State Legislatures Shutting Down Transparency

Crossposting my guest blog for the Sunlight Foundation on anti-transparency legislation passed in Utah.  Read more about similar secrecy grabs taking place in Maine and Tennessee at the Sunlight Blog.

Utah Legislators' Secrecy Grab: Transparency Under Attack

With a 21-7 vote, the Utah State Senate last week approved an overhaul of the state's Government Records and Access Management Act (GRAMA). HB477 would shield lawmakers' voicemail, text messages, instant messages possibly even email from public record. Only one Republican voted against the bill. Senate sponsor Sen. Lyle Hillyard explained in an email exchange with a constituent his reason for co-sponsoring the bill:

Some people who know me don't know there is a difference and some think that when I am out of the office that my senate e-mail is the only way to contact me. Our staff is tired of the threats from the media and we plan on working with them if they want after the bill is passed if there are changes to be made but let's do it without threats of going to court.

First introduced in a surprise hearing by House sponsor Rep. John Dougall, the bill would also allow agencies to charge "professional rate" fees for requests, and guide courts to seek a "preponderance of evidence" justifying a releasing documents. The current GRAMA law instructs courts to focus on the public benefit of release. The bill passed the house 61-12 on Thursday, and the Senate less than 24 hours later so as to avoid, in the words of Senate President Michael Waddoups, letting it "fester" over the weekend. Sen. Hillyard declared proudly, "I'm doing this for future legislatures!". The House released this statement after final passage:

A core concern with GRAMA is the distinction between a conversation and a record. When GRAMA was created it wasn’t fathomed that day-to-day conversations would be considered as records. But what you and we now consider a digital conversation is now considered public record: text messages, voice mails, instant message logs. If that’s the case, why not just mic up every elected official and the tens of thousands of public employees across the state? Not only is it an impossible task, it’s also a gross invasion of privacy. And so we come to Rep. John Dougall and House Bill 477. The bill resets GRAMA with today’s technology in mind and clarifies legislative intent where court decisions have swung the pendulum dangerously far in one direction.

The Senate majority issued a statement, as well as the audio of Rep. Dougall's bill introduction. Lawmakers quickly moved on to controversial immigration reform bills, hoping to regain control of the narrative. What they didn't count on was an enraged public.  This bill has drawn criticism from both progressive and conservative state organizations. Even Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka, normally kind to the legislature, said "I hated the process," and called parts of the bill "outrageous." Reaction was broad, bipartisan and decidedly against the changes proposed. By Monday morning, the Governor's office had been flooded with calls and emails demanding a veto of the bill, an online petition had garnered nearly 1,000 signatures in a matter of hours, and two separate rallies had been planned for the final few days of the legislative session. Even after a veto threat from Governor Herbert resulted in a rare recall of HB477 to change the implementation date a rally organized on Facebook by local blogger Bob Aagard drew more than 150 protesters to the Capital Rotunda. But that night, the Governor signed the bill into law, promising a non-binding "work group" will be formed to consider amendments before implementation. The Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists responded:

Perhaps worst of all, HB477 strips from Utah’s public records law language stating clearly that government records are presumed to be public and that the burden is on government to show why records should not be disclosed. This is critical language, language recognized by the statutes or common law of every state in the country. “With one scribble of a pen, the governor made his state the most secretive in the nation, as well as more backward than most countries, including Mexico and Albania,” said SPJ FOI Committee chairman David Cuillier. “This will price citizens out of their government, encourage corruption and online sweetheart deals, and embolden those who would undermine democratic principles.

Legislators have responded to the backlash from transparency advocates, angry voters and journalists by scapegoating local media as unable to report objectively on the issue, accusing the public of not understanding the bill, and anecdotal misleading justification for the changes. Bill sponsors Dougall and Hillyard have said they only seek to protect legislators' private communications. What they don't explain is that the current law already does.

HB477 represents an arrogant legislative body placing their own position and power above the right of citizens to know what business is done in their name. In a state already challenged by one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, legislators have acted selfishly and in bad faith, placing themselves above increasing the confidence of voters in the integrity of their public institutions.

With the Governor's signature, the law is set to take effect July 1st.  A citizen group has filed a referendum petition to repeal the law entirely, and has 40 days to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot this fall.

State Legislatures Shutting Down Transparency

Crossposting my guest blog for the Sunlight Foundation on anti-transparency legislation passed in Utah.  Read more about similar secrecy grabs taking place in Maine and Tennessee at the Sunlight Blog.

Utah Legislators' Secrecy Grab: Transparency Under Attack

With a 21-7 vote, the Utah State Senate last week approved an overhaul of the state's Government Records and Access Management Act (GRAMA). HB477 would shield lawmakers' voicemail, text messages, instant messages possibly even email from public record. Only one Republican voted against the bill. Senate sponsor Sen. Lyle Hillyard explained in an email exchange with a constituent his reason for co-sponsoring the bill:

Some people who know me don't know there is a difference and some think that when I am out of the office that my senate e-mail is the only way to contact me. Our staff is tired of the threats from the media and we plan on working with them if they want after the bill is passed if there are changes to be made but let's do it without threats of going to court.

First introduced in a surprise hearing by House sponsor Rep. John Dougall, the bill would also allow agencies to charge "professional rate" fees for requests, and guide courts to seek a "preponderance of evidence" justifying a releasing documents. The current GRAMA law instructs courts to focus on the public benefit of release. The bill passed the house 61-12 on Thursday, and the Senate less than 24 hours later so as to avoid, in the words of Senate President Michael Waddoups, letting it "fester" over the weekend. Sen. Hillyard declared proudly, "I'm doing this for future legislatures!". The House released this statement after final passage:

A core concern with GRAMA is the distinction between a conversation and a record. When GRAMA was created it wasn’t fathomed that day-to-day conversations would be considered as records. But what you and we now consider a digital conversation is now considered public record: text messages, voice mails, instant message logs. If that’s the case, why not just mic up every elected official and the tens of thousands of public employees across the state? Not only is it an impossible task, it’s also a gross invasion of privacy. And so we come to Rep. John Dougall and House Bill 477. The bill resets GRAMA with today’s technology in mind and clarifies legislative intent where court decisions have swung the pendulum dangerously far in one direction.

The Senate majority issued a statement, as well as the audio of Rep. Dougall's bill introduction. Lawmakers quickly moved on to controversial immigration reform bills, hoping to regain control of the narrative. What they didn't count on was an enraged public.  This bill has drawn criticism from both progressive and conservative state organizations. Even Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka, normally kind to the legislature, said "I hated the process," and called parts of the bill "outrageous." Reaction was broad, bipartisan and decidedly against the changes proposed. By Monday morning, the Governor's office had been flooded with calls and emails demanding a veto of the bill, an online petition had garnered nearly 1,000 signatures in a matter of hours, and two separate rallies had been planned for the final few days of the legislative session. Even after a veto threat from Governor Herbert resulted in a rare recall of HB477 to change the implementation date a rally organized on Facebook by local blogger Bob Aagard drew more than 150 protesters to the Capital Rotunda. But that night, the Governor signed the bill into law, promising a non-binding "work group" will be formed to consider amendments before implementation. The Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists responded:

Perhaps worst of all, HB477 strips from Utah’s public records law language stating clearly that government records are presumed to be public and that the burden is on government to show why records should not be disclosed. This is critical language, language recognized by the statutes or common law of every state in the country. “With one scribble of a pen, the governor made his state the most secretive in the nation, as well as more backward than most countries, including Mexico and Albania,” said SPJ FOI Committee chairman David Cuillier. “This will price citizens out of their government, encourage corruption and online sweetheart deals, and embolden those who would undermine democratic principles.

Legislators have responded to the backlash from transparency advocates, angry voters and journalists by scapegoating local media as unable to report objectively on the issue, accusing the public of not understanding the bill, and anecdotal misleading justification for the changes. Bill sponsors Dougall and Hillyard have said they only seek to protect legislators' private communications. What they don't explain is that the current law already does.

HB477 represents an arrogant legislative body placing their own position and power above the right of citizens to know what business is done in their name. In a state already challenged by one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, legislators have acted selfishly and in bad faith, placing themselves above increasing the confidence of voters in the integrity of their public institutions.

With the Governor's signature, the law is set to take effect July 1st.  A citizen group has filed a referendum petition to repeal the law entirely, and has 40 days to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot this fall.

People Power + Techno Transparency = Saving Our Cities

Clay Johnson has an provocative blog post about the crisis in municipal financing and the opportunity it presents:

There’s a crisis coming. Chicago is running a half-billion dollar deficit. New York City’s FY2011 deficit is nearly five billion dollars. Two months ago, Warren Buffett reduced his exposure to municipal bonds. According to the Pew Center on the States, there’s a trillion dollar gapbetween what states can pay for retirement benefits, and what those retirement benefits cost.

Municipal employee job losses are approaching 500,000 according to the National League of Cities and services are getting cut.

...

In this crisis, presently cities have two options— privitization and Chapter 9. I don’t want to be tried in a court run by a for-profit conglomerate that also owns the police and the prisons. Perhaps its the idealist in me, but I want this crisis mean more than privatization or bankruptcy. I want it to drive a need for people to connect locally, and I want it to further blur the line between people and the government they elect. I want it to usher in a new era of civic responsibility.

This past winter, the District of Columbia had its biggest snowstorm in 88 years. The entire city (and the federal government) was generally shut down for days, and Mayor Fenty waslambasted in the national news for being unprepared with his snow plows. As I was shoveling my sidewalk, I was listening to my able bodied neighbors complain about how the government hadn’t plowed the district 48 hours after the snow fell. The thing is — together, we had the people to plow the streets and the sidewalks ourselves. I count 60 households on my block of row houses. With a bit of organizing, we could build a small sno-litia to clear the street and sidewalks for the entire block. What we lacked was the connection to one another and the ability to organize. It was easier to complain in the warmth of our own homes.

Gov2 startup SeeClickFix makes public issues in a municipality public but it likely increases the cost of government services. By making it easier to submit service requests, more service requests government needs to do and that creates cost. Take a look at issue #47461 that complains the District of Columbia isn’t mowing the small park built with recovery funds. Here’s the park in Google Street View. If you turn the view around you’ll note that there are plenty of mowed lawns. These people are not without lawnmowers. Why not organize and take care of the park? That’s civic responsibility.

My bet is that with a bit of organizing that park could become a neighborhood’s responsibility. This may seem harsh. You pay taxes. That’s the government’s job, not yours. Remember, the assumption of this article is that we’ll soon be living in near bankrupt cities with minimal public services.

As a developer I think technology can play a role in this. I think things like the Neighborhood Watch can be revitalized with new technology. When my alarm system goes off, why does it not send an SMS to my neighbors? Why shouldn’t it turn on the flood lights of everyone in the neighborhood? Next to its “I want this fixed too” button, SeeClickFix should have an “I’ll help fix this, too” button. It could even keep track of how many people helped their neighborhood. Let’s have a ranking of who most helpful neighbors are. And heck, government should reward them with tax incentives.

I came across Johnson's post the same day I found this by Cliff Schecter:

To me -- perhaps because I have lived in big cities most of my life -- finding ways to reform city government, bring transparency, better deliver services and improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas is a passion, because I think there are so many possibilities (especially with today's technology) for making people's lives better by rising up to meet these challenges.

This is why I am thrilled to be working with the City Forward initiative. What is City Forward? It is a tool that pulls public data from urban centers on different issues (user specified) and displays it in customizable graphs.

For example, users can create an 'exploration' for important environmental issues such as water usage in multiple cities, and then have it displayed in charts that will visually present the data in a way that people can understand it. These charts allow anyone to make a case or tell a story about what one city or many cities are doing to improve in an areas such as this one, and what others are neglecting.

In other words, in addition to being groundbreaking in its potential applications, its a pretty cool tool for improving government transparency and letting people access public records in a useful, understandable way.

 

When I'm feeling hopeless it's this kind of innovation that reminds me that humans are resourceful animals and we can do more than drift aimlessly through crisis after crisis, we can adapt and attack our problems.

'No Drama Obama' Needs a Strong Second Act

by Walter Brasch

           The Obama administration is a welcome change from the Bush–Cheney years. Against severe Republican opposition, President Obama has kept campaign promises to reform health care, curb Wall Street excesses, create a federally-funded stimulus program to help bring the nation out of the recession, and to remove American troops from the needless Iraq war, which has already cost Americans more than $740 billion and 4,400 lives. He has also pledged to eliminate the Bush–Cheney tax cuts for the rich, while not raising taxes on the middle- and lower-classes.

           However, much of what the President is doing appears to be little more than an extension of Bush–Cheney values. And that is not what the Americans voted for when they elected him to office.

           Candidate Obama ran, and won office as an anti-war politician. President Obama has increased American presence in Afghanistan. In July, 66 American soldiers were killed, the highest number for any month during the war.

           Candidate Obama pledged to end the PATRIOT Act, which has done little to protect American safety and much to destroy American Constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, due process, and protection against unreasonable governmental invasion of privacy. However President Obama signed legislation to extend the Act for yet another year.

           During the 2008 campaign, both candidates Barack Obama and John McCain promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. However, President Obama, apparently scared by the right wing paranoids, hasn't transferred any prisoners to maximum federal security prisons in the U.S., any one of which should have little difficulty dealing with suspected enemy combatants among the general population of killers and rapists.

           President Obama had failed to clean up the corrupt Minerals Management Service of the Department of Interior, which under the Bush–Cheney administration had become little more than feckless advocates for Big Oil. About a year into the Obama administration, the MMS exempted BP from filing a full environmental impact statement. Against the advice of environmentalists, and his own statements while a candidate, President Obama allowed continued deep water drilling in the Gulf, claiming that safety concerns were met. About a month later, the BP oil rig ruptured, killing 11 workers and leading to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It took five weeks before President Obama finally placed a six month moratorium on deep well drilling, only to have that moratorium overturned by a Louisiana judge with financial ties to the oil industry. The Obama administration appealed that order and issued a broader moratorium. By then, more about 200 million gallons of oil had spilled into the gulf, killing wildlife, the fishing industries, and tourism.

           Although Candidate Obama  promised better transparency in government—and to a certain extent has succeeded—as President he allowed BP and his own government to place severe restrictions upon the media that were trying to give full coverage to the spill. 

           The transparency credibility issue surfaced again this month when the Defense Department rejected the application for Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings to accompany troops in Afghanistan. Hastings had accurately reported the political statements by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that led the President to fire him for the nature of his comments that "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of the democratic system."

           Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama had said he believed in gay marriages. However, President Obama, although extending the rights of gay couples, has yielded to the fears of irrational conservatives and says he opposes same-sex marriages, but believes in civil unions. Unlike President Obama, supporters of same-sex marriage include Bill Clinton, Laura Bush, and Cindy McCain.

           The Republican leadership tried to block extending unemployment benefits during the Recession; it was weeks until President Obama spoke forcefully against the Republicans, which has earned its label as the "Party of 'No.'" Hopefully, President Obama will be quicker to denounce the prattle of Republican leaders who are mounting a campaign to reduce Social Security benefits.

           Solely for political reasons, the Bush–Cheney administration took gray wolves off the endangered species list one week before Barack Obama became president. Slightly more than a year after taking office, President Obama officially continued the Bush–Cheney policy. The action by both administrations allowed the killing large numbers of the 1,600 wolves in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Montana, often by state officials from helicopters and often into the dens that housed pups. No matter what the federal government said about wolves not being endangered, there were two realities. First, the Cattle Industry lobby wanted wolves removed, although federal subsidies reimburse ranchers for any livestock killed by wolves. The second issue is that wolves are competition for hunters, a majority of whom tend to be conservatives or supporters of Republican philosophies. While wolves kill for food or to protect their pack, human hunters may claim they hunt for food, but go to extraordinary lengths and expense to stuff and display their "trophy kills," and often will kill animals, such as bears, prairie dogs, and coyotes that have no food value. Unlike their human competitors, wolves usually don't use guns with telescopic sights, buy all kinds of whistles and electronic calls that mimic the cries of other animals, use elevated shooting stands, send out decoys, or even create elaborate steel-jaw traps. They never take their prey back to a cabin, consume 6-packs, and tell stories with other wolves. A federal court this week ruled that gray wolves in the Rockies were not only an endangered species, but stopped state-supported wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana.

           Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, against severe opposition, pushed through some of the most critical social legislation in the nation's history. Harry Truman stood up for his principles and for the benefit of the people when he lashed out at a "do-nothing Congress." Candidate Obama was elected on a forceful campaign mantra of "Change you can believe in," and not "A slight variation of present policies that you can maybe live with."

           President Obama is known as "No Drama Obama" because of his quiet intellectualism.  He needs to be more forceful, both in fully supporting social legislation he and his base believe in as well as attacking the vicious smears, lies, and distortions from the extreme Right Wing. If President Obama continues to pandering to the conservatives, and continues a slide into compromise that dilutes necessary social justice legislation instead of trusting the millions who voted for that change he promised, especially when he has both the power of the presidency and the votes in Congress, he will be a one-term president, hated by both the right and the left.

 [Assisting on this column was Rosemary Brasch. Walter Brasch's latest books are the witty and probing Sex and the Single Beer Can, a look at American culture and the mass media; and 'Unacceptable': The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, which discusses governmental neglect that magnified both the damage from the hurricane and the BP oil spill. Both books are available at amazon.com, and other stores. You may contact Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu.]

 

 

 

 

Time for 'A Full and Open Debate' about Drones

 

Last week, in a rare public interview, Michael Leiter, the nation's counterterrorism chief, acknowledged that the government's drone and targeted killing strategy, which appears to have become a cornerstone of the Obama administration's "war on terror," demands "a full and open debate."

Leiter was responding to a question from Newsweek's Michael Isikoff about the fact that the Obama administration

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