FOI Summit 2018 Meets in Cincinnati.

FOI Summit 2018 Meets in Cincinnati

The National Freedom of Information Coalition gathered about 50 open government enthusiasts, including activists, journalists, educators and members of coalitions like WCOG, to its annual conference in Cincinnati Sept. 22.

Sessions covered such issues as trends in fees for record retrieval and copying, particular challenges of law enforcement and criminal justice records, alternative methods of appeals and technology to promote open data.

Inducted into the Open Government Hall of Fame was Terry Mutchler, the founding executive director of Pennsylvania’s new Office of Open Records. She is a former AP journalist turned attorney, who was also Illinois’ first Public Access Counselor, enforcing that state’s sunshine laws, and a senior advisor to the attorney general. She is also a board director for the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition.

NFOIC’s “Heroes of the 50 States” Open Government Hall of Fame recognizes long-term contributions of individuals to open government in their respective states. WCOG board members Toby Nixon and Brian Sonntag have both been recognized with this honor.

Conference panelists included a number of journalists and several elected officials, as well as attorneys and citizen activists like those involved in WCOG.

David Cuillier speaks at FOI Summit 2018.

Washington and WCOG got a shout-out for fighting to maintain access, notably from former WCOG board member David Cuillier, who led a round-up session on fees. Cuillier noted that many other countries have better policies for inexpensive (even free!) access to governmental records than most U.S. states and the federal government.

Many states have more problematic rules for fees than Washington; for example, Colorado agencies can charge for $30 an hour for retrieval of records, after the first hour. Although challenged, it has so far been supported by the courts. On the other hand, 34 states have no set fee, and about one-third don’t have search fees.

Some individual agencies – often cities – are more accommodating than the state law requires, noted Jeff Clark, an appointed public Records Master for the Ohio Council of Courts. He oversees appeals when requesters are dissatisfied with an agency’s response, and participated in a panel on “the Public Records Appeals Process: Best Practices and Professional Standards.”

Presenters noted that several jurisdictions – recently, the cities of Atlanta and Seattle – are requiring broad training for employees on public access laws.

A session on “Open Data and Proactive Disclosure – Low Overhead/High ROI” showed how Ohio in particular has some agencies that try to use technology effectively to process requests. However, government agencies lag corporations in the use of technology, notably cloud storage services and other document management tools, for managing records, panelists agreed.

However, several journalists pointed to good data sets available online, particularly data.gov. The federal site provides a broad range of data drawn from numerous agencies, provided in formats for download and analysis.

More information about the FOI Summit, including some of the presentation slides, is available on the NFOIC site.