Friday, November 22, 2013

FOIA Friday: Be overly nice to the clerk who answers your request

The FOIA Friday series looks at the Freedom of Information Act on Fridays. It is written by Edward Vielmetti.

Be nice when you're asking for public records.

Get straight to the point in your request for records, and do not fill your request letter with polemics, anger, invective, or other extraneous rhetoric. Keep the request letter as simple as possible, to ensure that it is handled as a matter of routine and so that the clerk is not distracted by a stray argument. The request letter is a place for polite, straightforward, and relatively formal language. FOIA letter generators like iFOIA or Muckrock will help you write the boilerplate language that makes it clear that you know what you are doing and that the request should be treated professionally.

Be pleasant and direct, especially in person. The staff of a public body has a lot of discretion in how quickly to answer your request, and you can avoid needless delays by not making yourself unwelcome. Michigan public bodies have to respond to a request within 5 business days, but they are allowed to extend their request an additional 10 business days without providing a reason. If your request letter is angry, threatening, or simply burdened with confusing and unnecessary language, it can easily be put on the "do later when we have time" pile.

You don't have to file a FOIA request in order to get records, and you might get better results by avoiding the central FOIA process and going straight to a department head, departmental secretary, or communications or media contact with your requests. If the documents being requested are routinely given out without redaction, and if you have found the right person, you can get same-day service. On the other hand, if someone says "you'll have to FOIA that", don't take it as a "no" - it simply means that they are looking for you to understand the formal process. (And, because you're reading this column, you will.)

Read other people's FOIAs.

If you're curious about what other people are looking at with FOIA, or if you simply want to understand the process better, there's no better way to do this than to read through logs of other people's FOIA requests. A FOIA request is itself a public document, and some organizations (including the City of Ann Arbor) have relatively efficient and straightforward responses to routine requests for FOIA entries.

As an example, I've uploaded a log of FOIA requests to the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to a2docs, the Ann Arbor Area Government Document Repository. These documents show FOIA requests to the Ann Arbor DDA for February through April 2013. They include queries for electronic mail related to the Ann Arbor City Council proposal to adjust funding to the DDA, as well as a FOIA request and an appeal for parking data from the Ann Arbor Chronicle. (More about parking data in a future FOIA Friday.) A similar dump of 35+ requests is available for the City of Ann Arbor for September 2013.

A big advantage of reading the FOIA logs, aside from snooping in reporters business, is to speed the process of getting copies of materials. A good strategy is to ask for a month of logs, find the good ones, and then ask for exact copies of whatever materials were provided to the original requester. The documents will already have been redacted and compiled and so even if the original request was expensive, your copy of that request should be cheap or free.

Follow FOIA legislation at the State of Michigan level.

Sarah Schillio is Legislative Director for State Representative Jeff Irwin. She sent me a copy of HB 4001 (H-4) that passed out of the House Oversight, Reform, and Ethics committee last week that would modify state of Michigan FOIA law. Most of the changes restrict the ability of local governments to charge for records, including setting a maximum fee for copying costs and a requirement that documents be "electronically provided" upon request. The changes have not been enacted into law.

I spoke with City Attorney Stephen Postema about the changes, and he sounded skeptical, though he had not at the time read the latest draft of the day before. Postema characterized the changes as "punitive" and burdensome to local government, and pointed out that some vexatious requesters would file hundreds of FOIA requests at a time, citing the case of a certain Jerry McNeely who filed 3500 FOIAs over the span of 180 days to the City of Kalamazoo. (Note to self: don't be that guy.) A judge found in 2009 that McNeely had not followed city process for FOIAs and ruled that the city didn't have to answer those requests.

The Ann Arbor Chronicle writes about the bill on November 16, 2013, noting that they got a pile of paper from the Ann Arbor DDA as a result of a FOIA request when all they really wanted was a PDF.

Last week's FOIA: Dangerous Buildings and the Building Board of Appeals Minutes

Last week, I asked for a copy of the minutes for the Building Board of Appeals. This week, I received three sets of meeting minutes: one each from January, February, and March 2013. There was no charge for the request, and it took the full 5 business days to fulfill.

The BBA approved the demolition of several derelict buildings, but the minutes don't answer the question of whether those buildings had actually been demolished. That's a follow up question, perhaps best just asked instead of FOIAed because it should be a pretty simple answer. If they haven't been demolished the question will be "why".

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