Category Archives: Freedom of Information Act

MuckRock News interview: “Sometimes the documents aren’t the most important outcome”

MuckRock’s George Levine did an interview with me for MuckRock News. Here’s the start:

In this week’s Requester’s Voice MuckRock goes hyperlocal with Ann Arbor’s Edward Vielmetti. From parking garages to sidewalks, Vielmetti is plugged in to the home of the Wolverines. He shows us how working with public documents should extend beyond federal fiddlings and can really have an impact on a local community. Formerly of AnnArbor.com, Vielmetti currently writes a weekly FOIA post for Damn Arbor. He is also working on a FOIA book The No-Nonsense Guide to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

You can see more at MuckRock: Requester’s Voice: Edward Vielmetti uses public records to spark local government ‘soul searching’.

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FOIA: inspection reports for downtown Ann Arbor street lights

As sent to the Ann Arbor City Clerk, 23 October 2013:

To the clerk:

The City Council meeting of this week Tuesday (ed.: actually late Monday) had an extended
discussion of street lighting in the downtown area, and council
weighed the problems with rust on street lamps and decided not to
spend money to replace them.

To follow up on this discussion, and motivated by the uncertainty at
council about the state of the lighting, I’d like to make this
request.

Please provide the following records:

  1. The most recent inspection and safety reports for the eighty one
    (81) street lighting poles referenced in City Council item 13-1062
    that were proposed to be replaced, referencing the following Whereas
    clause:

“Whereas: The Street Lights along Main Street between Huron and
William are rusting at the base posing a safety issue and are in need
of replacement; “

Since this request is in the public interest, and since the records
have been freshly examined for staff preparation for council, I expect
that the records will be readily available at no charge.

I do not know if the records are in electronic form. If they are in
paper form, and if duplication of records would be necessary to
fulfill this request, please inform me before proceeding so that I can
weigh the costs. If possible, if the records are in paper form I would
like to examine them in person to avoid unnecessary costs.

Thanks for your prompt response to this request.

iFOIA, a FOIA letter generator and request tracker from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press

Ifoia

The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP) announced a new FOIA generator and FOIA request tracker, “iFOIA”, at the ONA ’13 conference. From their press release:

The iFOIA resource, which is online at www.ifoia.org, is an extension of the Reporters Committee’s popular FOIA Letter Generator, which has been a feature of the organization’s website since 1996. iFOIA can be used on a desktop or mobile device, and allows users to choose whether to keep their correspondence chains with government agencies confidential or share them with designated colleagues, such as editors and lawyers. It also includes a FOIA Wiki for feedback and discussions. Because it automatically organizes all of a reporter’s files, it is designed to help with lawsuits and agency appeals when government stonewalling presents no other option.

I sent my first request in this morning, a straightforward one that shouldn’t require any payment or any appeal, and I’m hopeful that it will work as easily as it seems to work. The site is in beta.

The other FOIA request system to compare it with is the now-venerable Muckrock, which does a similar task. The biggest visible difference with Muckrock is that the iFOIA site doesn’t appear to have a one-step straightforward way to share your FOIA request and results with the world. Muckrock serves as both a request and publication platform, and seems to be tuned to publicity and activism; the RCFP system looks like it’s designed more for the journalist keeping their work private until it shows up in print.

Retrieving FOIA logs, a study in contrasts

I’ve had the occasion to send out requests for FOIA logs to several local units of government. Here’s my varied experience with these requests. I’m not certain that I have perfected the standard query, and so you shouldn’t necessarily show the non-responsiveness of any given agency as a ding on them – it might be me.

The FOIA log is a set of records associated with FOIA requests. Typically I’ve been asking for copies of FOIA request letters, the cover letters of responses that are sent back, but not the full details of the relevant documents. If something particularly interesting comes as a result of this expedition through public records, a second request should be straightforward since you know that relevant records exist because someone else already got them.

One of the possible problems in asking for FOIA logs is if the public body in question has multiple parts of it that answer FOIA requests, and your seemingly simple request has to get allocated to multiple places. I think this is the reason that both the City of Ypsilanti and Wayne State University asked for more than $60 in fees to retrieve a month’s worth of logs – I think, but am not certain, that the fees reflected the need to go both to the administrative side of routine FOIAs as well as to police department FOIAs for the same period.

The bright spot in all of this has been the City of Ann Arbor, which responds promptly and without fees for requests for city FOIA logs. Every single request is numbered, so that you can be certain that you’re getting the whole set, and I specifically didn’t ask for police logs in that case.

My naive assumption going into this was that every agency would be able to produce a stack of letters that they had received for FOIA requests with minimum cost and minimum search time. That proved not to be the case. I’ll need to dig deeper the next time I send such a query in to make sure I’m not inadvertently asked for too much.

Is the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association a public body under Michigan FOIA

The question from a story in the Marquette Mining Journal:

MARQUETTE – Marquette County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Solka heard oral arguments Thursday on a case involving whether the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association is a public body subject to producing financial information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The association is important to plaintiffs in the case because it was created under state law requirements by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which makes it a public body by extension, the plaintiffs contend.

The association in question is the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Assocation, described on a Michigan DEQ site as follows.

The Geological Core and Sample Repository holds a
collection of drill core and cuttings from 67 counties
in Michigan, including all 15 counties from the Upper
Peninsula. The purpose of the collection is to act as
a "rock library" and make the collected material
available to individual researchers and industry for
geologic study. It is hoped that the collection will
lead to increased mineral and fuel exploration and
development in various parts of Michigan. Both the
local and state economies may benefit by more jobs
being created.

The plaintiffs contend:

"The murky facts surrounding the Northern Michigan Geologic Repository Association exemplify the need for the Freedom of Information Act and the purpose for which it was enacted: to shine a light on the actions of government officials which directly impact the citizens whom they purport to represent," said Jana Mathieu, the plaintiff's attorney.

More details from Save the Wild UP:

Near the Upper Peninsula District Office of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in Gwinn, this map taped to the wall of a large warehouse labels the facility a “State Warehouse.” Core samples are stored within, but the DEQ claims no further association with NMGRA, the non-profit that has leased the warehouse and is attempting to raise money to make it a state geologic repository.


 

FOIA Machine kickstarter is rolling right along

With 25 days to go, the FOIA Machine kickstarter is almost 2x overfunded. They are looking to build a system for automatically tracking and managing FOIA requests.

I am not clear how this effort differs from the already existing MuckRock News system, but there's room for innovation in the space because FOIA can be the world's worst search engine and any help is welcomed.

 

Writing release notes for a new version of my Michigan FOIA book, using Leanpub

The book is my No-Nonsense Guide to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which I'm publishing (early) and updating (as its written) using Leanpub. Here's what I sent out to subscribers – all four of them! – this morning.

I'm happy to have a chance to keep working on this, since even the smallest amount of money from new sales covers the direct costs  of coffee to do the writing.

Release Notes

April 9, 2013.

This release updates the first 7 chapters of the book plus the introduction. Most of the changes are to fill in gaps, small reorganizations of the text, and line edits; there's not a ton of new original materials. Chapters 8 through to the end are unchanged.

One of the things that's new in the Michigan FOIA world is that Muckrock (Appendix A) now supports FOIA requests to a number of Ann Arbor cities. My first trial with this worked a little bit well, and I'm going to keep trying to improve how that system works so that I get the best writeup of it.

A document trove from a recent FOIA request is a log of all FOIA requests to the City of Ann Arbor over the span of two months. Look for a future set of edits to expand the "sample requests" considerably based on that collection, since I'm still digesting them.

If anyone has tried the "send to Kindle" feature, let me know how it went.

As always, if you have any questions, contact me at edward.vielmetti@gmail.com or +1 734 330 2465.

thanks

Ed

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The No-Nonsense Guide to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act
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The Freedom From Information Act