20 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY march 14-20, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com requests through online portals. It’s not uncommon for these portals to be quite lacking. For example, some portals fail to provide space to include information crucial to requests. But the Air Force deserves special recognition for the changes it made to its submission portal, which asked requesters if they would agree to limit their requests to information that the Air Force deemed “clearly releasable.” In other words, the Air Force asked requesters to give up the fight over information before it even began, and to accept the Air Force’s redactions and rejections as non-negotiable. Following criticism, the Air Force jettisoned the update to its portal to undo these changes. The Scrubbed Scrubs Award: Ontario Ministry of Health, Canada Upon taking office in 2018, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was determined to shake up the Canadian province’s health care system. His administration has been a bit more tight-lipped, however, about the results of that invasive procedure. Under Ford, Ontario’s Ministry of Health is fighting the release of information on how understaffed the province’s medical system is, citing “economic and other interests.” The government’s own report, partially released to Global News, details high attrition as well as “chronic shortages” of nurses. The reporters’ attempts to find out exactly how understaffed the system is, however, were met with black-bar redactions. The government claims that releasing the information would negatively impact “negotiating contracts with health-care workers.” However, the refusal to release the information hasn’t helped solve the problem; instead, it’s left the public in the dark about the extent of the issue and what it would actually cost to address it. Global News has appealed the withholdings. That process has dragged on for over a year, but a decision is expected soon. The Judicial Blindfold Award: Mississippi Justice Courts Courts are usually transparent by default. People can walk in to watch hearings and trials, and can get access to court records online or at the court clerk’s office. And there are often court rules or state laws that ensure courts are public. Apparently, the majority of Mississippi Justice Courts don’t feel like following those rules. An investigation by ProPublica and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal found that nearly two-thirds of these county-level courts obstructed public access to basic information about law enforcement’s execution of search warrants. This blockade not only appeared to violate state rules on court access; it frustrated the public’s ability to scrutinize when police officers raid someone’s home without knocking and announcing themselves. The good news is that the Daily Journal is pushing back. It filed suit in Union County, Mississippi, and asked for an end to the practice of never making search-warrant materials public. Mississippi courts are unfortunately not alone in their efforts to keep search warrant records secret. The San Bernardino Superior Courtsystem in California sought to keep secret search warrants used to engage in invasive digital surveillance, only disclosing most of them after the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued. The Fee-l the Burn Award: Baltimore Police Department In 2020, Open Justice Baltimore sued the Baltimore Police Department over the Maryland agency’s demand that the nonprofit watchdog group pay more than $1 million to obtain copies of use-of-force investigation files. The police department had decreased its assessment to $245,000 by the time of the lawsuit, but it rejected the nonprofit’s fee waiver, questioning the public interest in the records and where they would change the public’s understanding of the issue. The agency also claimed that fulfilling the request would be costly and burdensome for its short-staffed police department. In 2023, Maryland’s Supreme Court issued a sizzling decision criticizing the BPD’s $245,000 fee assessment and its refusal to waive that fee in the name of public interest. The Supreme Court found that the public interest in how the department polices itself was clear and that the department should have considered how a denial of the fee waiver would “exacerbate the public controversy” and further “the perception that BPD has something to hide.” The Supreme Court called BPD’s fee assessment “arbitrary and capricious” and remanded the case back to the police department, which must now reconsider the fee waiver. The unanimous decision from the state’s highest court did not mince its words on the cost of public records, either: “While an official custodian’s discretion in these matters is broad, it is not boundless.” The Poop and Pasta Award: Richlands, Virginia In 2020, Laura Mollo of Richlands, Virginia, discovered that the county 911 center could not dispatch Richlands residents’ emergency calls: While the center dispatched all other county 911 calls, calls from Richlands had to be transferred to the Richlands Police Department to be handled. After the Richlands Town Council dismissed Mollo’s concerns, she began requesting records under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The records showed that Richlands residents faced lengthy delays in connecting with local emergency services. On one call, a woman pleaded for help for her husband, only to be told that county dispatch couldn’t do anything—and her husband died during the delay. Other records Mollo obtained showed that Richlands appeared to be misusing its resources. You would hope that public officials would be grateful that Mollo uncovered the town’s inadequate emergency response system and budget mismanagement. Well, not exactly: Mollo endured a campaign of intimidation and harassment for holding the government accountable. Mollo describes how her mailbox was stuffed with cow manure on one occasion, and spaghetti on another (which Mollo understood to be an insult to her husband’s Italian heritage). A town contractor harassed her at her home; police pulled her over; and Richlands officials even had a special prosecutor investigate her. But this story has a happy ending: In November 2022, Mollo was elected to the Richlands Town Council. The records she uncovered led Richlands to change over to the county 911 center, which now dispatches Richlands residents’ calls. And in 2023, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government recognized Mollo by awarding her the Laurence E. Richardson Citizen Award for Open Government. The Creative Invoicing Award: Richmond, Virginia Police Department OpenOversightVA requested copies of general procedures—the basic outline of how police departments run—from localities across Virginia. While many departments either publicly posted them or provided them at no charge, Richmond Police responded with a $7,873.14 invoice. That’s $52.14 an hour to spend one hour on “review, and, if necessary, redaction” on each of the department’s 151 procedures. This Foilies “winner” was chosen because of the wide gap between how available the information should be, and the staggering cost to bring it out of the file cabinet. As MuckRock’s tracking shows, this is hardly an aberration for the agency. But this estimated invoice came not long after the department’s tear-gassing of protesters in 2020 cost the city almost $700,000. At a time when other departments are opening their most basic rulebooks (in California, for example, every law enforcement agency is required to post these policy manuals online), Richmond has been caught attempting to use a simple FOIA request as a cash cow. The Foilies were compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (Director of Investigations Dave Maass, Senior Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey, Legal Fellow Brendan Gilligan, Investigative Researcher Beryl Lipton) and MuckRock (Co-Founder Michael Morisy, Data Reporter Dillon Bergin, Engagement Journalist Kelly Kauffman, Contributor Tom Nash), with further review and editing by Shawn Musgrave. Published in partnership with the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.