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FY-Eye: FOIA Back in Favor

By Ed O'Keefe

Good government groups, media outlets and other executive branch observers cheered when President Obama issued an executive order last week instructing all agencies and departments to "adopt a presumption in favor" of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The FOIA request process can be maddening and the amount of time between a request and the actual delivery of information often renders the information useless, as New Orleans Times-Picayune staff writer Mark Schleifstein recently wrote. The Times-Picayune environmental reporter filed a FOIA request in Oct. 2005 for information about FEMA's "Rapid Needs Assessment Teams" and how they responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He requested expedited delivery of the requested records, as is allowed by law.

As Schleifstein wrote:

Forty months later, in a letter whose envelope was dated Jan. 12, 2009 -- there's no date on the letter itself -- Alisa T. Henderson, chief of FEMA's "Disclosure Office," wrote, "We sincerely apologize for this delay and any inconvenience it may have caused."
Henderson actually was following up on a Nov. 19 call from one of her employees who had asked whether I still wanted the information and stating the obvious, that Katrina and Rita hit more than three years ago. Follow the federal logic here: If we break the law for long enough, you should allow us to break it forever.
That call and Henderson's letter are only the latest in what's become an annual apology ritual for the office allegedly handling public information requests. I received my first response on Oct. 7, 2005, from Jeff Ovall, a FEMA attorney, who explained that my request for expedited processing had been granted (!) but that FEMA was a bit short-handed at the time, given the hurricanes.

Schleifstein says he wrote the piece before Obama issued his executive order, a move he welcomes. FEMA has reached out in an unofficial capacity since the piece ran last weekend, and he expects a "positive response" in the next week or so.

"I think they need to put some more resources into answering FOIA requests," he said. "I think it's clear from my conversations over the years with FEMA that they may have only one or two staffers assigned to do that, especially after Katrina. There was no effort made to respond to them. No serious effort."

While he's suffered through FOIA issues with FEMA, Schleifstein credits the Army Corps of Engineers for going "out of their way to give us what we want."

As for what the Obama administration can do to remedy the problem, Schleifstein suggests it consider how Louisiana handles such requests.

"Our state law is extremely open. It really does assume that the obligation is on the agency to find a way of giving the information to the public, rather than on the person asking to prove that he needs it."

Make sure to train your Eyes on Schleifstein's entire piece.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | January 29, 2009; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, FY-Eye  
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In 2005, India enacted a similar legislation named, Right to Information Act (aka, RTI Act.) There are some excellent features in the act like,
1. All Govt. offices shall appoint a Public Information Officer (PIO) who shall receive and acknowledge the request for information. The office has to prominently display his name and designation at the premises.
2. No reason has to be provided for the request.
3. The PIO has to provide the information requested within 30 days of receipt of the request.
4. If the information is not deemed satisfactory by the requesting person then he can appeal to the appellate authority of the Organization.
5. If the information is denied or the response is unsatisfactory then the requesting person can appeal to the State and finally to Central Information Commission, which is the final authority.
The good thing about the legislation is that information has to be supplied in a time-bound manner or else the individual officer can be fined heavily. He or she has to pay from their own paycheck!

Posted by: sr_1945 | January 29, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

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