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Posted at 5:03 PM ET, 02/10/2011

Are Metro's records responses reliable?

By Luke Rosiak

Metro is not subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act, but it has its own Public Access to Records Policy (PARP), which is modeled on the same standards. There are indications, however, that its administration may be less than thorough and accurate.

While federal agencies must respond to requests for records within 20 days, Metro is less responsive, often issuing belated requests for clarification, denials or failing to respond at all. (State and local governments have their own sunshine laws.)

Metro is not entirely a government entity. But its policy does say "Within twenty (20) working days of receipt of the request, the PARP Administrator shall determine whether to comply with such request and shall immediately notify the Requester of the Decision." And when the agency is sued, it defends itself by claiming it is a quasi-governmental agency, and therefore has immunity.

Metro issues quarterly statements on its thoroughness and speed in responding to open records requests. Its oldest pending requests, according to the latest statement, are from 2009. While that may seem bad, at many agencies, those outliers are worse, sometimes much worse.

Between July 1 and Sept. 30, 2010, the statement says, Metro received 117 requests. In that time frame, it denied 84, including older requests, half due to "personal privacy." No fee waivers were granted. A fee waiver request often indicates the information is being requested by the media.

The document says "routine" requests had a median turnaround time of 21 business days. (Of the requests I have made, I have never received records in that time period.)

Overall, many of the numbers in Metro's self-released performance assessment are rosy. But in the spirit of openness and accountability, it's worth asking: Are they accurate? Or do requests sometimes disappear altogether, or get lost and pop up later, in Metro's PARP office, which has one full-time staffer?

One records request Metro received in 2010 that did produce information sought a list of the oldest unanswered requests--a sort of meta-FOIA. That response was issued Dec. 15, two months after the quarterly assessment. The only problem? Most of the top pending requests listed in December predated those reported in September. The dates in bold below were already pending, and old enough to make the list, when the September report was released--yet they were not on it.

Oldest as of Sep. 30Oldest as of Dec. 15
5/13/09 (349 Days)5/13/09
11/5/09 (227 Days)11/5/09
12/10/09 (204 Days)12/10/09
7/8/09 (61 Days)4/26/2010
8/9/10 (39 Days)4/5/2010
8/10/10 (38 Days)4/22/2010
8/11/10 (37 Days)6/1/2010
8/16/10 (32 Days)6/28/2010
8/23/10 (29 Days)7/8/2010
8/25/10 (27 Days)7/28/2010


Here are the oldest requests:
  • Copies of all reports or memos, including incident reports and letters to and from the National Transportation Safety Board about any derailments since February 15, 2009.
  • A copy of all communications between Metro and the Tri-State Oversight Committee from August 2009- present.
  • Copies of the most current documentation available regarding the status of Corrective Action Plans (CAPs) and Accident Investigations and/or Incident Reports tracked by the TriState Oversight Committee and all communications between and among WMATA personnel and representatives of the Tri-State Oversight Committee regarding efforts to resolve or close Corrective Action Plans and Accident/Incident Reports since January 1,2009.
  • A copy of the entire final report and closing memo for 19 OIG investigations.

In a typical correspondence, I made a request for some information on November 16. 18 weekdays later, on December 10, I received this response, with no data enclosed:

This acknowledges receipt of your request... Your request is being processed pursuant to our Public Access to Records Policy (PARP), which can be viewed on our website at http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/ public_rr.cfm, under the link marked, "Legal Affairs." Generally, we aim to issue decisions on a request for records within 20 working days of receipt of the request.

44 weekdays later from that date, I have yet to hear a word.



(Note: "7/8/09 (61 Days)" is likely a mistake on Metro's part, referring to the 7/8/10 request, and therefore making the agency look further behind than it was. That would mean 6 out of 10 documents were missing from the September 30 report, rather than 7. But it's also a further example of sloppiness.)

By Luke Rosiak  | February 10, 2011; 5:03 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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Comments

I really appreciate this article and hope that it gets a lot of reads. I wonder if whomever requested "...Copies of all reports or memos, including incident reports and letters to and from the National Transportation Safety Board about any derailments since February 15, 2009." would be better served by requesting these of the NTSB, which as a government agency would be subject to FOIA laws and therefore have to respond?

Posted by: informedtraveller | February 10, 2011 5:50 PM | Report abuse

"In a typical correspondence, I made a request for some information on November 16. 18 weekdays later, on December 10, I received this response, with no data enclosed"

But you -did- receive a response within the 60 days and were therefore removed from the "non response" numbers :-P.

Metro plays with definitions and stats in reports (MetroAccess "on-time statistics" and "# of rides" reports being 2 where I am aware of acutal disconnects between definitions/stats/reality).

Posted by: HellOnWheelz | February 11, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse

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