Parkway interchange held at the Albemarle County Office Building. Citizens could view the two alternatives for the interchange and submit comments through November 13, which Collins denounces as "part of a concerted effort to avoid attention to the opponents of the road/interchange" who contend that parkway has been illegally segmented to avoid federal law.

"He wanted a podium-style meeting so he could share his views in a public way," says Tucker. She adds that the public comments would be published and available.

Councilor Kevin Lynch attended both nonpublic meetings-- although he arrived late and missed Wheeler's and Collins' disagreements with Tucker-- and he explains that some meetings, especially those trying to obtain rights of way, require some discretion. 

Some Hillsdale Steering Committee meetings have been related to property owners willing to donate rights of way that are contingent on the alignment of the road.

"That's a very small percentage," he says. "I'm not sure either of these two meetings that was the case."

The public's desire to speak at meetings has been a concern for staff, says Lynch. "I don't mind staying an extra 30 minutes," he says, but for people appointed to serve on nonpublic committees, there is a time for public comment later on.

"If there's not a compelling reason, I would err on the side of the public being there," says Lynch. "I think maybe staff has erred on the side of caution."

At the December 3 meeting, City Council voiced support of allowing citizens to watch meetings such as the one out of which Colette Hall was booted. 

'I think given that Council stated we believe how committee meetings should be run, that should be a pretty unambiguous message to staff," says Lynch.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government's Everett has one other suggestion for citizens who find the door slammed in their faces at nonpublic meetings: The records of the meetings are public. "You can always make FOIA requests of their agenda or records," she says.


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