FOIA Friday: Sidewalk repair in Ann Arbor, one of the country's most walkable cities
The current FOIA request
Requesting information about the city's knowledge of the current state of repair for a portion of a sidewalk is relatively straightforward. I'm currently requesting records regarding a specific section of sidewalk. I structured the core portion of my request as follows:
"All records regarding the repair, maintenance, condition of, or communications from the public regarding the sidewalk at (ADDRESS), including records relating to any structures or vaults underneath the sidewalk, to include records created since January 1, 2008."
Note that instead of asking for "all records regarding the sidewalk," I narrowed my request to a smaller set including repair, maintenance, condition and communications from the public. The goal is to scope the request more narrowly so that the public body does not have to search through every scrap of paper and every record in the entire building. Similarly the "created since January 1, 2008" limits the scope to the last two and a half years, avoiding as much as possible the need to search infinitely back in time. If you know that inspection or repairs have been done more recently, further limiting the date may help.
"This request includes records of electronic mail, maps, charts, blueprints, diagrams, reports, accounts in public meetings, permits, communications with the public, work orders, photographs, or work done by city staff, and any other records which are subject to release under FOIA law."
One way to broaden the search is to enumerate some of the records that you expect to find in this search. Based on previous FOIA requests for sidewalk records, I expect that there will be reports of some kind that may include photographs for work that has been done or for work which needs to be done. Part of the site I'm currently requesting records for has been blocked off with signs, and thus I'd expect a work order coming from some unit directing an employee to install a sign. I'm guessing that I'm not the only person to have asked about this, and thus there should be other public communications which reference this location.
"This request includes records held by the Planning Department, the Building Department, the Historic District Commission, the Sidewalk Inspection unit, the office of the city administrator, the office of the mayor, the city council, the Community Standards department, the Downtown Development Authority, the Field Services unit, the Risk Management department, and any and all other city departments and divisions which may have records responsive to this request."
A previous request which I had sent in for "all records regarding a sidewalk" at a different location returned some records which were responsive, but the search did not appear to have been conducted with enough thoroughness, and so I was convinced that some of the information I was looking for was missing. Since I did get back what I wanted in that case, I didn't press it; this time, I'm enumerating some departments which might have records, in the hopes that some of them do.
In particular, since this parcel is in a historic district, I'm hoping that HDC records will include some relevant history. Not every parcel downtown has vaults under the sidewalk, but some do, and handling of those structures could very easily complicate what would be otherwise an ordinary task.
Why bother with FOIA?
It can be difficult to determine which individual or which department has oversight and responsibility for a given task inside a bureaucracy of any size. People come and go or are assigned to new responsibilities, reporting responsibilities change, and budgets come and go so that perhaps things once funded years ago are no longer funded.
With all of this constant change, it can be very hard for anyone inside the system to know with any certainty who knows what or how a task is to be addressed. You start to see this when one staff member refers you to another, who in turn refers you to a third. It's not that anyone is trying to be difficult; they simply don't know.
In this particular case, I know that a portion of the address in question has vaults which extend beneath the sidewalk, and it's possible that those structures actually go beneath the street. To the extent that it's complicated, only a thorough search for records across a broad set of departments will make it possible to know what the organization knows, even if no one individual knows all of the details.
If I'm lucky, there will be someone who actually knows exactly what is going on and can tell the whole story. A FOIA request's ultimate result can be the location of a person who has authority, responsiblity, budget and knowledge of the situation and a likely way to repair it. If you find that person, the next request is very easy, since you know exactly who to call.
The previous FOIA request
This is the second sidewalk FOIA request I have sent in to the city of Ann Arbor. The results from the first, which involved a repair of a stretch of sidewalk on Summit Street, were instructive.
The sidewalk in question had been torn up to do an emergency plumbing repair. After the plumbing repair was done, the contractor did not repair the sidewalk; subsequent communications with the city regarding responsibility for the repair did not bring a resolution. Meanwhile, citizens started to complain about the muddy stretch of sidewalk to members of City Council, as well as members of city staff including the chief of police and the city administrator, who received copies of the mail. Nothing was done for more than two years.
I sent in a FOIA request on October 7, 2009. By the time the response came back on October 28, 2009, the sidewalk had been repaired at city expense.
Did I request to have the sidewalk repaired? Not directly. All I wanted to know was just how much communication had already gone on regarding the location, who had been involved, what promises had been made and how complete a record of communications there was of it all. From looking at the results of the FOIA request, it's apparent that my request was not precise enough to locate all of the relevant records. But that hardly matters, since the goal was not to collect records. The goal was to fix the sidewalk.