Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The "Authority" Does as the "Authority" Wants

From contributor CS:

The most critical thing for rebuilding the dismal state of Metrorail service – not to mention something that ought to prevent people from getting killed, too – is restoring automatic train control in conjunction with introducing a real-time collision-avoidance system.

Metro is working on the new system right now. Yet everything is a secret – the agency doesn’t want to say anything about the absolutely critical collision-avoidance system until the whole thing is a done deal, and it’s too late to think about possible improvements or alternatives, or to see what kind of quality Metro put into the effort.

It’s an astonishing position to take for an agency that purports to have a commitment to openness and transparency, and which could clearly stand a little scrutiny given its recent record of killing people.

Readers may recall that Unsuck has filed three public record requests with WMATA – on the lowly reliability of railcar doors; on safety and other issues associated with “bellying” 1000-series cars in the middle of trains; and on automatic train control and the collision-avoidance system.

We’ve already been haggling for months with Metro about the first two requests. Now, in a response that was 76 days late – the transparency-obsessed agency took nearly nine times the required response period – Metro has finally responded to our third request. The response is a beauty.

Metro has declined to release any records about the collision-avoidance system on the grounds that any records that exist are “pre-decisional.” As long as things are in development, nothing will be released.

As seasoned Washington hands know, “pre-decisional” has become a weapon of choice for bureaucrats who just don’t want to release anything. It’s true that some precedent allows withholding of records created prior to a final decision on a matter. But since virtually anything can be considered pre-decisional in some way, this exemption has become a leading way for officials to choke off access to just about everything. Officials even routinely stamp records “pre-decisional” even as they create them, just in case someone might ask for them later.

So, even though release of collision-avoidance system records might have provided an opportunity for some welcome review by third parties, forget it. Even though Metrorail riders – routinely delayed and nauseated by life under manual control – might have a keen interest in knowing what’s going on with the new system, don’t even think about it. And even though taxpayers who fund the system might be curious what their dollars are paying for, it’s not gonna happen.

Thus, a clean sweep: Metro is now three-for-three in deflecting our requests for records in which the public and riders have a clear and compelling interest.

So much for that commitment to transparency bunk.

There’s always going to be tussling between agencies and the public over access to records. But overall, bureaucrats’ attitude toward transparency is like the possession arrow in basketball – at any given time, it’s pointing a particular way. Some agencies, or administrations, have more enlightened attitudes, and are willing to provide access to most things, with some battling at the margins. Many others have a scorched earth policy, where the imperative is NO, no matter what. Even if they’re wrong legally, they just withhold, withhold, withhold, if only to tie things up for months or years.

Metro has now pretty clearly shown which way it has its arrow set. In handling our requests, the agency didn’t have to set up all the barriers it did.

It just wanted to.
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