Thursday, November 8, 2012

$1,818 for Public Information!

From C.S.:
It’s no secret that despite great public puffery to the contrary, Metro remains the very prototype of the closed, Stalinist bureaucracy. But even acknowledging that, Metro’s day-by-day tactics in how it executes its shut-out-the-public strategy can still be stupefying,  as recent events have once again shown.

All of which leads to an Unsuck challenge to Metro’s board of directors. More on that in a moment.

Faithful readers will recall that Unsuck filed three public record requests with Metro for information of vital concern to riders. One was about doors on Metrorail cars, which so often don’t work, throwing trains out of service and regularly delaying many thousands of riders. Another was about the affliction of manual train control, and when the system will return to automatic operation.

The third, to which Metro has finally provided a response, was about safety and reliability issues after Metro began the practice of placing its oldest cars in the middle of trains following the fatal Red Line accident. (Still no responses on the other two.)

We filed that third request in July 2010. Compelling rider interest couldn’t be plainer. Safety issues can get you killed, of course. And there has been long-running concern, reiterated again recently, that “bellying” the older cars is contributing to alarmingly low reliability for Metro trains, which causes all manner of delay.

It was 2 years, and over two months after we filed the request – under a Metro public records policy that requires the agency to repond in no more than 20 working days – that Metro recently delivered up a complete response to our request. After lo those nearly 800 days, here’s how it shakes out:

No urgency: Metro’s records policy allows for expedited consideration of requests,  including for matters for which there is “an urgency to inform the public about an actual or alleged WMATA government activity.” Despite rider deaths and system meltdowns, Metro said there’s nothing urgent about what we wanted, as it denied Unsuck’s request for expedited treatment. The agency also refused to consider an appeal of its denial.

Nothing to see here: Metro’s policy provides a fee waiver if the information sought is “in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations of WMATA and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.” Even though Unsuck, a free public website with no revenue or paid staff, would have distributed the information publicly; even though local news media regularly pick up on items that Unsuck breaks first; and even though Unsuck provides the most regular, critical coverage of Metro (no brag, just fact) of anyone in Washington, Metro said it could not determine whether the records sought would be disseminated in a way that will contribute to public understanding. (In turning thumbs down, Metro had insisted on independent evaluation of how many hits the Unsuck site receives, even though the agency’s records policy has no such provision. The agency also cited shaky case law to support its position.)

Just pay up: After denying any urgency, and refusing to provide any fee relief, Metro nevertheless deigned to say it would be willing to fulfill the request – just send a certified check or money order for $1,818.

So, folks, that’s the ground game – how Metro puts on its fantasy goggles and twists its own procedures to keep things close to the vest.

So, if as a long-suffering rider, you might like some information about the safety or reliability of the trains you’re riding, not only doesn’t Metro think that’s important, but it also wants to hold you up for the privilege. Metro is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of  dollars of your money to roll out things like its “Forward” or “Rush+” propaganda campaigns. But if you want to learn about things that could kill you, or that regularly delay your travel, sometimes for hours, then you’ve got to pay extortion to the same outfit that creates the problems.

All of which leads to the Metro directors challenge.

Plainly, the Metro staff, headed by cloaker-in-chief Richard Sarles, is out of control (on this and so many things) and will do what it wants. That leaves only the board.

Unsuck will now provide all the details of this request to each of Metro’s directors. We’ll ask them to stick up for the riders they represent. We’ll ask them to request in their own name, under authority of their position as director, the exact same material that Unsuck has sought, and to provide it to Unsuck if they get it.

We’ll see if even one director has the guts to step forward. (It’s worth noting, even though some directors don’t seem to understand, that the Metro staff works for the board, and not the other way around.)

And we’ll name names and let you know the results.

Also by C.S.

Other items:
Interesting article on Metro's legal status (Maryland injury Lawyer)

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