Thursday, February 28, 2008

Editorial: Secrecy costs public plenty

Editorial: Secrecy costs public plenty

OUHSD should know better

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Attempting to withhold records by claiming they are not public information — even though taxpayer money is involved — is a common dodge employed by city councils, school districts and other public agencies.

This was the route taken by the Oxnard Union High School District last year when The Star sought to find out how much money the school district had spent on legal fees to fight a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against it in January 2006.

The request was rebuffed by a school district lawyer on the grounds that the legal fees were not public information.

A lawyer should know better. And, on Feb. 5, a Superior Court judge ordered the district to make the records available.

Twenty-one days later, the school district provided the requested information. And no wonder it was trying to hide the facts. It had spent $532,123 to fight the lawsuit. Not surprisingly, shortly after releasing the records, the district announced it had settled the case for $150,000.

Although all the litigation costs, according to the district, are covered by insurance, the time and energy spent on the matter by school administrators and staff over the last two years cannot be recovered.

This dispute should not have lasted this long and, certainly, not cost in excess of half-a-million dollars.

It all began after Becky Romano, a former Rio Mesa High School assistant principal, was let go after returning from a work-related injury. The district, she alleged, maintained she was physically unable to perform her duties.

Over the lawsuit's course, attorneys for the two sides accused each other of dragging out the case. The sharpest comment came from Ms. Romano's attorney, who alleged an outside attorney for the district was refusing to settle in order to drive up his fees.

District officials said the plaintiff was using the media to embarrass the district into settling.

This story highlights two problems — the amount of money school districts spend on litigation, and the Oxnard Union High School District's denial of the public's right to know how it is spending taxpayers' money.

It shouldn't take half-a-million dollars to conclude a lawsuit that is settled for $150,000. And it most certainly shouldn't take a Superior Court judge and more attorney fees to force the school district to turn over records that are clearly public documents.


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Friday, February 22, 2008

Globe and Mail to challenge secrecy of federal documents

Globe to challenge secrecy of federal documents


From Thursday's Globe and Mail

February 21, 2008 at 5:56 AM EST

The Globe and Mail will be represented in an Ottawa court this morning to fight against secrecy the federal government has imposed on documents flowing from a counterterrorism case.

The hearing will be largely closed to the public, but during the proceedings, Peter Jacobsen, a lawyer for The Globe and Mail, will argue that the information in question can be safely disclosed to the public.

The Crown contends the information's release could harm its relations with foreign security agencies.

The Globe and Mail was on the verge of publishing information about the document last year when Justice Department lawyers forced the story to be held with a last-minute warning to a reporter and his editor that publishing the material would be illegal, based on national security grounds.

Crown lawyers had released the document into a court file, but made it secret again after saying its release was a mistake.

The case concerns the extradition of Abdullah Khadr, a 27-year-old Egyptian-Canadian who the U.S. is seeking to have extradited from Toronto, where he is in jail.

In 2005, he was indicted in Boston on charges that he sold arms to al-Qaeda while he lived in Pakistan.

The Khadr case, launched two years ago, has stalled in Federal Court amid various constitutional challenges by his lawyers.


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Monday, February 18, 2008

Penn. Governor signs open records reform bill

Governor signs open records reform bill

  • The state no longer has the distinction of having one of the worst laws on providing access to government documents.

Feb. 15, 2008  ·   Calling it a " pretty good Valentine's Day present for the people of Pennsylvania," Gov. Ed Rendell yesterday signed into law a bill to overhaul the state's open records law, previously regarded as one of the worst in the country.

The bill, which seeks to provide more public information about government activity on both a local and state level, passed the state House unanimously on Feb. 11 and the state Senate the following day.

"This is a tremendous step forward for government transparency in Pennsylvania, and I am pleased to advance this bill to the governor's desk," said the bill's sponsor, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R). "Residents of our state will benefit for decades to come from this rewriting of Pennsylvania's 50-year-old Open Records Law."

Under the bill, all records are presumed open, unless explicitly included on a list of exceptions. The bill also redirects the burden onto the government to prove why a record should remain private. Under the 1957 version of the law, the responsibility fell to public citizens to show why they should be given the information.

In addition, the new legislation establishes an Office of Open Records to more effectively resolve disputes surrounding open access issues.

"We're very pleased," said Deborah Musselman, who acted as an in-house lobbyist and point person on reform for the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association. "It's not perfect, but when a bill is this complex, you're never going to have a situation where everyone is 100 percent satisfied."

More than two dozen categories of information remain restricted for privacy or safety purposes, such as information that "would likely result in physical harm or risk the personal security of an individual."

But open government advocates contend the many of the restrictions are discretionary.

"The distinction that needs to be made with the new law is that the exemptions only outline what agencies may legally withhold," explains Kim de Bournon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition. "Agencies may use the 'discretion' provision if the public right to know outweighs other concerns and release of the information doesn't violate any other laws or statutes."

The law does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2009, to allow time to implement the new regulations and hire staff for the Office of Open Records.

-- Alanna Malone


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State finds private university's police department is considered a public entity

Monday, February 18, 2008

8:49 AM

Commission: Yale police must comply with requests for records

State finds private university's police department is considered a public entity


© 2008 Student Press Law Center


February 15, 2008


CONNECTICUT — The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission decided Wednesday that Yale University Police Department records are subject to state Freedom of Information Act requests. The commission, which is charged under state law with administering and enforcing the act, ruled in favor of Janet Perotti after the police department had denied her original request for personnel files of two department officers.

Perotti, a public defender, filed the Freedom of Information Act request with the police department during her investigation of a May 2007 incident when two Yale police officers charged a 16-year-old with breach of peace for riding his bicycle on a public sidewalk.

"My client was arrested for riding his bicycle," Perotti said. "They do this all the time, some cops have nothing better to do," Perotti said.

Perotti suspected misconduct when the 16-year-old's account of the arrest differed from the police officer's account.

In June 2007 Perotti filed a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of the officers' personnel files. Yale University denied her request in July 2007, citing that "Yale University and its police department are private entities and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act."

Perotti then appealed to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, alleging that Yale police had violated the Freedom of Information Act by denying her request. In September 2007 a hearing was held and in December 2007 a hearing officer issued an initial decision in favor of Perotti, concluding that the Yale Police were a public entity.

Under state law, an institution is considered "public" for Freedom of Information Act requests if it performs a government function, was created by the government, receives government funding or is subject to government involvement or regulation.

The Freedom of Information Commission ruled that the Yale University Police Department was a public agency, and therefore subject to Perrotti's Freedom of Information Act Request. The commission concluded that the Yale Police Department does perform a government function because of its ability to police beyond the Yale campus, to within the city of New Haven.

"This decision affirms a principle that should hold true in most states — that even at private colleges, a police force must provide information about its activities," Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said.

"This is positive for student journalists because crime reports aren't just newsworthy, they're important for the safety of their readers," Goldstein said.

"I am thrilled for my client. It is a little victory for mankind. It is a victory for kids who have to deal with New Haven policemen harassing them," Perotti said.

Perotti believes Yale University will appeal the commission's decision.

Dorie Baker, associate director of public affairs at Yale University, said the university has not decided if they are going to appeal.

By A. Matthew Deal, SPLC staff writer


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Secrecy: Records must be open to public

Monday, February 18, 2008

8:55 AM


February 16, 2008


Secrecy: Records must be open to public


The Clarion-Ledger

American citizens have a powerful tool in ensuring their government functions as it should and is accountable - the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Jeanni Atkins, a University of Mississippi journalism professor and director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information (, points out that records obtained by FOIA requests have been critical in forcing the government to act on matters of public health and safety.

The FOIA law was initially passed in 1967, but was recently reauthorized and strengthened.

In Mississippi, we have the Public Records Act of 1983, which is designed to ensure citizen access to government records. Unfortunately, it is not the same strong tool as the federal act.

The Public Records Act requires government agencies to turn over documents within 14 days of receiving a written request. It does not always work that way.

For one thing, there are several exemptions, especially in the area of law enforcement records. Another, the 14-day waiting period is usually used as a delaying tactic or a dodge.

This newspaper often has to go to court to force compliance.

Bills being considered in the Legislature would cure some of these issues. One would lower the waiting time to three days, which is still long in most cases, but more reasonable. Another would open law enforcement incident reports, allowing citizens to know what crimes are being committed in their communities.

Most officials deal with citizens' requests for documents simply by providing them. It should be that easy. For others, it takes a law. Mississippi's Public Records Law needs strengthening.


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School board's secrecy cuts it off from the public

Monday, February 18, 2008

8:55 AM


School board's secrecy cuts it off from the public

The EMSB's bloc voting and private meetings mean there's little public debate


The Gazette

Saturday, February 16, 2008

On paper, school boards are a great thing for anglophone Quebecers. Ever since the conversion of the province's religious school boards into linguistic ones a decade ago, English-speaking citizens possess a level of government exclusively in their control. In the case of the largest of the nine anglo boards, the English Montreal School Board, are citizens making the best of the opportunity?

The answer is a resounding no.

Things were bad enough before last November's election. Previously, the 23 school commissioners had organized themselves into three informal political teams notable for their fractiousness. Commissioners did not vote according to their individual judgments - as do, say, the commissioners of this region's other big English board, the Lester B. Pearson School Board. Rather, they voted according to their team's dictates.

The team with the majority of members, which was headed by Dominic Spiridigliozzi, was noted for its distaste for democracy. For example, Spiridigliozzi rejected the holding of candidates' debates and even meet-the-candidates nights. Public apathy suited him fine, since low voter turnout made it easier to win elections with modest effort.

The two other teams were anxious to open up the system and end bloc voting. They agreed to a non-aggression pact in which the reform teams divided up the wards and agreed to not run candidates against each other.

A surprisingly large number voters turned out on Nov. 4 - 17.6 per cent, well above the minuscule average for all boards. They reduced Spiridigliozzi's team to minority status. One reform team, headed by Rocco Barbieri, won eight seats. The other, led by Angela Mancini, had five.

You'd think the erstwhile allies would form a ruling coalition. Naked opportunism, however, carried the day. Rather than let Barbieri become board chairperson thanks to his higher number of seats, Mancini's team switched partners. It now works in tandem with Spiridigliozzi. And Mancini is is riding high as chairperson.

Result: Bloc voting remains the norm.

So does partisan discord. Understandably, the Barbieri people feel betrayed.

As for the EMSB's attitude to the public, let me tell you about its love of secrecy.

Quebec law requires all meetings of each school board's council of commissioners to be open to the public (except when treating personnel matters or other items that could be prejudicial to a person). But by having other kinds of meetings, the EMSB can keep out the public, including the news media.

One is meetings of the powerful executive committee, on which nine commissioners sit. By contrast, the Pearson board lets the public attend some of its executive committee sessions, says that board's secretary-general, William Stockwell.

The EMSB also holds meetings of the council's standing committees behind closed doors. Pearson lets citizens attend upon request.

The EMSB also has frequent caucus meetings. Unlike their counterparts at other levels of government, these caucuses are not for individual parties - all 23 commissioners can attend. These sessions are important: Issues are discussed but not voted upon. Note that Laval's Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board lets in the public to its caucus meetings.

To be sure, the EMSB allows two representatives of parents to attend its caucus meetings. But so phobic is it of sunshine that it makes them sign agreements to keep proceedings confidential.

A commissioner with the Barbieri team, Julian Feldman, has encountered a stone wall in his efforts to make the EMSB more transparent. "I am beginning to feel that I have joined some kind of Masonic lodge," he says.

I was the only journalist and member of the public present at last Wednesday's special meeting of the council. Little wonder. A more open system would not bring in crowds, but at least those citizens concerned about education would be able see their elected representatives' thinking on issues. Now they see little more than just the end of the process - the bloc voting.

One reason, then, that Montreal's English-speaking community doesn't make the best of the EMSB is that EMSB doesn't let it.

Meanwhile, the education system is deteriorating. It's no coincidence. Education reform does not start in the classroom. It starts at the top.

Henry Aubin is The Gazette's regional-affairs columnist. haubin@

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008


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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Obsessive secrecy in Duckville - University of Oregon

Obsessive secrecy in Duckville

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Oregonian

T wo years ago, Bill Harbaugh came up against what he calls the University of Oregon's "culture of secrecy" for the first time.

Harbaugh, the faculty member who forced the university to finally make public a consultant's report that challenges the extravagant revenue projections for its new $200 million basketball arena, was questioning the administration's plans to diversify its faculty and student body.

The institution's "obsessive secrecy" was such, Harbaugh claims, that University President Dave Frohnmayer "was unwilling to give me copies of the university's affirmative action plan. He and his lawyer, Melinda Grier, spent months trying to hide that from me."

For those with short memories, Frohnmayer helped to craft and openly championed the state's public records law back in the 1970s.

"When that happened," Harbaugh said, "I decided I would not work at a university with that sort of disrespect for the basic principles of openness and informed debate. I also decided I didn't want to leave Oregon."

In short, Harbaugh said, "I got angry with the university for trying to hide documents. And I learned how to work the system to get them."

As part of UO's campaign to fund its new arena with $200 million in state bonds, a funding mechanism mandated by Phil Knight and the restrictions on his $100 million "donation," the university has vigorously promoted revenue projections by CSL International.

In December, CSL estimated an arena opening in 2010 would produce annual revenue between $10.5 million and $16.1 million. The accuracy of those projections is significant because the debt service on 30-year bonds would approach $15 million each year, slightly more than the $1.3 annual operating expenses at debt-free McArthur Court.

Meanwhile, Harbaugh -- who teaches Behavioral and Experimental Economics, interestingly enough -- got wind of a 2004 EcoNorthwest report that projected the arena's annual revenue at $4.1 million.

On Oct. 7, Harbaugh, an expert on charitable giving, asked the University of Oregon Foundation for copy of its Form 990 from 2004, which lists the nonprofit's five largest payments to subcontractors.

When the form arrived, that information was not attached. Harbaugh requested it again. This time, the appendices were included and showed a $123,431 contract with EcoNorthwest for "arena consulting."

On Oct. 10, Harbaugh asked Karen Kreft, the foundation president, for the report. She responded by e-mail, "As we have communicated, the EcoNorthwest report is unknown to the Foundation." Kreft told Harbaugh future requests should be directed to Grier, the university's general counsel.

When Harbaugh followed those instructions, he said "it took three petitions to the attorney general's office and probably 20 e-mails to Melinda Grier and President Frohnmayer" before the report arrived.

How did they respond to those e-mails? "Mostly, they would not respond," Harbaugh said. "When they did respond, they said they couldn't find the documents. I explained in every message that all they had to do was e-mail EcoNorthwest and ask for another copy. And I gave them the e-mail address of the president of EcoNorthwest to make it easier for them."

EcoNorthwest's president, Ed Whitelaw, teaches at the university.

Grier said Harbaugh didn't make a public records request until early January and received the report five weeks later. An argument over copying and transmitting fees -- public records law states those fees can be waived if there is a legitimate public interest -- contributed to the delay, she added.

Frohnmayer was not available for comment.

Harbaugh is not the only UO professor who believes the administration hasn't been open and transparent about the funding of the new arena.

As Gordon Sayre, president of Oregon's university senate, told The Oregonian's Rachel Bachman last week, "it looks as though CSL was retained because they produced the numbers the athletic department wanted. And this (EcoNorthwest) report was basically canceled and buried and kept secret because it produced forecasts that were more skeptical than what the athletic department wanted to hear."

The EcoNorthwest report also made clear, way back in August 2004, that the university would lose Phil Knight's donation if it "decides to build a more modest facility." An attempt to construct an $80 million facility without funds from Knight and other major donors, the report said, would be no easier to finance than the super arena Knight wanted.

Knight's $100 million donation, university officials finally acknowledged last week, is "contingent on the approval of the state of Oregon" to issue $200 million in bonds that cover design and construction costs.

When I asked Allan Price, UO's vice president of university advancement, if Oregon was ducking the more problematic aspects of funding the arena in its drive to sweet-talk the Legislature out of $200 million in state bonds, Price disagreed.

"There was no attempt to hide" the $123,000 EcoNorthwest report, he said. "I didn't even remember for sure if we had a copy of it. And I don't think this has been rushed through the Legislature.

"We've been talking publicly about an arena project for at least six years. We have not papered over the arbitrage issue. Just think about who's reviewed the financial details, starting off with the University of Oregon athletic department. Then the UO administration looked at it, then the treasurer's office, legislative fiscal, the department of administration's budget and management office."

Harbaugh remains incredibly frustrated with the university's adversarial attitude toward public records' requests and Frohnmayer's priorities. "Frohnmayer has worked so hard on this arena. This impressive effort could have done wonders for UO's teaching and research," he said. "I just hope he builds the damn thing soon and retires."

And he wants to see the arena built. "Now's a great time to build it," Harbaugh said. "There's $100 million on the table from Phil Knight. But the terms of the gift are such that the taxpayers and the university are going to end up paying a lot for something that's really what Phil Knight wants."

Steve Duin: 503-221-8597; 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201

©2008 The Oregonian


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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

N.S. refuses request for accord details

N.S. refuses request for accord details



Tue. Feb 12 - 8:37 PM


Nova Scotia Liberal leader Stephen MacNeil is slamming the MacDonald Tories for refusing to release details about the reworked federal-provincial agreement on offshore revenue.



Nova Scotia's Liberal party is unhappy with what it says is a lack of disclosure of information about the new offshore energy agreement between this province and Ottawa.

The Grits have filed a formal request through freedom of information legislation for "the (2007) clarifying agreement and the Nova Scotia interpretation of the (original) 2005 Atlantic accord," a release said Tuesday, but their request has been denied.

The Atlantic accord is a signed contract between the federal and provincial governments on oil and gas revenue.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil alleged the MacDonald government's "high level of secrecy" is behind the refusal to release information, calling it a disservice to Nova Scotians.

"The taxpayers have a right to know how and why the government determined that the new offshore deal will be better for Nova Scotia," he said in the release.

Joe Gillis, a spokesman with the premier's office, said the Liberals' freedom of information request went through the provincial Finance Department.

Cathy Shaw, a spokeswoman with the department, told The Chronicle Herald the request was denied because it didn't comply with provisions under the act. She also said much information about the accord has already been released.

"There were extensive explanations, there were schedules of numbers, there were all kinds of things released" in October when the new pact was announced, Ms. Shaw said.

"A great amount of time was taken to explain to people exactly what the numbers meant."

The Liberals beg to differ. They submitted their request for Atlantic accord material on Dec. 10, the release said. On Jan. 8, they were advised the government wanted 30 days to consider the request. Last week, the Grits' office was told their request had been refused.

A Liberal spokeswoman said the request was turned down because it was deemed to be advice that could harm federal-provincial relations.

The Liberals wanted to know "what data and assumptions the government used to determine their position in favour of the new offshore agreement," the release said. It accuses the provincial government of secrecy with respect to the accord's details.

"What we have asked for should be made available," Mr. McNeil said in the release. "It is information that has been collected and analyzed by government."

Last year, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Nova Scotia's voice in the federal cabinet, reaffirmed the settlement in Halifax after skeptics questioned the lack of documents backing the new agreement.

"The deal is here," Mr. MacKay said in October.

"The deal is between the prime minister and the premier, the province and the federal government, the details of which ... are contained in the exchange of letters between the federal finance minister and the provincial finance minister."

The Grit caucus in Nova Scotia has submitted two requests to Ottawa asking for those letters between federal and provincial politicians, the Liberals' release said.



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Secrecy: Crime reports should be more open

February 13, 2008


Secrecy: Crime reports should be more open

Public safety is a basic function of government and one of the most important issues when it comes to citizen involvement.

Yet, information about crimes and the activities of law enforcement is often hidden from the public.

Mississippi's open records laws provide broad exemptions for law enforcement, which can easily be used to withhold vital information from the public.

While many elected county sheriffs and professional police chiefs in the state are open with the media and the public, that openness too often depends solely on the good will and intentions of an individual rather than the law.

Open government should apply to everyone all the time and not be subject to the whims of politics or relationships.

Mississippi especially has issues with the fact that law enforcement agencies routinely do not provide access to crime incident reports.

In one high-profile case in north Mississippi, parents sought information about their son's murder. Even though the assailant committed suicide and the case was closed, agencies denied access because investigative reports are closed under the state Open Records Act. The couple was forced to go to court and seek political remedies. They still do not have all the facts.

Most matters are more routine involving daily crime reports.

Citizens can be and are often denied access to information about where crimes are occurring. If several rapes or robberies are occurring in a specific area, residents may not know if the information is not "released" by officials. This is a basic public safety issue.

Even basic crime statistics can be denied.

There are proposals in the Legislature to open incident reports. Proposals would protect sensitive investigative information, such as witnesses and undercover officers or information that may impede a case, but basic crime information would be disclosed. That is a logical and workable plan.

Citizens seeking to be proactive in the fight against crime need information.

Making law enforcement records more open would better serve all involved - law enforcement personnel and the citizens they are sworn to protect.


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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Development (SWSDA) authority to prepare report

by Eric Bourque

The Vanguard

Article online since February 11st 2008, 13:39

By Eric Bourque

The public consultation sessions having been held, it was time to sort through the material and work on a summary of what was discussed, which is what Dave Warner of the South West Shore Development Authority was in the midst of doing when contacted last week.

The development authority's annual three-part series of consultation meetings was held last month over two weekends in three counties.

The first of the sessions was held at the Barrington Lions Club.

Sessions followed in Yarmouth, at the Burridge Campus of the Nova Scotia Community College, and in Little Brook at the Clare Social Club.
The Clare and Shelburne County sessions drew about 40 participants each, basically on par with a year ago, while the Yarmouth turnout was down, this time consisting of around 60 people.
Referring to the Yarmouth session, Warner said it was still a good gathering, even if the participants were not as numerous as last year.
He notes that the session each year tends to draw a mix of people who are keen on having a good discussion.
The consultation sessions are part of an annual process the development authority goes through to hear what people have to say with regard to priorities for the region – issues to be addressed or projects to be pursued.
Warner said the authority also was hoping to hear from municipal units.
One of 13 regional development authorities in Nova Scotia, the South West Shore Development Authority used to confine its consultation process to Yarmouth and Shelburne counties, but the geographical scope was broadened with the addition of the Municipality of Clare, which joined SWSDA in 2005.
Previously, Clare had been affiliated with a development authority that covered the western Annapolis Valley region.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Transcontinental shuts Halifax Daily News; launches Metro


The Daily News has been a great local source of pro-FOI articles for the Coalition and will be missed.



RTKNS web admin




Transcontinental shuts Halifax Daily News; launches Metro

Grant Surridge,

Financial Post 

Published: Monday, February 11, 2008

Montreal-based Transcontinental Media said on Monday that effectively immediately it will no longer publish the Daily News of Halifax.

The publisher plans to launch a free daily newspaper called Metro, in partnership with Metro International S.A. and Torstar Corp., with the first issue hitting the streets next Thursday.

Transcontinental acquired the Daily News tabloid in 2002. It is the second-largest newspaper in Halifax, with a circulation of about 20,000.

"We worked hard to deliver an economically viable newspaper in the Halifax market with The Daily News," said Marc-Noel Ouellette, senior vice president of the newspaper group at Transcontinental Media.

In Canada, Metro papers are published in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, where Transcontinental is also its publisher and printer. Aimed at commuters, the tabloid-format publications typically employ a mix of wire copy and original writing.

The 92 employees with The Daily News will be offered severance and outplacement services, Transcontinental said, and "a few will find employment opportunities within the Transcontinental network in Nova Scotia."


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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Unnecessary secrecy breeds distrust (uk)

Unnecessary secrecy breeds distrust

The rising costs of the Newhaven incinerator were leaked to The Argus by MP Norman Baker

As an Albion fan and natural conservative, it pains me to say this but hooray for Lewes MP Norman Baker. He was right to reveal the rising cost of the incinerator that is planned for Newhaven (The Argus, February 5). Equally, it was wrong of East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council to hide their deal, done with our money, behind the hazy veil of commercial confidentiality.

Councillor Peter Jones, in particular, should consider his position.

The sort of unnecessary secrecy he seems to advocate breeds distrust and provides the fertile soil in which corruption can flourish. We would be better off with politicians who have the courage to take even their unpopular decisions with confidence in the spotlight. Open and transparent working are more likely to inspire trust.

Despite sunshine laws, Mississippi government often surrounded by secrecy

Published: February 05, 2008 03:42 pm   


Despite sunshine laws, Mississippi government often surrounded by secrecy

Associated Press

Jackson — A Hattiesburg man fights for access to information about how his son was killed during a law enforcement chase.


A Leakesville newspaper editor tries to report on disputes between county supervisors and trustees of a publicly owned hospital, only to find that decisions that should've been made in public meetings were, instead, hashed out in private.


Voters across the state who want to know the sources of campaign money look in vain for records that will give them full information about who is contributing to the political action committees that are, in turn, giving money to Mississippi candidates.


Open access to public meetings and public records is essential to government accountability, yet Mississippi's laws are full of exemptions that perpetuate a culture of secrecy.


Legislation is being filed this year to try to tighten some of the exemptions and to give people a better chance to see the workings of their local and state governments — the governments that taxpayers support with their hard-earned dollars.


"My inclination is always toward openness. I feel we have gotten better performance when there is total transparency in terms of how governmental entities function," said former Gov. William Winter, who was instrumental in pushing for the state's Open Meetings and Public Records laws a generation ago.


A national study gives Mississippi a failing grade for its government sunshine laws. In that, Mississippi is not alone: 38 states got an "F" in the 2007 study by the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition. The research is posted at


"This national study shows that in the vast majority of states, citizens have little to no recourse when faced with unlawful denial of access under their state's FOI laws," said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the coalition based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.


In Mississippi, law enforcement officials and economic developers say there's a legitimate need to keep some information a secret. Criminal investigations often depend on confidentiality, and corporations don't want to give away their trade secrets as they try to find locations for their new factories.


"Often times, there are graphic explanations about what happened at the incident that I don't think the public benefits from knowing," said Forrest County Sheriff Billy Magee. "Whether it's someone during a rape wrote something obscene on the victim's nude belly, or something else, there are often facts contained in the incident report that would be one of those things that could compromise the investigation."


But some law enforcement officials are reluctant to release details about an incident even to relatives of those involved.


Hattiesburg insurance agent Eddie Stephenson has tried to find out details about the Feb. 4, 2005, death of his son, Matthew, who wrecked his vehicle while being chased by Lamar County deputies. The father has been blocked because the state's Open Records law does not specifically require the public release of investigative records.


After the wreck, Stephenson requested radio and dispatch logs and accident and investigative reports. Lamar County officials refused.


"I feel like my civil rights have been violated because they won't give me this information," Stephenson said.


He spent more than two years fighting for the logs and reports, including filing a lawsuit, which was settled last year. Part of the agreement was that details of the settlement would not be disclosed.


Mississippi laws already say that most meetings of taxpayer-supported groups such as city councils or boards of supervisors are supposed to be open to the public if a quorum of the board is present. But some boards find ways to circumvent those rules by having a series of back-to-back meetings without a quorum — on a five-member board, the members will meet two at a time.


State Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said he has also noticed a trend among local government boards in his part of the state: "I've seen a lot more executive sessions than I did 16 years ago."


Russell Turner is editor of the Greene County Herald, a weekly newspaper based in Leakesville in southeastern Mississippi. For the past several years, he has covered disputes between the county supervisors and the trustees of the publicly owned Greene County Hospital. He said nobody has tried to stop him from attending the public meetings, but there are other problems.


"We struggle from not what's done in the board meetings but what is done in the shadows," Turner said.


He said he has noticed that officials sometimes can publicly argue for weeks — then they suddenly resolve their differences out of public view.


"Clearly, some back room dealings are going on," said Turner, who believes such problems are not limited to Greene County.


He said Mississippi's sunshine laws have "no teeth." In 2003, the state set a $100 fine for public bodies that intentionally violate the Open Meetings law. Turner says that's a pittance for public officials who want to circumvent the law.


"Who's going to catch them?" Turner said. "If you do catch them, who's going to care about a $100 fine?"


Campaign finance records have been a constant source of complaints by government watchdogs who say Mississippi requires too little disclosure.


A national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Center for Governmental Studies, the UCLA School of Law and the California Voter Foundation also gives Mississippi a failing grade for campaign finance laws because the state does not require candidates to file forms that are in a searchable, electronic form.


State Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, chairman of the House Elections Committee, has said for years that rules governing donations by political action committees are too lax. But efforts to tighten those rules have failed.


Filing a lawsuit to force access to meetings or records can be expensive, so those battles frequently are fought by news organizations on behalf of the general public.


In 2005, then-Hattiesburg Fire Chief Jim Fiero stopped providing details on fire calls because he said it violated privacy laws. Basic details, such as the address of a house fire, were no longer provided.


The Hattiesburg American objected and sought an opinion from the state attorney general, who ruled that the fire chief was wrong. However, it was two months after the ruling before the newspaper's attorney learned the ruling had gone in the newspaper's favor.


Leonard Van Slyke of Jackson, an attorney who represents the media in Freedom of Information lawsuits, said even people without deep pockets can fight for access to meetings or records. He said they need to be persistent.


"These kinds of sunshine matters, unfortunately, generally are not high priority with an individual citizen until he or she is personally impacted," Van Slyke said. "But when that day arrives, that person is generally appalled with the lack of recourse."


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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"What I'm thinking about more and more these days is simply the importance of transparency, and Jefferson's saying that he'd rather have a free press without a government than a government without a free press." - Esther Dyson

What I'm thinking about more and more these days is simply the importance of transparency, and Jefferson's saying that he'd rather have a free press without a government than a government without a free press.

Esther Dyson



Monday, February 04, 2008

Gomery calls Tories turncoats on gov't transparency

Gomery calls Tories turncoats on gov't transparency

Last Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2008 | 10:59 PM ET

The Canadian Press

The man who investigated the sponsorship scandal says Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to have abandoned any commitment he once had to transparent government in favour of a top-down style that centralizes power in his own hands.

John Gomery, in a wide-ranging interview marking the second anniversary of his final report, expressed dismay that the federal Conservatives have ignored his key recommendations for reform.

"I have to tell you, I'm very disappointed," Gomery said from the farm in Havelock, Que., where he now lives in retirement.

"I worked so hard, and I got other people to work hard, and we gave very serious thought to what we were recommending. I thought it deserved a debate."

Instead, said the former judge, most of the political and bureaucratic changes he proposed fell into a "black hole" of indifference or were rejected out of hand.

His verdict on the Harper government is harsh: "They were glad to see the end of the commission (of inquiry), and they'd like me to disappear … I'm a pain, I'm a bit of a menace."


Ironically, it was Gomery's scathing indictment of the previous Liberal government that was widely credited with paving the road to Tory power in the 2006 election.

In his first report in November 2005, Gomery concluded that millions of taxpayer dollars had been skimmed by Liberal-friendly ad agencies, and some of the cash had flowed back to the party in under-the-table kickbacks.


Gomery followed up with a second report — released two years ago this Friday — in which he offered a recipe for changing the way business is done in Ottawa.

The overall goal was to reverse a growing trend — decades in the making — toward centralization of power in the hands of the prime minister and his inner circle, a situation that critics saw as an invitation to the abuse of power.

It was a goal that Harper appeared to share when he was in opposition, said Gomery. But since he took power, "there's more concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office than we've ever had before, which is quite remarkable in a minority government, but he's pulled it off."

Failure to revamp Access to Information Act

Gomery also points to the Tory failure to revamp the Access to Information Act to make it easier for journalists and other citizens to pry documentation from the bureaucracy.

"The government was saying at the time [of the report] that transparency was very important and that they wanted to improve transparency. In practice it's been an exact reverse."


The Conservatives did expand the access law to cover many federal institutions that had previously been exempt. But that didn't improve the actual mechanics of the process, in Gomery's view.


Gomery also slammed the PM for abandoning the effort to install a new appointments commissioner to ensure that merit — not patronage — would be the main criterion in naming people to the boards of Crown corporations and other key posts.


In delivering his recommendations on Feb. 1, 2006, Gomery asked the government to table a detailed response in Parliament within 24 months. With time due to run out Friday, he's still waiting.

"I thought that at least they would have the courtesy to say, well, we're not going to respond … It's just as though my report doesn't exist."


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At What Cost? - Hartford Business Editorial

At What Cost?



In 1975, on the heels of the Watergate scandal, Connecticut adopted one of the most sweeping state Freedom of Information laws in the nation. It was a time for lawmakers and Connecticut residents to be proud, opening the doors of government meetings and town hall file cabinets to the public.

The law didn't come about overnight. For nearly 20 years, right-to-know advocates worked hard to get lawmakers to adopt such a sweeping bill — to no avail. But the turbulent 1970s set the stage for its passage. It was a time in our nation's history, following years of opposition to the Vietnam War, when the public increasingly perceived the federal government as an entity that could not to be trusted. The Watergate scandal clearly exacerbated that perception.

Connecticut lawmakers understood that they needed to do something quickly to reinstate the general public's lack of faith in government. Standing up to the federal government's pattern of secrecy, Gov. Ella Grasso and a group of open government advocates pushed forward the state's Freedom of Information law, providing broad public access to government meetings and documents, with few exemptions.

Although the exemptions have increased significantly over the past 33 years, the FOI law continues to be an important tool that provides Connecticut residents with an opportunity to file a complaint and be heard when access is denied. And notably, it is a watchdog mechanism that provides oversight of local and state governments to safeguard against abuses.

Considering Connecticut's historic opposition to government secrecy, it is shameful that state officials have agreed to secretly incarcerate federal detainees and defend this secret practice.

While it is public knowledge that federal officials keep detainees in covert prisons around the world — the most infamous being Guantanamo Bay — it comes as a surprise, even to some state officials, that federal detainees are also held, secretly, right here in Connecticut.

Based on a 1995 contract between state and federal authorities, federal detainees can be housed in the state's jails and prisons. They are held among the general prison population in exchange for a per-inmate fee. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, new federal regulations clamped down on the disclosure of information about those prisoners.

This contract came to light, thanks to a complaint filed by a former University of Connecticut researcher who had lived in Hartford for 10 years. He had been hauled away and detained for two months before being deported to his native country. Never formally charged, he now wants to know on what grounds he had been detained. His attorneys from Yale University's Allard K. Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic National Litigation Project did uncover that he was held on the vague grounds of civil immigration violations.

Such an action is reminiscent of other, shameful practices the federal government adopted during times of war and in the name of national security.

As a nation, we should be ashamed. As a state, we should be mortified for having condoned such a practice.

While the state Freedom of Information Commission is standing up to the federal government's practice of secrecy, state officials, lawmakers and taxpayers must join in and renounce this practice, demanding that the state terminate its 1995 contract with the feds.

With the growing mistrust of the federal government and its reasons for entering the Iraq war, the time is right once again for Connecticut to take a stand against government secrecy. The contract that permits federal detainees to be held secretly in Connecticut prisons goes against everything Gov. Grasso and the lawmakers who adopted the state's sweeping Freedom of Information laws wanted to achieve. We need to ask ourselves: What cost is Connecticut paying to permit such a contract to continue?


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