How MuckRock handles deadlines, and how we’d like to improve

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I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
-Douglas Adams

When it comes to FOI-jitsu, deadline mastery nearly tops the list when it comes to important skills. It’s one of the things we really liked about MuckRock: Computers are really, really good at keeping track of dates. People, on the other hand, are all over the map (P.S.: Mom called with a gentle reminder that Mother’s Day is just 192 shopping days away!).  So helping you keep track of the dates a request was filed, updated, and answered are things we’d like to make sure we’re getting right.

We still have a bit to go, as one user recently pointed out. Currently, we hand enter submission dates and due dates based on our best guesses. For Massachusetts requests, we try and mark the “Due Date” as 10 business days after the request is actually filed. For Federal requests, we mark it 20 days. That’s something of a simplification, though, since we’re not really right now at tracking holidays, which can also push back deadlines, or knowing the exact date the request was received (a frustrating number of agencies still accept only snail mail, which can take 2 – 5 days).

We also don’t typically “pause” deadlines, even when the agency requests extra time. Under national FOIA laws, for example, “unusual circumstances” can merit a request taking 10 extra days. Some agencies have backlogs of months. None of this is reflected in our color-coded status tracker, which just marks things as late when they’re past their original due date. That’s not quite fair to the agency, but users can always quickly see when and where updates happened by simply clicking on the request itself, where each message is logged.

We’re currently working on better handling this (remember, computers are better than humans when it comes to dates!), but in the meantime, we’d like your feedback on how you think we should handle it. In the meantime, if getting this tracking feature right is important to you for a particular document, you can always just e-mail me at Michael@MuckRock.com and I can fix it up for you directly. If you have suggestions or just want to see more progress on it, go comment and vote in our feedback forum: We do listen!

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Agency’s Voice: Why your government still prints e-mails in 2010

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triplet towers of paper Last week, we took a look at the freedom of information process from a requestor’s point of view, and I thought it might be nice to turn the tables. This time, we”re looking at why some agencies insist on responding to requests for digital documents with piles of dead tree.

It’s  a running joke among journalists: The pages and pages of e-mails, to take one example, that had been fought for through the “proper” Freedom of Information channels, and then finally won, only to have the government e-mails turned over not in nice electronic format, but rather as reams pieces of paper, delivered via the United States Postal service. If you’re the requester, this means request costs can add up quickly: That’s 50 cents a printed page in Massachusetts, plus the cost of the employee’s time.

Surely, this is how the government sticks it to some nosy beat reporter, right? It’s the same story told again and again: Perfectly good electronic documents are, instead of being delivered digitally, are printed out, occasionally rescanned, and only then handed over when they’ve lost their perfect text transcription, their searchability … and nearly every aspect that makes them convenient in fast-paced newsrooms and to the general public. It’s no surprise that the common wisdom is this process was developed by some loathsome public servants determined to nip transparency in the bud. The truth is, however, a little more complicated.

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Requestor’s Voice: In Bullhead City, Arizona, Freedom of Information Reform Slow Going

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In 2008, the City of Bullhead City, Arizona paid out $30,021 to News West Publishing. The payment was for attorney expenses after the city violated Arizona Public Records Law. Now, in 2010, Elizabeth Hill of the Arizona Ombudsman’s office is opening her second investigation of the year into the City of Bullhead City concerning Arizona Public Records Law violations.

Toby Cotter, City Manager, Bullhead City, Arizona.

Toby Cotter, City Manager, Bullhead City, Arizona.

Hill’s first investigation was primarily over copy fees. Hill spoke with city manager, Toby Cotter, who provided false information to Hill which caused her to close the case on August 31. When closing the case, Hill stated that the city understood the public records law concerning the areas they were in violation and that future requests would be handled according to the law.  Excessive copy fees have been used by governments to keep citizens from accessing records.  In Arizona, members of the news media have been successful in court actions to reduce such fees.  When the fees are in accordance to the law, the city recovers costs and citizens are free to examine and copy records without having to worry if they can afford to keep their government accountable.

According to Elizabeth Hill, she came to an agreement on three major issues with Toby Cotter of Bullhead City:
• “[Toby Cotter] understands that the copying fee does not include searching for, compiling, reviewing or redacting records. Indeed, it is to cover the actual cost of the time, equipment and personnel used in making the copy.”
• “We also discussed and agreed that the city cannot deny, or delay, access merely because a public record request is not submitted [on the city’s form].”
• “we agreed that regardless of who receives the request it should be forwarded to the correct department and processed.”

As of the time of publishing, the City of Bullhead City is still charging $25 for a CD copy and $10 for a police report, even if it is a single page. Both of which have no relationship to the cost of the time, equipment and personnel used in making the copy, as dictated by Arizona law. Furthermore, requests made to the public information officer are still being rejected for being misdirected. Elizabeth Hill has opened a new investigation to address the ongoing violations.

Hill said she believes flat rate charges for electronic data is inappropriate. Just as a single-page copy costs less to produce than a hundred pages, creating a CD with a single file is much quicker than creating a CD with a hundred files. Hill said she expected government agencies to consider the expense of making a copy when determining the fee.

Bullhead City did silently make one change to the fee schedule.  The city had previously charged extra for attorney-reviewed documents, which was also in violation of the Arizona Public Records Law. Toby Cotter has said the fees cannot be changed without city council approval when asked to explain the delay in complying with the law. No explanation was given on how the policy was recently changed without a city council vote to comply with the rules about attorney review charges.

According to Mayor Jack Hakim, this issue will be brought before the city council on Oct. 19. He is unwilling to intervene in the meantime, stating further action [in superior court] against the city is the prerogative of journalists unwilling to wait. City Manager Toby Cotter says the proposed fee schedule is not yet ready, and cited other cities charging $25 for CD copies. Mayor Hakim didn’t offer any guarantee, stating only that there would be a vote to “either keep the current fee schedule or reduce it.” Although Cotter has said the city clerk is polling other cities to determine their fee schedules, the city has not stated that they are taking any action to determine the actual cost of making copies.

Bullhead City’s Clerk, Diane Heilmann, has submitted a proposal to the City Council to reduce the fees from $25 to $10 for public records on CD. The City Council will vote on Heilmann’s recommendation October 19th. The item is on the consent agenda, therefore there will not be any discussion on the topic. Heilmann’s proposal to the Council states that the “state statute that governs what a city can and cannot charge for when public records are requested dates back to less complicated times when we were only dealing with putting a paper document into a copy machine and you are done.” Heilmann never addresses the actual cost of making a copy of a CD in her proposal. Heilmann’s basis for a $10 fee is a survey of other cities and their rates. Heilmann surveyed 18 other cities and found rates that varied between $5 and $25. Heilmann selected $10 because that is the price other cities of like size are charging, citing Lake Havasu City as an example. Elizabeth Hill said “just because other cities are doing it, doesn’t make it right” in reaction to the city pointing out other cities charge $25.

The fee schedule still requires $10 for a police report, even if it is a single page. This has not been addressed in her proposal to the City Council. City Manager Toby Cotter said he along with the city clerk and city attorney were “reviewing the City’s comprehensive fee schedule related to charges for public records.” However, their proposal doesn’t make comprehensive reforms; it only addresses the one area where the Arizona Ombudsman’s office has a current open investigation. Heilmann’s proposal makes an interesting statement: “Most cities and towns are sending electronic documents via email as an attachment without any charge if the file is reasonable in size and easily obtained.” Due to the weekend, Heilmann was not available to comment on whether she planned to adopt this policy in her office. Her proposal to City Council mentions it, but does not ask the city to approve such action.

Jason Smathers is a MuckRock user and an investigative journalist. You can follow his other writing on his blog. Requestor’s Voice is an occasional series, exploring the freedom of information request process at the local, state and federal level from a requestor’s point of view. Interested in contributing? E-mail Michael@MuckRock.com.

FOIA.gov: Access Denied

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If access delayed is access is denied, what are we supposed to make of this (hopefully unintentional, hopefully temporary) error message?

Thanks to the anonymous tipster for giving us the heads up!

Ever wonder what the feds are saying about you?

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Or at least your Freedom of Information requests? The National Security Counselors website has added some great new documents to its repository, including copies of FOIA/PA Request Processing Notes from the CIA, FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. While heavily redacted in places, the documents provide a peak into how documents are processed and what agencies look at. It’s often a very different perspective from the way the requester sees things on the outside.