NEFAC hosting open government guru who met with Obama

Want to know more about your right to know?

You’re in luck – next weekend the National Freedom of Information Coalition is hosting its annual summit right here at the Providence Biltmore in partnership with its regional affiliate, the New England First Amendment Coalition.

“It should be interesting for anybody that’s interested in how to enhance our democratic system in this country,” said Rose Cavanaugh, the New England group’s executive director. “Freedom of information is so essential to that.”

The summit’s keynote speaker will be Gary D. Bass, founder and executive director of OMB Watch, the 28-year-old advocacy group that’s forced more transparency from the powerful White House Office of Management and Budget. Bass was part of a group of open-government advocates that met with President Obama in the Oval Office earlier this year.

The coalition has put together a solid lineup of panels, including one on cutting-edge tools for digging into data and documents that will be moderated by Projo editor Tom Heslin and others on WikiLeaks, public records laws in various states, and how to build coalitions in support of transparency.

The New England First Amendment Coalition was founded in 2006 by a group of mostly journalists and lawyers who saw a need for the region’s six states to band together in support of open government and free speech. (Full disclosure: My colleague Tim White is on the coalition’s board.)

“We like to say that we educate, agitate and litigate,” said Cavanaugh, who became the coalition’s first executive director last October.

So how does Rhode Island’s record compare with those of the other five New England states? Cavanaugh wouldn’t come out and say it – but not so well. Rhode Island has a weak public records act, and – like Massachusetts – it exempts its legislature from open meetings law. It’s also a laggard when it comes to providing records promptly.

The New England First Amendment Coalition hopes to change that. In Vermont, for example, lawmakers recently passed a bill that calls for citizens to get reimbursed for their legal fees if it’s found their public records request was wrongly denied, Cavanaugh said.

You can register here for next week’s Freedom of Information Coalition summit. The $95 registration fee covers the summit plus receptions both days and breakfast and lunch on Saturday.

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