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FOIA

Rep. Biss online @DanielBiss - Photo from Twitter

The Illinois General Assembly passed and sent to the governor a bill adding a new exemption to the state’s FOIA law. The exemption would prevent the release of personal information of minors who are participants and registrants in park district and city programs.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Daniel Biss, a progressive Democrat and former math professor who hit the ground running since being sworn in, in January.

We had a chance to talk on Thursday about where the idea for the bill originated and what exactly it aimed to prevent. Read More

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Last week was pretty busy in terms of Illinois FOIA legislation. The Southern reported that Illinois lawmakers voted to prohibit the release of the names of people with firearm owner identification cards. Their concern was that gun owners would be targeted by criminals – criminals who wanted to get shot, I guess.

Right before that, the Illinois General Assembly passed and sent to the governor a bill adding a fairly interesting FOIA exemption to an already detailed list of exemptions. Read More

FSD3 FOIA LETTER

The first response from Florence School District 3 to my FOIA letter.

In my FOIA experience, agencies have tried all kinds of things to block or delay the release of information, but I got to see a new one when dealing with a small school district in South Carolina.

Last April, a Lake City teacher was arrested for criminal sexual conduct with a minor. It was in and out of the news for a little bit.

During a lull in the coverage I ran into a family member of the teacher who said the district knew what was going on for longer than they acknowledged, and that I should be able to find at least one email about her “getting a talking to,” information that proved the district knew of the misconduct before she was officially reprimanded.

As soon as I got back to the office, I wrote up a FOIA letter to the district (Florence School District 3) for all emails to and from the school’s principals concerning the teacher in the last two years.

I’d rather know someone at an organization who doesn’t mind giving me information than send a FOIA letter any day. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that option this time. I think in a lot of organizations, especially smaller towns like Florence, S.C., FOIA is seen one of three ways: Read More

a screenshot of The Vault homepage (click to enlarge)

By posting thousands of classified government documents online, Wikileaks aims to keep governments open. By posting records and HIV status information on porn stars, PornWikileaks says it wants to keep the adult industry open. Saudi Leaks posts documents to expose bureaucratic corruption.

Now the FBI has joined the document dump party.

Thursday the FBI released 350 pages worth of documents from its investigation of Notorious B.I.G.’s murder on its “electronic reading room,” The Vault.

The Vault is an online repository of documents related to FBI investigations of major disasters, celebrities and personnel that seems pretty similar to document leak sites appearing on the net.

The records are broken down into categories like popular culture, civil rights, unexplained phenomenon and counterterrorism and have case files on topics from Jimi Hendrix to Columbine to FBI Undercover Operations.

You can keyword search them or browse the categories, and at the very bottom of the document viewer there’s a link to download the file so you can have it forever.

The whole thing is really neat. Here’s a few things I learned in the last five minutes:

1. The UFO at Roswell was suspended by a balloon.

2. The FBI likes just collects newspaper clippings on the Aryan Nation but took super-detailed notes on Malcom X.

3. PETA sends some pretty mean hate mail:

“Every night I whisper a prayer that something despicable happens to you, something where you feel pain like you’ve never felt before or better yet a prayer that someone you love suffers such as they have never felt before such as you do to the pigs that you put through incredible pain…”

A lot of it isn’t new information. A lot of it is redacted. And I’m sure it’s not everything they have on the said topics, but it’s a nice gesture – although the ultra-skeptical journalist part of my brain is wondering if the FBI is just using pages out of a college basketball playbook: The best defense is a good offense.

Kudos to the AP for this one.

Memo sent to AP staff
From: Kent, Tom
Sent: Thursday, September 09, 2010 11:53 AM
Subject: Standards Center guidance: Planned Sept. 11 Quran burning

Colleagues,

As you know, a group known as the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., has announced that it intends to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11.

In the runup to this event, we’ve seen a rush of stories, photos and video from points around the world. Let’s keep our coverage in proportion. Although many are speculating on the effect the Quran burning could conceivably have, at the moment it’s a proposal by a tiny group that may or may not happen.

We plan ONE main spot story on this issue a day. The News Center will coordinate where this story will originate from. Routine spot news — for instance, comments about the plan by political or other public figures — should be funneled to the point handling the main story. We should avoid a profusion of separates beyond what any newspaper, website or broadcaster would actually use. This includes stories, photos, audio and video that repeatedly make the same point, for or against the burning. Consult the News Center if you have questions on this.

The concept of this planned event is offensive to many Muslims worldwide. National leaders and spokesmen for other religious denominations have also found the plan repugnant.

Should the event happen on Saturday, the AP will not distribute images or audio that specifically show Qurans being burned, and will not provide detailed text descriptions of the burning. With the exception of these specific images and descriptions, we expect to cover the Gainesville event, in all media, placing the actions of this group of about 50 people in a clear and balanced context.

AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend. In the past, AP has declined to provide images of cartoons mocking Islam and Jews. AP has often declined to provide images, audio or detailed descriptions of particularly bloody or grisly scenes, such as the sounds and moments of beheadings and shootings, displays of severed heads on pikes and images of hostages who are displayed by hostage-holders in an effort to intimidate their adversaries and advance their cause. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

From time to time, a member or customer will insist that we distribute offensive material to them so they can make the decision about whether or not to publish it. We’ve had to make clear that a decision to distribute, for us, is the same as a decision to publish for them. We must adhere to our own standards.

Tom

I was looking through my external hard drive and found this story I wrote two years ago today:

GREENVILLE, N.C. – Earlier this year, Tonya, a single mother, was approved for housing assistance through the Greenville Housing Authority. With this assistance and her new job at Bojangles’, she hoped to move with her daughter from their small apartment behind Wal-Mart to a bigger place and a better neighborhood.

Greenville’s Housing Choice Voucher Program was made to assist lower income families like Tonya’s with obtaining affordable housing. Some tenants, however, feel that obstacles put in place by Greenville property owners and management companies limit recipients to specific neighborhoods or complexes. There are hundreds of available properties, but only a few dozen property owners are willing to rent to Section 8 recipients.

Tonya’s first choice was Cedar Creek, a complex close to the hospital, managed by Wainwright Property Management, LLC, but they wouldn’t accept her voucher. Her second choice was a townhouse a few blocks away from that one, but she got the same response. At other complexes in the area, she couldn’t meet the income requirements, and she finally settled on a place on the opposite side of town from her job, friends and family.

Arielle Hill, a friend who helped Tonya during her search, said she felt the apartment complexes could have done more to help.

“It seemed like they didn’t want to have her living there. They didn’t make it easy or suggest somewhere else she could go,” she said. “They basically just said ‘no,’ and that’s it.”

The consensus among property management companies, such as Wainwright and Remco East Inc., two of Greenville’s largest management companies, was that it was a property owner’s decision if a property would be made available for Section 8.

Most of the companies had a policy that said a person’s monthly income must be at least three to four times the rent to be approved for one of their apartments –– a policy that impacts mainly lower income families.

According to the 2009 federal poverty guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services, a family of three with a yearly income of $18,310, or $1,525 a month, is considered at poverty level. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau puts 7.8 percent of Greenville’s families below poverty level, or about one in 12.

Based on income requirements of many property management companies, most family-sized rental units would be unavailable to voucher recipients, even some of those above the poverty line.

Michael Best, deputy executive director of the Greenville Housing Authority, says the area median income is what qualifies people for the program or not.

“If a person is at 80 percent or below they are eligible,” he said. For the 27858 zip code, the median household income is $35, 227 per year, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. A family with an income of $28,181 per year or less would be eligible for Section 8 vouchers.

Brenden Thomas, a customer representative for Wilson Acres, said via their online messaging service, their properties in Greenville were available to voucher recipients, but they had to meet the basic requirements outlined by the application. These requirements included verifiable income, a good credit rating, no evictions or felonies and making at least three times the amount of rent, monthly. He said that space was limited even though the company’s Web site showed 10 openings between May and August of apartments or townhouses with two or more bedrooms.

At $629 per month for a two-bedroom floor plan, an applicant would need to make $1887 per month to meet the requirements — $22,644 per year — which is above poverty level but would qualify for the Section 8 voucher.

But for many apartments another obstacle –– the income requirement –– would rule out most people who receive assistance.

“Pretty much, that’s how landlords eliminate dealing with Section 8 participants,” Best said.

According to a leasing consultant for Wainwright, their company manages more than 2,000 apartment units in Greenville. To rent from Wainwright, an applicant must make at least four times the monthly rent.

Their rentals average $550 per month, putting most of their rentals out of reach for Section 8 applicants who would have to make $2,200 a month to meet the requirement.

Woodlands Apartments and Shiloh Drive Apartments are the only two apartment buildings Wainwright’s leasing consultant identified as Section 8 approved.

The apartments sit across from each other on Shiloh Drive and Tobacco Road. These are Wainwright Property Management’s “Section 8 ready” apartments, and according to Greenville Housing Authority records, this area is home to many Section 8 recipients.

Of the roughly 700 Section 8 tenants in Greenville Housing Authority records, about 10 percent live between these two roads –– the highest concentration of Section 8 tenants in Greenville.

“It’s the property owner’s decision if they will allow us to accept Section 8 or not,” the Wainwright leasing consultant explained.

Latrice Bronson, a leasing consultant for Remco East Inc. says Section 8 limits are what turn property owners off to the idea.

“Most of them know the option (of renting to voucher recipients) is there, but it’s really based on the cap. For some areas, Section 8 won’t pay out what the owners are looking to receive for rent,” Bronson said.

But Best says it is beneficial to property owners to rent to voucher recipients, because with the voucher program, owners are “pretty much guaranteed that money will be deposited into their checking or savings account,” eliminating the need for tracking down tenants for rent money at the beginning of the month.

“A lot of landlords are excited about that component,” he said.

The program also conducts annual inspections to make sure the tenants are maintaining the property.

Arthur Dellano owns multiple properties in Greenville and recently had a house for rent on Arlington Boulevard. He said he has no problem accepting Section 8 vouchers.

“I don’t discriminate. I’m a Christian,” Delano said. “I’ll rent to whoever comes to me first.”

He agrees with Best that getting rent money on time every month is a benefit to renting to Section 8 recipients, but said, “If someone needs housing, I’ll rent it to them.”

Tonya said she is happy where she ended up, and although it wasn’t her first choice, she is grateful for the program.

“She really just wanted to be in a better neighborhood, and it seems to have ended up good. It would just be better if there were more choices,” said Hill.

More choices may be on the way.

East Carolina University’s growth is one way housing options may be impacted in the future. Best says because so much more student-centered housing is being built in the city, more property owners are becoming open to the voucher program.
“A couple complexes on 10th Street, (that) I would never imagine I would see any Section 8 participants in, Section 8 participants are living in there, because students are moving out,” Best said.

For more information on Greenville’s Housing Choice Voucher Program and other housing assistance options visit http://www.ghanc.net.