Requester’s Voice: Edward Vielmetti

Michigan journalist uses public records to spark local government ‘soul searching’

Written by George LeVines
Edited by Michael Morisy

In this week’s Requester’s Voice MuckRock goes hyperlocal with Ann Arbor’s Edward Vielmetti. From parking garages to sidewalks, Vielmetti is plugged in to the home of the Wolverines. He shows us how working with public documents should extend beyond federal fiddlings and can really have an impact on a local community. Formerly of AnnArbor.com, Vielmetti currently writes a weekly FOIA post for Damn Arbor. He is also working on a FOIA book The No-Nonsense Guide to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

What was your first FOIA request?

Back in 2009 I worked on a project. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has a bunch of parking garages that they run. On the outside of the garages is a big sign that says how many spaces are free. So they put together a web page that had this list of spaces free. A group that I met with weekly thought it would be a great idea to do something with the data so we put together a small civic data application and shortly after access to the information was blocked.

What was going on was a political question of whether or not the authority should build a new garage. So after being frustrated for a while about being blocked and not knowing how to respond, I filed a FOIA request.

Something to the effect of, “Please give me access to your website.”

[Chuckles]

I also asked for the historical data.

I got back a rejection that said the authority didn’t really keep historical data and they weren’t sure what I meant by “access to your website” but that they had unblocked the site for me and presented some terms under which I could use the data.

So it was kinda weird in the sense that it wasn’t really a straightforward FOIA where success is typically determined by getting the records that you want but it was successful in the sense of changing their policy.

The most satisfying requests so far have not been about whatever I happen to get back but having the request prompt the organization to do some soul searching and change the way they do things.

Do you have a request that you are most proud of?

So the favorite one was really very pedestrian. I was writing for AnnArbor.com at the time, doing a weekly FOIA column for them. A friend of mine called me up and said there’s this sidewalk in our neighborhood that’s all muddy, the sidewalk square is gone and can you look into this and figure out what’s going on.

So I prepared a request for all records related to the sidewalk in front of such and such an address on X street. I got back a reply that said it will take longer to fulfill your request, please wait. Then I got a call back from my friend that said, “Hey they’re fixing the sidewalk.”

When I finally got the records the sidewalk had already been fixed. But it turned out that my question had unearthed a promise from the head of the department to do something about this problem and months worth of citizen complaints about the problem with nothing being done. Just a complete middle management failure. So they figured it was easier to just solve the problem than to send back the records acknowledging the problem still existed.

How often do you file open records requests?

I’m writing a weekly column for a blog called Damn Arbor. Every Friday I’ll write something. To keep up the pace of having something useful to write about I’m finding that I have to file two request per week just to make sure there’s something interesting in the pipeline.

I mostly file with the city of Ann Arbor. They typically respond at the end of the five day period allowed by Michigan law. So it will take me a business week to get something back. So I need to file something by a Tuesday or Wednesday to get something back by the following Friday. And typically the request is incomplete in some way. Either I didn’t ask the question properly or whatever else may be the case.

Do you find yourself focusing on public records specific to any particular topic?

In the grand scheme of things Ann Arbor does not have a big blight problem. It’s not like Detroit. We have abandoned buildings numbered in the dozens which is not bad for a town of 110,000. But some of these buildings have been abandoned for 30 years and have been the sort of thing that people ask questions about.

I’ve been more interested in the dangerous buildings list that city has and trying figure out how the building department and the fire marshall and all these people store records related to buildings that are exceptional as opposed to projects or people or what not.

It’s been one of these projects where you file a request for something and what comes back is a code of some sort saying, “It’s in file EBA03,” or whatever and so you figure that that’s the request you’re going to zero in on and hope there’s some real information that they can photocopy for you.

Speaking of zeroing in, what kind of tips and tricks do you have for MuckRock users that you’ve found to aid the honing of a request?

The thing that I’ve been requesting the most because it’s dead easy and I rarely get any pushback is meeting minutes and agendas and board packets for meetings.

The trouble with a lot of FOIA is that it tends to be adversarial. But public meetings are supposed to be public and so it’s really easy to dig as hard as you can into those and get as much detail as you can from them.

They’re almost always incomplete as almost no one is going to prepare a complete data dump but you get a good sense of who’s in charge of things and what codes they assign to things and then you can trace backwards from there if you need to go into more detail.

Being a relatively recent inductee to the FOIA filing community, where did you learn about this process? What was the spark?

Part of it was sparked by frustration, not being able to get through to government and being ignored. The other part that appealed to me at the beginning was the notion that if the government organization did not respond in time that there would be penalties. [Editor’s Note: Penalties vary from state to state.] If you sent them a letter and they didn’t answer it you could collect $500 under Michigan law.

You might have to go to court to collect but there is a non-zero penalty for willful noncompliance and that was a level of encouragement.

It became sort of a puzzle. How do I write this letter? What does it have to say? Who do I address it to?

I started doing a few of them and after the success of the parking structure data I felt like I was getting good at it.

I got hired by AnnArbor.com as their lead blogger and worked that job for about 18 months and without any prodding from my editor just started filing FOIA requests and came up with the idea for a weekly column that was really pretty popular.

Were you in journalism before that?

No, that was my first journalism job. I’d been a blogger since the late nineties but never got paid to do journalism before AnnArbor.com.

Do you file outside of Michigan or just keep it local?

I’ve been keeping it very local. I don’t have a budget for this stuff, so as soon as the agency says it will been $70 for the first hour of research I tend to back off.

Not that I haven’t fought fees before but the city of Ann Arbor happens to be really generous and not aggressive in collecting fees.

They typically don’t charge me for anything if the request is at all reasonable.

There’ve been a couple of things that I’ve blogged about where it’s been tempting file elsewhere but not so tempting that I’ve spun up the necessary skills to do it.

I think MuckRock is a big benefit in this regard in that you guys have experience in all 50 states and the federal government and it’s just really great to have a resource to go to when it’s time to poke around in what other people are doing.

Michigan seems to have pretty favorable open government laws …

They’re not too bad. They’ve been stable for a long time which I think helps. People know what to expect both at the requesting level and government level.

There have been a few instances of conflict. For example when people go a bit nuts and file hundreds of thousands of requests and that typically gets the attention of a municipality and they fight it.

Occasionally jurisdictions get weird about fees. Either charging a lot or charging a minimum fee, which you’re not supposed to do.

There was a town near us that was charging a minimum $5 for everything. They got taken to court over a $5 fee by the most conservative political action group which has this open government stance. But you know they’ll go to court for five bucks.

Even though I don’t agree with the Mackinac Center on most of what they do, they are unrelenting in their pursuit of public records and I appreciate that.

Do you think news organizations do enough filing and sifting through documents?

I don’t think so. FOIA is really rotten in many ways. It’s very slow compared to most deadlines that people are up against. It doesn’t fit the journalism workflow of write something quickly and get it published. So I think it’s more useful from and activist point of view just because the activist can be diligent and nosy and follow something up, whereas the journalist — in this world of short deadlines and small staffs — is much more likely to talk to their source in city hall rather than wade through a bunch of documents.


Image via DamnArbor