Friday, November 15, 2013

Welcome to FOIA Friday

Welcome to FOIA Friday, an occasional column by Edward Vielmetti for Damn Arbor.

This is a continuation (and a repeat in places) of a column I wrote for the dearly departed back in 2010. The premise then as now is that well-informed citizens should be aware of how easy it is to write a formal letter to their government asking for records of that government's working, and that there are a lot of interesting things that you can find out about what is going on in your community simply by asking politely and formally for records.

The structure of this effort has three parts. First, I'll write introductory and basic tutorial information about how to write a records request, when you can expect an answer, and what to do if the first answer is "no". By the time you're done reading that part of the series, you should be pretty well convinced that you can file your own records request and get it right. Second, I'll be sharing requests that I have made that either illustrate some current local issue or that illuminate some fine point of FOIA rules. And finally, I'll be looking at other people's FOIA requests and the information that they are seeking about the workings of government, requests that may or may not have made the news yet.

Thanks to Ben Connor-Barrie for suggesting that I reanimate this project and I'm looking forward to a few hundred words every week about public records.

If I had to point to one resource that is most broadly applicable to first time FOIA requesters, it would be the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and their iFOIA project. iFOIA includes a FOIA letter generator, contact information for a number of state and local and federal agencies, and helpful step by step instructions on how to craft a good request letter. They will even offer to capture responses from agencies for you and manage the appeals process. See for details.

Once you have filed your FOIA request (or asked nicely without a FOIA and gotten documents anyway) and you're looking for a place to store them, look no further than the Ann Arbor Area Government Documents Repository ( It has over 300 separate document collections dating back over four years, with a browser built in so that you can view collections online.

The Building Board of Appeals is an appointed Ann Arbor board that handles exceptional cases from the building department. The board has a scheduled monthly meeting on the second Thursday of the month in Ann Arbor City Council chambers. In 2012, the sort of matters that came before this board included several demands from the city that property owners take care of nuisance properties or the city would tear them down (the Dangerous Building Ordinance).

In 2012, the meeting minutes for the Building Board of Appeals from 2010 and 2011 had not been published. I filed a FOIA request for meeting minutes, and the minutes were subsequently published after a modest delay. Looking at the city web site and at the Legistar online system, you'll find no meeting minutes from 2013 online. I just filed another FOIA request to get these made available to the public.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see Ed on Damn Arbor!

    I was a Building Board of appeals member for several years. They are a really dedicated group. The toughest issues are often from the Dangerous Building Ordinance. Some people purchase "distressed" properties and then wait..... Sometimes for decades.