Council e-mails: Ann Arbor residents file FOIA requests for more messages
The Ann Arbor City Council last month rejected a proposal to create an online public database of past e-mails exchanged between council members.
Now several Ann Arbor residents have taken it upon themselves to file a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests at City Hall, asking officials to turn over copies of hundreds of e-mails from the past three years.
The city is still processing most of those requests and has until next week to respond. The result will be the unearthing of council member e-mails from at least 39 council meetings dating back to early 2007.
"The goal is to do what the city refused to do - to make them available to the public and let people look at them," said Ann Arbor resident Karen Sidney, a certified public accountant and frequent critic of the city's administration.
Sidney and several friends are organizing the effort. They plan to create a Web site to post them for the public.
"We're ultimately going after everything from when they started using laptops at meetings, which is late 2002," Sidney said. "A lot of people are interested in specific dates where maybe they're upset about some development in their neighborhood and they want to know what council talked about on that date when the development was before them during a meeting."
Ann Arbor resident Libby Hunter, a retired music teacher who has serenaded council with criticisms in song form several times this year, passed around a sign-up sheet at the Sept. 21 meeting where Anglin's e-mail resolution was rejected by an 8-3 vote.
Hunter said she's been aggressive in trying to get others to file FOIA requests. She said the group is keeping track of which meetings have been covered so there's no duplication of efforts.
AnnArbor.com filed a FOIA request with the city this month to get copies of all FOIA letters received by the city asking for e-mails. Those who have submitted FOIAs in the last month include: LuAnne Bullington, Libby Hunter, Lynn Meadows, Phyllis Ponvert, Doug White, Karen Deslierres, Shirley Zempel, Daniel Cunningham, Gordon Bigelow, Peggy Rabhi, Laura Lee Hayes and Josephine Rood.
Ann Arbor resident Jack Eaton, a private attorney, said he helped the group craft the FOIA template being used and plans to FOIA some e-mails himself.
"What the e-mails have disclosed to us is they come to the meetings having already decided how they're going to vote and have already discussed it amongst themselves," Eaton said. "What we've seen so far causes us some alarm and we want to know the full extent of it."
The fact that council members have secretly traded e-mails during public meetings was brought to light earlier this year after Noah Hall, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, submitted a FOIA request seeking copies of e-mails from a Feb. 17 meeting.
The e-mails showed council members discussing the proposed Fifth Avenue underground parking structure project behind the scenes. Hall and others are now suing the city claiming that the decisions they made by e-mail violated the state's Open Meetings Act.
City officials said last month it would take bringing Laurie Foondle, the city's former FOIA coordinator, out of retirement to handle the workload of creating an online database of e-mails. Foondle has been working as special projects coordinator in the community services department.
"The requests for FOIAs in the last several months have gone up dramatically and it's having a significant impact on staff resources," said Jayne Miller, the city's community services director. "The volume and complexity of the FOIAs we’re getting are much greater, so it's consuming a considerable amount of staff time."
Miller said Foondle and one other worker in her office are spending almost 100 percent of their time processing FOIA requests right now. Workers in the city attorney's office and information technology departments also are working on the requests.
Anglin, D-5th Ward, said he supports citizens’ efforts to dig up council e-mails.
"There is no other alternative right now and people in the community have decided this is worthwhile," he said. "Apparently there's enough interest in the community to say, 'Let's take a look at this.'"
Ryan J. Stanton covers government for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529.