Freedom of information, access issues in all 50 states

AP News
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Posted: Mar 13, 2015 5:02 PM

Freedom of information issues in all 50 states:

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ALABAMA

Lawmakers are trying to shield the identities of companies and individuals who provide the state with the drugs used for lethal-injection executions. In mid-March, the state House of Representatives approved a bill that included the secrecy provision for drug suppliers. The proposal now goes to the state Senate.

Even without the legislation, the Alabama Department of Corrections has refused to release information about the suppliers of drugs. The prison system, in refusing a records request from The Associated Press, cited a confidentiality order in a lawsuit filed by an inmate challenging the lethal injection method. A lawyer for the inmate has disputed that the order prohibits the release of the information.

The corrections department also declined to provide information about the execution protocol, including the training of people who administer the intravenous lines and perform consciousness checks.

A department official, in a response to a records request from the AP, said the prison system considers the information confidential.

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ALASKA

Republican state Rep. Tammie Wilson has proposed legislation that would remove certain criminal cases from the state's online court-records system. Applicable cases would be ones that resulted in a person being acquitted of all charges or having those charges dismissed, or in which someone was acquitted on some charges and had the remaining charges dropped.

Wilson said the court-records site can be difficult to navigate, creating confusion over the final disposition of cases. That has had an effect on some people looking for jobs or apartments.

The hard copies of the cases would remain available.

The Legislature last year passed more sweeping legislation that would have made all such records confidential, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Sean Parnell as overly broad. Wilson's bill has not yet had a hearing.

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ARIZONA

The public's access to the workings of government is under attack on several fronts in Arizona, including in the courts and Legislature.

The lack of transparency was notably on display in recent months during the Jodi Arias murder trial, the state's highest-profile criminal trial in years. Large segments of the case unfolded in private, including the highly unusual move by the judge to kick the public out of the courtroom so the convicted murderer could testify in private.

At the Legislature, new rules were enacted in the Arizona House to give Republicans more latitude in closing their caucuses to the public. With police shootings in the news around the country, lawmakers also are considering a proposal to let police agencies withhold for 90 days the identities of officers who are involved in incidents that resulted in serious injuries or death.

Another bill would keep private the names of lottery winners for 90 days.

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ARKANSAS

Lawmakers in recent years have been citing privacy and safety concerns in proposing bills to restrict access under the state's freedom of information law, which was considered one of the toughest in the nation when it was adopted in 1967.

They proposed more than 20 changes this session. The governor already has signed one of those into a law, a bill that shields some municipal utility records. Other changes they are considering would prohibit the public release of certain information about schools and former public employees.

Other bills that would have curtailed "unduly burdensome" information requests or reduced transparency at government meetings were withdrawn.

Lawmakers made two amendments during their previous legislative session in 2013, both of which became law. Those changes shielded portions of accident reports and information about concealed-carry licenses.

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CALIFORNIA

The law that outlines public access to records within the California Legislature remains riddled with loopholes, decades after it was written to provide more visibility into how business is conducted at the statehouse.

Lawmakers' daily calendars, showing who they meet with and where they go, are not available for public review unless the office holders release them voluntarily. Correspondence, such as when a lobbyist writes a legislator, also remains out of public reach.

Most state agencies are subject to the California Public Records Act. But the Legislature is exempt from those requirements. It operates under its own, narrower set of rules — the so-called Legislative Open Records Act.

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COLORADO

Noting wildly varying fees to access public records in Colorado, a law enacted last year caps research and retrieval fees at $30 an hour.

Some agencies, including the state Department of Law, were charging more than twice that, saying attorneys would have to review the documents before their release.

Before last July, Colorado law said research fees should be "reasonable and nominal," but the standard was broadly interpreted.

"We need to give uniformity and predictability to citizens," said Peg Perl, lawyer for Colorado Ethics Watch, which backed the bill.

Some agencies still charge the public for staff time even to determine what an open-records bill would be, though. For example, the Law Department recently quoted AP $350 just to determine how much it would cost to see communications with federal authorities on marijuana. The agency insists those fees are necessary.

"It's appropriate to have a conversation with the requestor and make sure they're prepared to pay the bill" for a hefty request, said Law Department spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler.

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CONNECTICUT

Copying public documents in Connecticut courts can be an expensive proposition at $1 a page, a fee set by state law that is double what cities and towns can charge and quadruple what state agencies collect.

Open records advocates say high fees can discourage access to public documents and that copying records should not considered a government revenue source.

State lawmakers and then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. increased the fee in 1992 from 50 cents to $1 a page when they approved a massive fee increase bill during a budget crisis.

The $300,000 a year the Judicial Branch collects from the fee goes to the state's general fund. Judiciary officials note that fees can be waived for people declared indigent, and many documents can be viewed for free at courthouses or online.

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DELAWARE

Some state agencies in Delaware fail to comply with requirements for identifying their Freedom of Information Act coordinators and tracking FOIA requests.

An Associated Press review of state agency FOIA logs shows significant differences in the amount of detail they include, and several agencies didn't meet a statutory deadline of 15 business days to respond to or at least acknowledge requests for the logs. A 2012 law also requires each agency to identify a FOIA coordinator on its website, but some still do not.

Meanwhile, the attorney general's office is preparing for new mandates under legislation passed last year that will require it to publish a manual for agency coordinators every two years and to hold annual training seminars.

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DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

The District of Columbia receives nearly 1.3 million 911 calls a year, and city officials insist that audio from those calls is public information. Yet the public rarely gets a chance to hear them.

Officials with the District's Office of Unified Communications and reporters who cover public safety in the city say requests for audio of 911 calls are routinely denied. The city says calls are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act when they concern a matter under investigation or they contain personal information about a caller or a patient.

The last time the city released audio of a 911 call was more than a year ago.

In Maryland, officials routinely release 911 calls within days of high-profile incidents, redacting personal information if necessary.

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FLORIDA

Florida's court clerks are leading the nation in making electronic state court records available to the public online. But in the process, they're creating two-tiers of public viewers with varying privileges based on how much information users are willing to provide about themselves.

Any member of the public will be able to look up most criminal and civil cases over the Internet anonymously in most Florida counties, once the clerks' online records go live later this year. But to access probate and family court records online, people will need to submit a notarized application and get approval from the clerks' offices.

In a few counties, applicants will pay a subscription fee, but in most counties all they need to provide is information about themselves, according to plans being implemented by 59 of Florida's 67 clerks.

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GEORGIA

Lawyers are challenging a secrecy law banning Georgia's government from releasing key details about where it gets the drug used in lethal injections.

Kelly Gissendaner was scheduled to die by lethal injection March 2. She was convicted of conspiring with a lover in 1997 to kill her husband.

However, corrections officials decided at the last minute to delay her execution because the lethal injection drug appeared "cloudy," raising questions about whether it would work properly.

Lawyers for Gissendaner want to know where the drug came from so they can assess whether its use might cause unconstitutional pain and suffering. Facing a drug shortage, state lawmakers passed a law that prohibited the government starting in 2013 from releasing any information about where it gets its death penalty drugs.

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HAWAII

Debates over which meetings of state lawmakers and various public bodies should be open to the public have been playing out in the Hawaii Legislature this session. So far, those who want to shine a light on public boards are winning.

A bill being considered in the state Senate would shed light on the executive sessions during which board members meet in private. It would require boards of public agencies to report any discussions or final actions taken during those meetings.

Lawmakers have killed or watered down two proposals that would have made it easier for board members to conceal what they do.

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IDAHO

For decades, Idaho has relied on private contractors to carry out government functions ranging from running prisons to providing Internet access to public schools.

Idaho's Public Records Law clearly states that no matter who holds the documents, public records are always public. But the reality is murkier.

The Associated Press sent public records requests to five major companies with current or former state contracts, each worth millions of dollars. All of the requests were denied outright or deflected to the state agencies holding the contracts — even though those agencies don't necessarily have access to the pertinent records.

Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke said lawmakers are looking for ways to improve contract oversight, but the state relies at least partly on journalists to expose problems with government vendors.

Not all state contracts, meanwhile, include provisions requiring the contractor to turn over public records.

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ILLINOIS

During the past five years, the Illinois Attorney General's office has been swamped with 15,000 requests under a landmark reform that added an independent review process to Illinois's otherwise restrictive Freedom of Information Act. According to information obtained by The Associated Press, the attorney general's staff has yet to answer thousands of those appeals.

Data obtained from the attorney general show there are 500 outstanding requests from 2011 and 2012 alone, including more than 400 from private citizens. It raises questions about the effectiveness of FOIA for citizens who have to wait years for an answer, and why state officials have not provided the necessary resources to make the added review work.

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INDIANA

A bill that aims to simplify school management by cutting obsolete or duplicate rules in education also could change how public records are handled by all types of Indiana agencies.

The measure would allow government entities to charge a searching fee for records requests that take longer than two hours to fulfill. Current law says agencies can only charge for copying a record, which is a minimum of 10 cents per page.

The increase in cost comes as states such as Michigan and Maryland are aiming to make record requests less expensive.

Supporters say educators are bogged down with regulations that divert staff and money from the classroom. Critics say the measure could discourage in-depth requests and give officials another tool to fight transparency.

The bill is currently under consideration in the House.

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IOWA

Did the Iowa State Patrol discipline two supervisors who committed off-duty misconduct? What is a powerful utility lobbyist saying in private about the director of the Iowa Energy Center to his boss at Iowa State University? Did an instructor at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy really resign to spend more time with his puppies, as he claims?

The public will never know. All of those sensitive and potentially embarrassing inquiries were shut down in recent months by government agencies that cited the same legal rationale for keeping the public in the dark: Iowa code 22.7(11). Departments routinely cite that exemption for "personal information in confidential personnel records" to reject requests that involve an agency's management, discipline, handling of complaints and other subjects about taxpayer-funded employees.

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KANSAS

State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and state Rep. Jim Ward, both Democrats, are pushing bills that would extend the state's Open Records Act to specifically cover government officials' emails on private accounts if they are about state business. Neither bill has yet to receive a hearing.

The measures are a response to disclosures that Shawn Sullivan, budget director for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, used a private email account at least twice in December to circulate a summary of budget proposals being considered by the administration to others, weeks before they were unveiled to lawmakers.

Those receiving the emails included two well-connected lobbyists.

Sullivan has said he used his private account because he was working from home. Brownback's administration does not have a formal policy on use of private email accounts for state business.

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KENTUCKY

Hillary Rodham Clinton's use of personal email during her time as U.S. secretary of state is drawing attention to officials who conduct public business on private email accounts and whether the public should have access to those communications.

The city of Louisville recently had its own controversy over the use of private email accounts by officials. It came to light when a former city employee said sewer district officials were skirting open records laws by using private email and text messaging. Mayor Greg Fischer later declared that all people serving on a board or commission should be given an email address for communicating about city business.

First Amendment lawyer John Fleischaker says as public business is increasingly conducted over email and mobile devices, the threat to transparency and public access grows.

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LOUISIANA

A public records exemption pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal is keeping more budget documents hidden from public view, even as the state grapples with a $1.6 billion deficit.

Executive branch agencies are claiming the exemption to hide their working papers of where and how they would have to cut services and programs to cope with looming cuts.

Jindal supported legislation in 2009 that rewrote the public records exemption for the governor's office. The rewrite included a provision that shielded for six months any budget documents that provide "pre-decisional advice and recommendations to the governor" from any department headed by a gubernatorial appointee. The move extended a new exemption across most state agencies.

A dozen of Jindal's cabinet agencies claimed that exemption in response to public records requests from AP seeking more details about the types of cuts that have been considered to balance next year's budget, refusing to provide any information about their ongoing negotiations.

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MAINE

There already are roughly 500 exceptions to Maine's public records law on the books, but that number could grow if efforts in the Legislature are successful this year.

When the Freedom of Access Act was adopted in 1959, all records were considered open as long as they are used for governmental business. Since then, lawmakers have made hundreds of changes to weaken the law.

This session, lawmakers will consider several proposals that further restrict access. Records that describe materials transported by trains and personal information about library patrons are among those that would be off-limits if the legislation becomes law.

The Department of Public Safety also told reporters two months ago that it wants to withhold certain information from 911 calls about victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

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MARYLAND

Lawmakers are considering legislation that would update the Maryland Public Information Act in a way that increases transparency.

The changes would cap fees, close loopholes and create a compliance board to handle disputes between the public and government agencies. The State Public Information Act Compliance Board would have five members, appointed by the governor, to help resolve fee issues. An ombudsman-type position also would be created to help guide information requests from the press or public and offer advice to government agencies filling those requests.

The bill was generally well-received during recent testimony before a Senate committee. It drew some criticism from opponents, who say local governments are struggling to fill requests based on their budgets and staffing.

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MASSACHUSETTS

Massachusetts judges are sealing court documents with increasing regularity, forcing news organizations and First Amendment groups to wage costly legal battles.

Some high-profile examples include successful fights to make search warrants and other related records public in Aaron Hernandez's ongoing murder trial, as well as the February shooting of two Coast Guard officers and a local police officer on Cape Cod.

Advocates say lesser-known cases also have become problematic.

But not every incident of sealed court records raises red flags: Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's trial is one in which confidentiality is likely warranted, say advocates. And not all judges are erring on the side of secrecy. In one case, a judge denied a bid by defense lawyers to keep their client's videotaped police confession secret.

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MICHIGAN

Michigan's Freedom of Information Act covers state departments, local governments and schools but does not cover the governor, lieutenant governor, their offices or legislators.

Some lawmakers and open records advocates say there should be no protected class and say it's time to remove the exceptions.

A bill introduced recently in the state House would include those current exceptions under FOIA, although its prospects are dim.

Michigan is just one of two states in which those offices are exempt.

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MINNESOTA

The paper-trail hunt to shed light on Minnesota government decisions is increasingly missing a key element: the paper.

As more deliberations occur via email, text messaging and other paperless platforms, there is less left for the historical record. That is in part because state data retention laws have not kept up with technology or the changing habits of those in power.

Minnesota's main records-retention law hasn't had a major update in more than three decades and was last revised in 2007.

It leaves a lot of room for interpretation about which electronic records should be preserved and for how long. There is no central repository for e-materials beyond those selectively turned over to the Historical Society for posterity. And there is little recourse when electronic records get purged.

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MISSISSIPPI

Those who request public records are required to pay all the costs of producing them, including staff time to find documents and redact information. The resulting charges have become a significant barrier to access.

A law Gov. Phil Bryant signed last year was supposed to ease that problem by requiring state departments to charge for staff time using the lowest-paid contractor who is able to respond to the request.

But big fees can still be an issue. In September, for example, the Department of Education demanded $2,103 when AP requested documents relating to departmental reorganization efforts. The charge included hourly rates ranging from $33 an hour to $143.

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