Friday, December 13, 2013

FOIA Friday: Using Legistar to keep track of city meetings

FOIA Friday looks at Ann Arbor city government through the eyes of access to public records. One bit of advice that is easy to give is to never submit a FOIA request if the information that you want is already online. Here are some pro tips on how to search through city documents, including the ones that aren't easy to find, by harnessing the power of the city's Legistar system that records public meetings and the documents that go with them.

Browsing through the Legistar system (at is intended to be straightforward, if not exactly easy. The "Calendar" page is a good place to start; it shows you a nice list of all* of the boards and commissions in the city that are meeting at the time period that you choose (like this week or this month) with handy links to some of them when an agenda is posted. If you are really lucky, like if you are interested in Ann Arbor City Council, past meetings will have video links with the video sessions synchronized near about to the time when council members were talking. It's possible to rewind time back to the council meeting and replay what was on the camera - if you know which meeting a certain event took place at, and if the camera was running at the time.

When I say all* boards and commissions, I really mean "some boards and commissions". For reasons that I don't completely understand, only a fraction of the city departments actually use the Legistar system for their meeting minutes, and not every public meeting is posted in its calendar. That creates some confusion for searching.

How do you find something in Legistar if you don't know what date the public meeting was held? The built-in search mechanisms on the site will not get you very far. There is a search box, but if you put e.g. "crosswalk" into the box and search for this month you get nothing. Not too helpful. (This is not atypical of city web searching, by the way; the search on the main A2GOV.ORG site is also unhelpful more often than not.)

My recommendation is relatively simple. Give up on the built in search in the system, and use Google's advanced search options to find what you're looking for. A search for crosswalk
returns three pages of results, not sorted usefully, but still valuable for their depth. The pages returned are the agenda items for any time the city talked about crosswalks, which mixes in both notices of street closings as well as the controversial crosswalk ordinance in question. To further narrow the search, find the exact language of the part of the city code that is to be amended, e.g. for the crosswalk, you'll note that the search results refer to Chapter 126 of city code (Traffic). Plug that in to your search "Chapter 126"
and you'll get all of the Traffic related ordinances dating back to 2007 or so. Now you might need to poke around a bit to get to the place you want, but at least you have a start at a search strategy with predictable results!

A caveat is in order. At the present time, this search approach does not go deep into the contents of attached PDF files on the Legistar system. I don't know how to get to the innards of those files with any search. That's something that is probably within the power of only the City of Ann Arbor and its vendor to fix.

Remember that any complete search for records also should search the main city site,, to be complete; use a similar search strategy there. Google Advanced Search can be your friend.

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